By Tara Marin & RikkiLynn Shields, Editors
Robert Greens, a London-based screenwriter and playwright, kicked off the first Major Author Reading Series (MARS) of the semester last Thursday with an hour-long workshop, followed by a table read of his original work, put on by professors and students of the English department.
The professor at the University of Brighton stated it was his love for cinema from an early age that drew him to screenwriting, along with the ability to say so much with so little words. Greens admitted that he feels challenged by the mere thought of writing an entire book, and decided that writing screenplays works much better for him.
“I want to make people feel,” Greens said.
As a screenwriter, Greens has been in the same boat as many other writers in the world– you have these thoughts that you can’t express correctly, or, if you can, you’re afraid that no one will find them interesting but you.
“Writing is a way to work things out. You have to be confident that what you find interesting, someone else will find interesting as well,” Greens said.
Having confidence to back up our interests, our truths, and our writing is exactly what Greens believes is the main contributor to our successes.
The English screenwriter not only gave the audience some insight into his career and experience, he also told the audience how he chooses the actors he casts for his films. He informed the crowd that good drama is based around the dynamic of people and their interactions.
“Get to know them, rather than just letting them go over lines,” Greens said. “Sometimes the truth is much more interesting than lines that are fabricated– it’s the way the person says it and the way they make mistakes.”
During the event, Greens handed out a sheet of paper with the set of questions that he asks his actors before he begins thinking about any ideas or characters.
The questions range from “what accents can you do convincingly” and “what can you talk about that never fails to put a smile on your face,” to “what was the worst thing that happened to you before you reached the age of 18?”
While these questions may seem both arbitrary and intense, Greens believes that this process is a failsafe way to get some of the best ideas flowing. He admitted to never start writing a work with a theme, because it is often confining. Some of the best lines in his films or plays, he said, come directly from the actor’s themselves.
As an exercise, Greens made the audience partner up with the person next to them, to ask them four of the questions that he deemed fitting to this situation. One person was the writer and the other answered the questions.
After answering the questions, discussing, agreeing and disagreeing with one another, and jotting down notes, the pair was responsible for creating a character of their own. Everyone wrote down a sentence that encompassed their character, and his/her feelings and experiences, and shared it with the audience. Characters ranged from an engineer to a hopeless romantic.
The variety of character creations amongst the crowd was fascinating, and the exercise was one that was very unique to MARS workshops in the past.
Freshman Harriett Swager particularly enjoyed the experience.
“I really enjoyed how personal it all was, since it was a much smaller and closer atmosphere than where you would hear most readings or talks like this. It was also really helpful to hear all the tips and experience he shared about playwriting, and just writing in general, especially when he was talking about characterization,” she said.
In an interview with The Quadrangle prior to his reading, Greens explains that what made him become a playwright was his passion for cinema. His first full-length play debuted in August, produced by The Pensive Federation theatre company.
“I began as a filmmaker and a writer making my short films, and I’ve recently been writing feature films. It’s only been a year into being a playwright, but it’s been a great experience, just working with this company,” he said.
When asked to identify the challenges that are distinct to writing for the stage and for the screen, Greens reveals that playwriting calls for more attention when coming up with characters.
“In the sense of writing for the stage you have to really think about the drama coming out within one scene. You can’t really rely upon cinematic conventions, or cuts, or using visual imagery in a way to convey information. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of making the characters even more present, and the dynamic between the characters and their behaviors [is] the most interesting thing, and finding plot within characters as opposed to just creating the plot and adding characters to it. It has allowed me to explore characters in that way but I think there’s always a limitation with writing on stage in terms of the environment. With writing for the screen, you can really use the environment, in a way, as another character,” he said.
Greens, since he is a visual writer, usually has images in his head while writing plays, but also has to focus on language and dialogue.
“That’s something you really have to emphasize – the dialogue is one of the forms, probably the main form, of how drama gets moved forward in some respects. You have more tools for cinema, but playwriting really gets down to the nuts and bolts of what drama really is,” he said.
Maeve Adams, professor of the English department, has been a long-time friend of Greens since they attended graduate school at the University of Kent in England. They met at a time, as Adams puts it, “while we were both continuing to put off joining the real workaday world with graduate degrees as far as the eye could see.”
In her introduction for Greens, Adams reflected on their shared experiences: their dirty kitchen, drastically different fields of study, love lives, and comical late-night disputes. She brings up an occasion when the two argued over the correct pronunciation of “spaghetti bolognese” which, to Adams’ dismay, Greens pronounced “spag bowl.”
From this, Adams proves a thoughtful point about language.
“The thing that matters—that is funnest, that is most rewarding—is not what’s most certainly true, but the revelations that come from trying to figure out what might be true, from playing around with the truth. I mean, I was right about the pronunciation, but spag bowl has a lot to tell us about being playful. For one, about the way the English play with language—their language is, in fact, one of the most playful on the planet. We see it in Shakespeare, we see it too in working class cockney. What is true about British English is likewise true of the value of playfulness more broadly,” she said to the audience assembled in Hayden 100.
Adams continued to comment on the power of playfulness when writing to discover truth, or at least disrupt the common conception that the world is composed of singular facts and stringent rules.
For this, she commends Greens’ work, which tell true stories amid playing with the truth itself.
His film titled “Drew” is a story based on his own dating experiences, and was an official selection at the Mind Rights Film Festival. Another one of his films, “Night, Night” employs dark humor in a story about what happens when we try to go to bed after an argument. His short film “Garvey and Sayers” tells, as Adams puts it, “a true-to-life story that playfully contends with another truth experienced by so many—about what happens when a friendship is so much more than just friendship.”
Senior Kayli McTague also reflects Adams’s praise for Greens work.
“When I think of the times I’m most inclined to turn to literature, it’s often in a moment when I’m trying to evade some truth I’m being faced with, so I found it really interesting that Robert Greens suggested that the truth is the best story. It’s kind of ordinary to come up with some wild tale just for the sake of telling one, but to seek to tell the truth may be a more important story to tell,” McTague said.
At the event, Greens read aloud stage directions, while English professors Dominika Wrozynski, Adam Koehler, Maeve Adams, Deirdre O’Leary, and two students, Angela Benevenia and Erin Murphy, played his characters. The table reading prompted lots of laughs, as well as applause for Greens’ indelible writing, writing which Adams sums up perfectly:
“Rob tells stories that have emotional truth, but they aren’t afraid to play with the truth—to show us truths we may not think we are ready to learn; that can hurt and help us. He tells stories about the lives we could live if we were all willing to be a little more playful with ourselves.”