Dragging yourself from your sickbed to attend one of Brian Mullin’s creative writing sessions or signing up for his courses year after year shows student loyalty of the highest order. What’s the attraction?
Laura Grillo (39) and Steven Rayner (60) are regular attenders at Brian Mullin’s play-writing courses
Laura: Brian has taught me how to structure my writing. He gives me critical feedback but understands what I’m trying to achieve and gets me thinking in logical ways. When I started my writing lacked structure and development but he taught me how to structure. And with practice, I think I improved! His teaching style is perfect for people like me who suffer from dyspraxia as it is well ordered and structured and he treats us all as individuals even though it's a group lesson. Brian never directly advises dropping a character if they are not needed but just asks why I want to include them. I’ll then either make the character more functional or remove them. And instead of getting characters to ask questions, he’ll ask us to replace them with statements - and this really does make the scenes more colourful.
He inspires me with his enthusiasm even when he’s critiquing other students' work. Sometimes he’ll put on music such as jazz to inspire us during a free-writing session; or he’ll encourage us to mind-map ideas or produce pictures - I once drew a big diagram of a house with each window showing a different character, and used linking arrows to indicate relationships within a play.
One day I was scheduled to showcase my work to the group and I felt really ill but still dragged myself along to the course. It made me realise just how much I enjoyed the sessions - Brian doesn’t judge our work but helps us create the best version of the play we want to write. He trains us to teach ourselves.
Steven: Brian is a great all-rounder, with a deep knowledge of plays, drama and the theory of play-writing. In a typical session he’ll first focus on theory and introduce a specific topic such as story, event or conflict - all great building blocks for writers - to help us write the play we want to create as best we can, all the time using a wide range of different examples and media to bring the subject to life. We’ll then ‘workshop’, focusing each week on the writing of different group members; we all provide feedback and build up a community of mutual support.
Brian is also an expert at managing what could otherwise be a painful experience for the writer under scrutiny - not everyone is practiced at giving feedback - and there have been tricky characters in the mix! He really shows he cares about teaching and nurturing his students, treats us all with respect and sees our individual potential. I’d never have had the confidence to take on a two-year Master of Fine Arts course in advanced theatre practice without attending his classes for the past six years.
The lure of London’s theatreland was too much for Yale theatre studies graduate Brian Mullin, once he’d cut his teeth writing his first plays and using drama as a communication tool in community projects in New York’s non-profit sector. 2009 saw him boost his academic training to do an MA in playwriting at London’s Goldsmiths College. He’s stayed here ever since.
“New York is a theatre town but its set-up makes it much harder to make a living in drama or get new work put on. The UK, though, has its own exciting theatre-going culture, despite the sector continually facing funding threats. Here I can be a professional playwright, put on plays, teach and work with communities - and you can also watch so much online!”
Creating a writing group
Brian started teaching as a part-time freelance at City Lit in 2013 and still has some of his original students attending his workshops. He also teaches at St Mary’s University and the National Theatre when he’s not doing community work and writing his own plays.
“The course is not entirely about my teaching; it’s also about creating a writing group over an 11-week term,” he says. “I’ve always tried to enable my students to gain from my expertise as a playwright in terms of topics such as dialogue, plot and so on, but I also try to train them up as good readers, commenters and feedback-givers on each other’s work. It’s just as important for the whole group to learn to become astute readers and supporters of one another’s work as feedback is for the individual who has written the play."
Besides the theory lessons he gives during workshops, Brian gets one or two writers to share their work in progress each week. “This partly explains why my classes attract an ongoing membership - people come back for more as they form a bond with their peers.”
Groups of students go to the theatre together, swap theatre news and informally share views among themselves on scripts of plays they’ve seen. Brian sees his role as cultivating this change. “I’m not just a top-down teacher,” he says.
The COVID factor
The workshops attract a broad range of ages and backgrounds. “You might have people seriously trying to get work put on but also older people with particular careers seeking a creative outlet or a change of direction, and those with special needs for whom playwriting is a real outlet.”
Brian currently takes the college's advanced play-writing courses where groups of around 15 students bring along unfinished works and look for help in improving them over time, whether it’s in structure, plot, dialogue or characterisation.
What about the COVID factor? Despite initial difficulties with technology and mastering how to log on, etc, “students really seem to value the regularity and structure my [now online] creative writing course brings to people’s lock- downed lives, knowing every week I’ll check-in. We’ve even had to make it two classes to cope with numbers.”
Unlocking students’ confidence
“Real success for me as a tutor is when my students are able to give sharp, spot-on feedback, the recipients are really grateful to hear it, and I just need to guide the conversation. It shows they’re learning creative writing skills and using their critical faculties to comment on each other’s work and anything else they go and see.”
Practical creative exercises play a large role in sessions. For instance, students might bring in an object from home, they’ll share these around and everyone then has to write a scene that incorporates the object. Alternatively, they’ll pull out of a hat little prompts on pieces of paper and randomly use these for their characters’ motivations.
Brian’s task is often not teaching students good ways to write but unlocking people’s confidence to let the creativity flow and complete that unfinished poem or play that’s been lying in a drawer for years.
Every voice is heard
One ongoing challenge is ensuring every voice is heard in groups with widely different levels of experience. “When managing a session, I need to be careful that we all help any particular writer make their play the best version of what they want it to be, not what others think it should be! You have to train people to listen and not just ram criticisms down someone’s throat.”
How does he best motivate writers? “Each week I expect students to have read and be able to comment on, say, a full-length play by one of the group. I tell them if I give my all in commenting on one student’s play, then he or she will be more inclined to reciprocate when it’s my turn. If the session goes flat, it’s usually because people are not engaging in discussion. If that happens I’ll start throwing in questions.”
Brian’s final advice? Whatever expertise or subject knowledge you have, convey it with passion and enthusiasm - it never fails.
For details of Brian Mullin's creative writing courses at City Lit, please see: www.citylit.ac.uk/search/go?w=brian+mullin