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Why Workshops Work

Playwrights’ Corner
Black and white: Pages from a script are laid out on a table, some are binder clipped together. A pencil and a notepad with handwritten notes rest on top of the pages.

Hello Dear Larkees! Hot off the heels of some of our new virtual programming, this month, we’re taking a moment to celebrate the fact that yes, workshops do work. Yes, even online. Years of ingenuity, made necessary by the limited resources so often allocated for the arts,  have led theatermakers to become experts in finding ways to engage meaningfully in community, in spite of limitations. The artists we have been working with over the past few months have buoyed us, and we are so grateful for the opportunity to continue making safe spaces for the creative process, as it remains a cathartic tool for, in turn, processing the world around us.

Last month, we held our first virtual round of Winter Writers’ Retreat, an intensive, generative workshop that encourages (but doesn’t require!) playwrights to write as much of a complete first draft as they can throughout the span of a week. It’s a massive amount of brand new pages, and requires a massive amount of energy. And one of the reasons it works is because, when you’re working in a group, that energy doesn’t always have to be your own. 

For example, let’s say day one you’re feeling completely energized. You have a great idea for an opening scene and it pours right out of you. Then, day two, you’re not feeling so good about your pages. You’ve lost a little steam and aren’t quite sure where to go next. Then, someone else in the room latches on to one of the lines you’ve written. They are energized by it, and feed that energy into asking you a question you hadn’t thought about before. Maybe that gives you a new idea.

Or maybe none of that happens. Maybe you come in messy and unsure all week long, but you’re surrounded by people who have been there too, in their processes. Who can affirm for you that what you’re feeling is in fact part of the process, and not, as it can sometimes feel, a lull in it. "It's like a crash course in getting out of your head and committing to practice, not perfection," said Brittany K. Allen, who participated in the most recent round of the retreat.

Or maybe, maybe, MAYBE even, no one in the group is feeling motivated. (There is a pandemic on, after all). Even a shared lack of energy, when it is shared, can take on a vitality of its own. Workshops like these work because a group of people invested in each other -- not each other’s output, but actually each other -- can be alchemy.

These are hypothetical situations of course, but they’ve happened in real time, time and time again, and the bonds they form are lasting. Martyna Majok, for instance, jumped at the chance to interview Michael Bradford about his play Solace, because it had so energized her own writing of Sanctuary City when the two of them participated in a 2019 session of Winter Writers Retreat together. There is electricity in these kinds of rooms, and the work that happens in them could not happen without it. So, we were pretty much thrilled to find that, even though the electricity on Zoom may be of a different sort, it still works.
“One of the things artists kept echoing during our first virtual WWR was how the space still offered accountability and community. While we weren’t able to share physical space, it was encouraging for the group to know that for six days there would be folks waiting to read through pages, listen to questions and budding concepts, and give thoughtful feedback," said Kendra Ann Flournoy, who facilitated our most recent session of the workshop. 

"The space offered a bit of normalcy while at the same time honoring the reality of the world we’re currently living in. What I loved most about this retreat was the way the group leaned into vulnerability and compassion. It wasn’t about productivity or cranking out a ton of pages. It was about the energy and work that folks were able to show up with each day, and no matter where it landed on the spectrum, whatever it was, was more than enough.”
Many of the artists we work with have described these chances to gather as a lifeline. And we hope that all the artists out there know it goes both ways, and that you are our lifeline as well.
Keep each other safe, and keep each other energized!

This article appeared in The Lark's November 2020 E-Newsletter, "A Bird's Eye View." To get articles like this and more news about The Lark straight to your inbox, sign up for The Lark's mailing list!