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On the write track - ‘This wasn’t about the end product. It was about the journey’

Fishamble and Irish Rail are giving wannabe scribes the chance to take part in a mobile workshop by penning a play on the Dart. Frank Coughlan sees where this train of thought takes him


The Rail thing: Frank Coughlan (second from right) takes part in ‘Plays on a Train’ as writer Gavin Kostick (far right) talks to the group on the Dart. Photo: Doug O'Connor

The Rail thing: Frank Coughlan (second from right) takes part in ‘Plays on a Train’ as writer Gavin Kostick (far right) talks to the group on the Dart. Photo: Doug O'Connor

The Rail thing: Frank Coughlan (second from right) takes part in ‘Plays on a Train’ as writer Gavin Kostick (far right) talks to the group on the Dart. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Can't be that hard, can it? This writing lark. Especially plays or scripts. Just words. Dialogue. The things that everyday people say to each other every day.

If you keep your ears open on the bus, Luas or Dart. Or in a queue. In a coffee shop. Just catch the words as they fall. Eavesdrop. Be nosey. Then write them down. Easy-peasy.

Until you challenge yourself to do it, that is. Or take up a challenge that is laid down before you.

It was put up to me by Fishamble: The New Play Company at the weekend. The troupe had come together in partnership with Irish Rail for 'Plays on a Train' - a mobile workshop on the Dart.

It was hosted by Fishamble literary director Gavin Kostick, a prolific playwright himself with recent works including The End of the Road, This Is What We Sang and The Fight. Under his guidance, 10 wannabe writers were given a gentle introduction to the craft and art as the train trotted out to the sunny seaside.

It was a competition, of sorts, though Gavin was quick to emphasise that it wasn't about winners or losers but words and ideas.


Gavin Kostick. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Gavin Kostick. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Gavin Kostick. Photo: Doug O'Connor

To enter, all a budding scribbler had to do was go on Facebook, or retweet on Twitter, explaining how they would benefit from a day's tutelage.

Those who won a place on this writer's express seemed like a proper cross section. The very sort of people you see commute every day.

But instead of being weary, careworn and wrapped against the elements and whatever life might throw at them, these travellers were on a great adventure. To make it even better, the sun was coming along too.

Linda Butler was among them. She had dabbled in poetry before but was interested in swapping verse for dialogue. She was really up for it.


Just the ticket: Frank on the Dart. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Just the ticket: Frank on the Dart. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Just the ticket: Frank on the Dart. Photo: Doug O'Connor

On the other hand, Chris Galvin had travelled this road before. The author of a children's book, he was familiar with the particulars and structures of playwriting. Which was more than I was. Much more.

But everyone brought something different to the experience. And while we were all on the same train, we were each on a different kind of journey.

Our tutor encouraged us to use the trip south through the capital's plusher seaside suburbs to simply ponder and observe rather than rush headlong.

Paper never refuses ink but sometimes the time taken to contemplate and reflect is well spent. Often daydreams are where the best ideas incubate.

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I took this advice to heart. Procrastination is something I am very good at. So I indulged.

As the train emerged from Dalkey, clipping along the seaside cliffs beneath elegant Vico Road, the sun bounced off an uncharacteristically azure Irish Sea. You could almost hear a collective creative hum working its way down the carriage.

How could you not be inspired?

After we arrived in Bray we all went our separate ways, the only instruction being that we had to re-assemble in the town's Victorian train station in two and a half hours.

Some wandered down to the prom, others indulged in a 99, some more sought out the quiet corner of a coffee shop, if such a hide-out existed on a busy and blistering summer Sunday.

We were well equipped, not only with notepads and pens, but more importantly with the reflections and advice of our tutor, a man who seemed to expect a lot less of us than we demanded of ourselves. That was how it should be. If you're not straining to do your best on a brain-storming excursion like this, you are only an imposter, taking the place of someone who might truly benefit.

Gavin gave us a copy of Eva O'Connor's play Maz and Bricks for guidance and inspiration. It was premiered by Fishamble last year. A funny, relevant and often caustic play, it set the bar intimidatingly high.

But it gave me food for thought. A three course nosh-up, actually. With good wine. Was I in over my head?

Probably. But Gavin had made it perfectly clear. This wasn't about being brilliant or even about the end product. It was about the journey. Literally and metaphorically.

So where to start?

First of all the parameters: the work was to be, give or take, 600 or 700 words long and should take three to five minutes to unwind.

It could simply be the opening scene, or even a vignette, from a full-length play. The only rule, it seemed, was that there were no real rules at all.

Gavin would read through the efforts on the return journey to Connolly and give some gently honest feedback.

These apprentice playwrights wouldn't go home with an Olivier or Tony gong under the arm, but they might finish the day with a sense of how to craft a modest play, or at least how to approach one. Small, unsteady steps but crucial ones.

My first idea was simple, entirely predictable and sounded, in the privacy of my head, a bit like a Roddy Doyle pastiche. But it would probably unfold more like the Brennan's Bread ad that Mr Brennan rejected. Woeful.

So I changed tack.

This time a young woman in her 20s sits in a city-bound Dart. It's a warm summer's day and she's dressed accordingly. But there is nothing sunny about her disposition. She has the strap of her bag wound tightly around her fingers.

She is joined by a man, also in his 20s, shorts and Batman T-shirt, who is expecting to find her. They have been texting. He sits opposite. Wordless.


Stella (leaning forward, looking intently at him): 'So? Have you even thought about it?'

Gary: Of course. What do you take me for?

Stella: And?


Stella (emphatic, reddening): And?

Gary: Christ. Can we not wait til we get off the f**king Dart? Have a coffee (whisper) …and a bit of privacy?

Stella: You've had two whole days. Radio silence. Didn't even pick up.

Gary: My phone. It died.

Stella: Oh, please.

Gary: Look, I was just freaked. Needed a breather.

Stella: Well, I hope you inhaled good and f**king deep because here's the thing.

Gary: Relax, will ya?

Stella (ignoring him, waving her hand as if swatting a fly): I'm getting off at Tara. You get off with me or I get off alone and I do this alone. End f**king of.

Gary: That's 20 minutes, tops.

Stella: Your call.

Gary: 'Your call'? My life, more like.

Stella: My bloody life you mean. I'm the one nine weeks gone. The clocks is ticking.


So what happens next? No clue, I'm afraid. I haven't got that far. Are we talking about an abortion, or are there other options? And while your heart must go out to Stella, does Gary deserve any sympathy at all? A few flurries of the pen and two characters, gossamer-thin and clichéd though they might be, are created.

That's all Gavin was asking of us. Initially, anyway. My co-participants will have done more and done it better, but I enjoyed the journey. Amazing where you can go for the price of a Dart ticket.

Irish Rail are partnering 'Fishamble's A Play for Ireland' which will see the company travel Ireland in 2018-2019 with 27 workshops as 30 plays are developed, one eventually being produced. See fishamble.com.

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