Writer Jane Upton is currently working on her third play with New Perspectives* called (the) Woman. With the play scheduled to tour in Spring 2025, Jane is currently going through the research and development process for the play. In this blog post written by Jane, she discusses what R&D actually means, her process and her experiences of working on (the) Woman.

*Previous Jane Upton plays are Watching The Living (2014) and Finding Nana (2017/18)

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In theatre, people often talk about development. When I started out (aged 30), I had no idea what that really meant. In my very limited knowledge of playwriting, a playwright wrote a play and then the director and actors took it from there.

Since then, I’ve had many different experiences of “development” including script notes from directors and dramaturgs, one-day workshops with actors, scratch sharings with feedback, intensive week-long workshopping sessions and regular meetings with a dramaturg throughout the writing of a draft.

As you gain experience, you start to understand what works for you. It’s hard to learn that without actually going through it. You realise that while some writers are excellent at bashing out a first draft over one night at the Royal Court, for others it can take months of excruciating procrastination and self-doubt and the support of other people. The “development process” can sometimes feel very exposing and very hard to make sense of. It can feel like a lot of pressure to workshop a script with actors and creatives and then somehow translate those findings into an excellent new draft. It takes a lot of brain power to process it all into something useful and to hold your nerve while you do. 

I’ve heard some writers brazenly say “it shouldn’t be painful.” Others ridicule development as a modern thing that real writers shouldn’t need. I actually think it depends how your brain works and for some writers it’s just really hard and slow. That doesn’t mean you’re a terrible writer. The most important thing to realise is that everyone is different and you have to find your way of working. I do understand the concept of “development hell” and I can see that it’s a process that could be endless. Really, I think once you’ve found your way of working, own it and nurture it and remember to stay true to your instincts and ideas. Development is simply there to help you deepen and refine what you wanted to say in the first place – it is not a process where other people should be changing that.

So, to my most recent experience of development – working with New Perspectives for one week at the National Theatre Studio. I actually wrote (The) Woman (working title!) back in 2021. It was a very specific time in my life when I was clawing my way up from a particularly difficult period of motherhood. I was in the thick of it and I wrote a draft, half drunk, over a few days from a big bunch of notes I had painstakingly made on my phone over three long years.

This draft was raw and messy and full of guts and heart. It was shortlisted for the Bruntwood and lots of people said lots of lovely things about it. But often they followed those up with, “I can’t wait to see the next draft”. Those words always make me panic because they sound like an assumption that the next draft will be better than this carved out pile of actual guts I gave up. But panic is not your friend so breathe deep and get your head down.

I had wanted to work with dramaturg Sarah Dickenson for many years and my brilliant friend and director Angharad Jones got her on board a few months before our development week at the National. Over those few months, the three of us had a few discussions about the play and what it meant to all of us and we had a reading with some incredible actors. Then Sarah and I embarked on an intimate period of development over a series of Zooms. Sarah said to me early on that she could tell I wouldn’t respond well to a bunch of script notes. She said something like, “I think you might stare at the notes, feel overwhelmed, do lots of other things instead of writing and then feel like a failure”. As they say these days, I FELT SO SEEN.   

Instead she set me a few tasks that she instinctively created from our discussions. I said that the play was like a moment in time – an arm reaching out of sinking sand and grasping for air. I wanted to honour that in the writing, but now that time had passed, I found it very hard to get my brain back to that state. Sarah suggested I write a letter to the version of me that wrote the play a few years before. That was a wonderful way to unlock new ideas and a new perspective on the work.

After a few tasks like this, Sarah and I sat down together to work on a chart she invented where we went through each scene and worked out why it was there and how it connected to the scene before and after it. This was an organic way to find a structure that held the play together and held the audience on a journey without smudging out all the spiky edges. It was a great exercise and at the end of that I kind of had a scaffolding on which to hang my next draft – which I wrote ahead of our development week at the National.

The draft we took into the room was long and overwritten but still full of juice. Angharad had put together a top-class team of talent including Movement Director Jennifer Jackson and Designer Sara Perks. Both were in the room all week to help us unlock more than we could see on the page. Angharad specifically wanted to investigate the physical language of the play – what it might look like in a space. It is not a naturalistic script so she wanted to get it on its feet and try stuff.

We had a crack team of actors (listed below) who all brought so much insight, intelligence, generosity and fearlessness into the room. When you have done a few development sessions, you soon realise that it is really important that you get the right people. The dynamics in a room like that can be very fragile and tipped in one direction or another by a strong personality.

On the first day, everybody always feels vulnerable but you have to quickly get over that. Angharad fostered a lovely environment where the whole team felt confident and assured to try things, to open up, to look silly and to push things.

Jennifer had some incredible instinctive ideas about where physicality could really smash open meaning and delve into new depths so what the audience sees is bigger than just the words. When I write, I don’t think about physicality. It was a complete revelation to watch Jennifer work – from her morning warm-ups that created art in themselves, to the way she approached a scene. The actors worked so beautifully with her, giving so much. There are meta moments in the play – repetitions, glitches, spoken subtext – that help us understand that what we are seeing is not actually reality. Jennifer found ways to illustrate these through physicality.

At the end of a very intense week, we had a sharing with invited industry people. For this we had put together around six scenes that loosely linked and gave a taste of the whole play. The scenes lasted around 45 minutes. It was weird sitting with the audience and watching what we had done all week – I don’t know if you ever get used to that feeling – it’s like sitting on an extreme rollercoaster and just holding your breath until it’s over. I think they call it airtime. But it went well. There were tears and laughter and lots of learning.

And now, of course, I need to write a new draft based on what we found. And it’s scary because the team gave me so much and I have to honour that by making the play better than it was. It’s such an ethereal thing that often feels just out of grasp. But the only way to make it tangible is to do the work, take the leap, write the damn words. They won’t write themselves. Wish me luck.

 

We spent a week at National Theatre Studio as part of their Generate Programme.

Our team:

Writer:  Jane Upton

Director: Angharad Jones

Dramaturg: Sarah Dickenson

Movement Director: Jennifer Jackson

Designer: Sara Perks

 

R&D cast: Archie Backhouse, Jessica Clark, Akiya Henry and Jay Taylor