Screenwriting seminars are a dime a dozen these days. Andrew Worsdale takes a look at a new training initiative for writers based in Johannesburg that is actually taught by successful

aug-create
Andrew Worsdale takes a look at a new training initiative for writers based in Johannesburg
writers currently active in the industry.

American Syd Field launched the industry of teaching screenwriting with his seminal work Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting in 1984. Since then the teaching of the art and craft of storytelling on screen has become a thriving and sometimes parasitic cottage industry worldwide, with guru Robert McKee claiming top honours as a trainer of scribes for the screen.

In South Africa several companies have set up training courses for wannabe screenwriters, offering advice and discussions of pet theories such as ‘three-act structure’. However, they all seem to be targeted more at giving moral support than nuts-and-bolts training. For the most part, in fact, the trainers have few, if any, screen credits to their name.

It was this thought that occurred to Fiona Walsh when she set up Creative Industry, a new training initiative which will take place during the next few months at Sasani Studios. The courses cover writing novels, travel features and children’s fiction, but the Introduction to Screenwriting module is sure to stand out.

This intensive, interactive course is being run over the course of four Saturday mornings from 8–29 September and will cover subjects such as the differences between TV and film, the basic building blocks of a good drama, character arcs, sub-plots, back story, genre, dialogue and characters.  Most importantly it will discuss the opportunities and constraints faced by writers in the South African industry.

What sets this course apart is that the tutors are Neil McCarthy and Richard Beynon, who both have extensive experience in writing for television. McCarthy is currently head writer on e-tv’s Rhythm City, has worked on Zero Tolerance and Gaz’lam and was a key creator and head writer on Isidingo, to name just a few of his screen credits. Beynon has been a scriptwriter for twenty-five years and has written for Isidingo since 1997, four years of which he was head writer. His other screen credits include Going Up!, S’Gudi Snaysi and Snitch.

The course will naturally focus on writing for television because Beynon and McCarthy are experienced in this field, and it is also where most of the opportunities lie for writers in the local industry.

Walsh says, “We’re aiming for a maximum of 12 students for each of the current courses, as there’s a real emphasis on interactivity. With a group this size the tutor can really give enough individual attention to each participant so that no one gets lost at the back of the class.”

Walsh realises that Creative Industry is not doing something entirely unique.  “I think there are a number of organisations offering good courses. My approach was to find people to facilitate Creative Industry courses who really are operating at the top of their game in their respective fields, ensuring that people who sign up don’t just get the benefit of years of accumulated experience, but also plug into the industry as it’s operating at the moment. So not only are the tutors all highly experienced, they are also very active as writers themselves, so they bring all their past and present knowledge to bear. Although the courses are quite intensive, I also think the tutors all know how to make their field very accessible and enjoyable, even to someone completely new to it.”

As to whether it’s possible to actually teach screenwriting, Neil McCarthy is in two minds. “Those outside the profession think it’s some sort of skill similar to plumbing that just requires a bit of technical know-how to master. I think the problem with teaching writing, and particularly scriptwriting, is that it is a very fine balance between technical and structural thinking on the one hand, and free-form creative play on the other. These are skills that don’t tend to exist in equilibrium within the same individual. One can certainly talk about structure, about story-telling, about character formation, about tension. You can talk about technique within all of these. You can certainly talk about spark, lightness, delight and play. But I’m not sure that those elements of the job are teachable. The best one can hope for is to make people aware of the necessity for them.”

Most people in the film industry agree that there is a lack of good screenwriters out there; yet again many argue that producers and broadcasters wouldn’t know a good script if it was staring them in the face. McCarthy says, “If you are asking whether local producers are aware enough of the centrality of story and creative leadership, then the answer is no. But then, as scriptwriters we would say that. But I do think many, if not most, local producers come up through the technical ranks of the industry, so script is regarded as just one of the many components that need to be put into place in order to get a project off the ground – not quite on par with catering, but not that far away.”

McCarthy believes it is a chicken and egg type of question. He says: “Without the small, highly-tuned, rock-solid narrative projects on which to learn their craft, where do local producers learn about script? How do they acquire a sense of how a good story works and how crucial they are to the success of a project? And how do those sort of projects get off the ground without producers who see their value, and can nurture them? It’s a push-me pull-you situation.  But I do think there is something about the production mind-set of this country that sets too great a store by financial competence and age, and too little store by narrative skill and energy.”

If you want to be one of the people who strive to change this mindset visit www.creativeindustry.co.za for more details about the course or call

Fiona Walsh on 072 298 7736.