Structuring A Writing and Performance Development Group

Posted on 29 May 2012

Professional comedians are endlessly writing material. All comedians take notes whenever they come up with ideas or have experiences worthy of putting to the stage or screen. Some develop these notes by writing out a script. Others start to practise the telling of their anecdotes to friends, family, and comedy compatriots.

Everyone benefits from having a trusted group of compatriots off who they can bounce ideas. The key to this is the word “trusted”. Some people have formed writing and performance groups, then things go horribly wrong. They may be turned off the idea for good, because of the emotional damage.

It’s a skill to successfully run a development group. It took me awhile to get the swing of what must happen to ensure people have a positive and enriching experience. Eventually I ran several successful writing groups. All have resulted in various of the members achieving publication.

Anyone who has written for television comedy knows for a fact how important it is to learn collaborative skills. My stint with Bridget Goddess for Nickelodeon Cartoons involved a lot of structured brainstorming with a group of people. So, how do you create that miracle group?

Limited Numbers

You need enough people in your group to get some diversity in your feedback. You also want enough people to form a mini-audience.

Nevertheless, numbers must be kept small enough so that everyone gets a chance to have their work regularly appraised. It’s hardly worth being a part of a group, if you are only heard once a year.

I usually put a cap of twelve on my groups.

Entry Process

Not everyone is going to fit into the same groups. Your comedy development group will have a particular character that makes it unique and helps everyone to shine. Someone too far outside your aesthetic or too behind in their skills will be unlikely to benefit. People need to be on a similar page.

Not everyone has sufficiently developed social skills to be safely included in a creative group. The creative process is a deeply personal one. Revealing our creative efforts to others is an act of great vulnerability. People must be able to speak their truth in a respectful and sensitive manner to others.

Because of these issues and more, you must have a screening process for membership in your group. I use a three part system:

First, I want to see a sample of people’s writing. That will usually tell me whether this person’s storytelling skills are sufficiently developed and whether their aesthetic will fit with the group.

Second, I interview people over a friendly cup of tea somewhere. This usually tells me whether or not they have mature social skills.

Third, the applicant is invited to join the group on a probationary basis for a few meetings, after which the group votes on whether to make them a full member or not. Rarely has anyone been rejected subsequent to their road-test, but it has happened.

People who pass these tests aren’t suddenly in the clear with membership. Membership is a privilege and not a right. Membership is maintained by polite behaviour and active participation. It’s important to also have a system for removing members if they become troublesome or are not contributing. This is easiest for everyone if you have a clear set of rules to which you can point.

Purpose/Goal/Focus

You are more likely to attract the right members and succeed as a group if you make clear your purpose, goal, and focus. It’s much easier to get to Kathmandu if you know that’s where you’re headed, rather than randomly starting off on a road trip.

Your purpose has to do with why you are putting together this group: Our purpose is to form an effective body of dedicated and supportive writers and comedians who will meet on a regular basis.

Your group goal has to do with what you intend to achieve through your purpose: Our goals are 1) to support one another in creating comic works of high quality, and 2) to support one another in our endeavours to become professional writers and performers.

Your focus has to do with the particular type of stories or comedy you are exploring to achieve your goal: Our focus is upon comic writing for standup, sketches, television, and film. We are primarily focused on works that are good-natured, lighthearted, imaginative, and insightful.

Group Rules

Some people bridle at the thought of having rules when it comes to a creative group. I will tell you here and now, they are a necessity. With rules everyone knows what is expected of them. With rules you can ensure a certain amount of fairness and transparency in members’s dealings with one another. And most importantly, the instant money is involved (and it often is, even if it’s just to rent meeting space) you have to make sure procedures are in place that make it easy for people to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing.

Rules are mostly a problem when they are ill-thought out or unfair. The real problem some groups face are people who try to use the rules as a way to dominate others. If this happens, remove the person then perhaps re-examine the rules to see if they can be improved.

Group rules have to do with the day-to-day protocols such as selecting an organiser and a treasurer, how to handle funds, meeting dates, member responsibilities, voting systems, etc.

Critiquing Rules

Because critiquing is such a sensitive act, it is well worth the time to give people a specific understanding of how it must be done and enforce your methods.

One rule I set is no one is to take more than ten minutes to assess another member. If everyone in a twelve member group takes ten minutes to share their thoughts about a work, suddenly the poor creator is bombarded with more than two hours worth of critique. That’s a lot to take in, even if it’s constructive. Worse is when someone goes on at length and cuts off other people having time to say anything.

Usually people have only five minutes worth of advice to pass on. When someone consistently goes over their time, I start to bring in a timer that rings LOUDLY after ten minutes.

Critiquing rules should also include how the people being critiqued behave. Rule one is that they are supposed to LISTEN when someone is giving an assessment and only speak when asked for clarification. Rebuttals are right out.

The most important rule is that everyone should include both praise and instruction in every assessment. It feels good, but it’s not very helpful if everyone says only nice things. It feels miserable and leaves you nothing to hang onto in order to grow, if people say only critical things. Balance is key.

Be a Friendly Hardass

It sounds like I am asking people to be hardasses. Well, yes I am. But it can be done with a light touch, particularly if everyone has agreed to the rules in advance. The rules should mostly be things you would do anyway, you’ve simply made the details clear, because sometimes a few people don’t get it.

We had the rule in one group that if you spoke out of turn, you had to put a coin into a tin. We all jokingly rattled it at each other. At the end of the year all the penalty money went toward a Christmas cake.

Conclusion

Quite the reverse of what you might think, structure in a creative group actually makes it easier to relax and have fun. You know what’s expected of you and potential friction is reduced, so everyone can get to the work at hand. And the work at hand is where our hearts laugh and play.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine

Sample rules and guidelines


2 responses to Structuring A Writing and Performance Development Group

  • Simon taylor says:

    This is great, Katherine.

    Any tips on how long a ‘session’ with a group should be for optimal productivity?

    I understand the time constraints on critiquing is important, but also the whole process in general can have a creative threshold I’m sure.

  • Katherine says:

    I have always run groups for novel writers. I’m currently putting together a group for comedy, hence this article. So, I am bound to find some differences.

    With novel writing we required people submit 5000 words of material each time they were critiqued, so we only met once a month.

    The meetings went for 4 hours. The first 2 hours involved thirty minutes of writing exercises, then an hour and a half of critiquing for two writers.

    The last two hours after our lunch break involved 1) a thirty minute business meeting where we would make announcements, talk about any group projects we had such as self-publishing a collection of short stories, give congratulations to anyone who had recently been published, etc. 2) we would have a professional guest speaker: writer, agent, editor, etc. Twice a year we would do book reviews: one award-winning work of fiction and one how to write book.

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