co-teaching Radio Drama for the Arvon Foundation at their base in
Totleigh Barton, North Dorset. It’s been a hard-working week with
fifteen extremely enthusiastic would-be radio dramatists.
The group is mainly women, age ranging
from early 20s to late 50s, from across the country. There’s a range of
experience too; some have written novels, others poetry, some stage
plays. I don’t think anyone has had anything published though one woman
has had a play performed by an amateur company, and another has written
lots of sketches for comedy theatre groups to perform, and there’s lots
of writing going on. There is a terrific sense of earnest determination
to write which is very rewarding and there are some real moments of
thoughtful invention and passion.
In some ways, the most tiring thing is
not the teaching and responding, the long days and the intense
one-to-one discussions; it’s the nervous energy involved in the
transaction of showing work and commenting on it. The students are
unsure, full of hope and a bit of ambition, needing feedback and
recognition but fearful of a damning judgment. As a tutor, you’re having
to both be completely honest but also respect people’s hopes and the
precariousness of their confidence in talent. So each person is slightly
second-guessing the other and, while it works, it creates an exhausting
set of emotional dynamics.
That said, there are some really
interesting plays coming out of this. One in particular that caught my
ear and imagination concerns a 16-year-old boy in the West Yorkshire of
the 1920s who falls in love with a Jewish girl. Written with great
heart, observation and lyricism, but hugely evocative of place. Another
tells a great yarn about the first panel doctor in Wisbeech who is
resisted by the town doctors, accused of libel, and commits suicide,
leading to an eruption from the townsfolk against the vested interests
of the private doctors. A third has a troubled woman, eight months
pregnant, visited by an eighteen-century lighthouse keeper. Oh and
there’s an interesting one that explores the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
And more... and more...
The Arvon centre at Totleigh Barton is
an old set of farm buildings. The farmhouse is where some students live,
where the food is cooked and eaten, and where some of the tutorials and
a modest library are located. The barn is a good space for large-group
meetings and classes. The other students live in a converted pigsty. The
place is an hour from the nearest train station, has no wi-fi, no TV,
and a couple of tiny pockets of precarious mobile phone signal. When
else have I been an hour from a train station? True, I’m not
particularly well-travelled, but still it felt like real isolation. A
few of the students (and both the tutors) walked around on Monday night,
eyes wide with perplexity, saying things like ‘are you getting a
signal?’ ‘I don’t even have a bar’. It imposes a kind of intensity on
things, a determination to write and to take the task seriously.
Arvon’s been going around 40 years. It’s a brilliant formula and a real honour to be part of it.