Creative ways into playwriting: practical tips from playwright Brian Mullin

November 25, 2016

Playwright Brian Mullin shares some practical tips for supporting literacy through playwriting with primary aged students…

At a time when creativity in schools is being greatly devalued, it’s so important to remember the incredible benefits of creative writing for young people’s academic and personal development.  I so enjoyed leading a session at the Creative Schools Symposium, which was focused on Creative Approaches to Playwriting with Primary-Aged Children.

Playwriting seems like a specialised skill – something that could only be introduced to older students, who are highly able, in a drama course.  In fact, when introduced in a fun, accessible way, playwriting activities can be incredibly stimulating for young students.  The activities are often collaborative, imaginative and they help promote the development of key skills such as literacy but also empathy.  They can be used on their own or to enrich any sort of lesson.

Here are some examples of practical exercises I led with the teachers and educators who attended my session at the Creative Schools Symposium on 7 November:

Introducing writing

Before asking children to do extended or focused writing assignments, work to activate their creativity with words.  List-making, fill-in-the-blanks, or other forms of “automatic writing” (i.e. writing without thinking or worrying, without correcting or changing) will make them more comfortable offering ideas and using words in new ways…

When introducing this kind of work, I start lightly – in creative writing there is no “right answer” and there are an infinite number of ways to finish off a sentence. Start by going around in a circle and have each child finish a simple line (i.e. “Today we’re going to…”) As a group, how many ways can we finish that sentence?

Working individually or in small groups, use this technique and have students develop lists with prompts like:

  • I want…
  • You can’t…
  • What if…
  • I like…
  • Why don’t you…

Be sure to use “exquisite pressure” – try to fill up the paper with as many different responses as you can. (1 or 2 min for each prompt, whatever time you choose).

Simple scripts

Have students take their lists and use them as simple scripts, trading one line after another: “I want…” / “You can’t…”  Work in pairs to develop the technique, or perform in front of the class.  Ask the audience: what kind of situation could that be?  As they become more sophisticated with the technique: add in simple staging (such as sitting in chairs or entering; give them characters; add in 3-way dialogue; let them choose which list they’d like to use etc.)

Learning points: Develops grammar and vocabulary, Introduces idea of dialogue, characters’ intentions, dramatic conflict, Performance skills

Building characters

Find photographs of diverse range of people – different ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, professions, expressions etc.  Have children make lists of descriptive words that apply to each picture: include categories like Physical words (what can we see by looking at them?) or Personality words (what do we think this person is like?).  You can move onto group brainstorming questions that we don’t yet know the answer to (i.e. Where do they live?  What do they do?)

Learning points: Vocabulary building, Introduces diverse range of people/professions/cultures, Understanding of character (internal/external)

Developing dialogue

Ask questions about what people in the pictures might say, and how different people speak.  You can make a list of, say, different ways to greet people (Hello!, Hey…, Hi, Wassup, Yo! etc.), forms of address (Mate, Love, Darling, etc.) or lines they might say in different situations.  This can be a way into writing dialogue for these characters’ individual voices.

Learning points: Differentiation of character, Variation in expressions

There’s lots more where this came from, but hopefully it gets your creative brains going.  If we’re going to help the next generation grow and develop, their creativity is going to be the key!

Find Brian on Twitter @bamullinspeaks