On this, the 400th Masterclass, we get an informative and heartfelt discussion from the ‘grandmaster’ (self-proclaimed and tongue-in-cheek) James Graham.
Born in Mansfield, in Nottinghamshire – James realized he was in love with theatre when he wrote a play and had an overwhelming sense of electricity pulsing from the stage as he sat at the back of the theatre.

He tells us a little more about himself and his achievements (very impressive), and then opens up the discussion to the class.

“Theatre is a weapon to make sense of the chaos around us.”  His plays are mostly political, and he explains how he takes events from history and uses them as a lens to observe and understand what is happening now. He defines his genre of theatre as ‘popular political drama’ and gives us some tips on writing a compelling play.

At the core of this, is James’ passion for story, he says that the satisfaction of story drives him. “Narrative is a powerful and unapologetic vehicle.”  Once a writer has a clear idea of his traditional story arc, he is safe to subvert it.
His practical writing process includes getting up really early (what he calls bonus time), scribbling notes on a pad in a stream of consciousness style and using Baskerville 12.

He is a furious planner and gets excited about structure. To really drive the idea of story home he tells us that it is the best way to convey meaning. Once you have a strong story – then you can play with form.

Some questions James suggests you ask yourself whilst writing:
  • What does your character want? Pin down that moment when the world shifts.
  • What is stopping them?
  • How do they go about getting what they want?
  • What would this be if it was a Pixar film?
He tells us the truth – that playwriting is hard. He likes to plan first and then run down the corridor of the first draft where the aim is to get to the end, even if he loses things along the way.  Then he types it all out again, and for him the second draft is the draft that is exciting.

This is advice best taken to heart, as James is the first playwright since Oscar Wilde to have two plays running in theatres next to each other on West End, and is currently writing a musical with Elton John and Jake Shears (of the Scissor Sisters). He explains how new it is for him to go from writing in the safety of his own head to collaborating with ten other people in the room. He tells us how much he loves the whole process of writing a musical, calling it “forensic, muscular and rigorous.”

James believes in creating space for conversation and says that theatre is the perfect vehicle in which to do this. His plays are bold and he isn’t afraid to humanize the villains. He describes how it is important to discover both a character’s conscious want and their subconscious want and says that meaning is discovered in the conflict between the two.

Satisfaction in story drives James. His advice is to always find a unique point of view. It is much more interesting to peer at a world through the wings, or through the back door than to look at it from the front. He lists his favorite stories, stories that explain what he means by structure and narrative as a vehicle - The Crucible, The Lion King and Macbeth.

James answers a few more questions;
  • On the casting process, he lets the director take over unless he has some extra insight that will help them make a choice. Once in a rehearsal space he lets actors take ownership of things explaining that the community element of theatre is where its power lies.
  • On the difference between stage and screen writing: Stage is a platform for a balanced interrogation of ideas and the screen is pure story.
  • On writing – “writing is awful” he says, and “writing is re-writing. “Writing is where the limits of your own genius appear,” and, “writers are the people who get through the shame and torment.”
To end off he speaks of the intense pressure of press night, where he has to be brutally honest with own failings. His parting advice is to notice the moments where the audience lose focus, and work on these.

I walk home (although I do believe there are cupcakes), with a sense that this is exactly what Masterclass is about: Candid discussion between a room full of people joined together by the “glorious process of theatre.”