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On Sunday night, 34 people logged into the first of the Mob Theatre’s online screenplay writing class.
Erin McGathy, the tutor, separated the students into smaller groups and put them in spin-off rooms to chat about writing a screenplay.
In one chat room, they began to talk about the communal writing process, a theme close to McGathy’s heart.
Many comedy writers in Ireland tend to work in solitude, says McGathy.
But the Mob Theatre, a Dublin improv group of which she is a member, wants to promote a more collaborative way, encouraging set ups that mirror the writers’ rooms found elsewhere.
“I’m hoping to be part of the change that makes this a thing over here,” she says.
From Tinsel Town to Dundalk
“Writing is a generous thing to do. You are sharing your art with the world,” McGathy tells the class. She is wearing a bright red beanie hat and a blue woolly jumper.
Students, scattered around the country, listen. Some chew pens. Others sip on glasses of water.
“The idea is not to have a perfect script at the end of this. Many of you may have not written a script yet and we just want to put something out there,” McGathy says.
McGathy used to work as a script writer for TV and theatre in Los Angeles but decided to leave.
“I was unhappily married and unhappily living in LA,” she said on the phone last Thursday.
In 2015, she moved to Ireland to volunteer on a farm in Dundalk. “As a spiritual quest sort of thing,” she says.
“I was absolutely useless,” McGathy says. She ended up organising equipment and cleaning until the farmer Googled McGathy’s name.
He learnt that she was a writer, and asked her to write a play.
She wrote An American in Ireland 2 a play with a role for the audience, that riffed on the imaginary conceit that McGarthy had written an amazing play called An American in Ireland– but that had been picked up by Broadway, so Dundalk had to make do with the sequel.
It was performed in the farmer’s school-house, converted into a small theatre, McGathy says.
A Writers’ Room
McGathy noticed something missing here in Ireland. “Comedy writers’ rooms are big in the US and less of a thing in Ireland,” she says.
Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Community, or the American Office have a group of writers pitching jokes and stories around a table, she says.
“The whole improv comedy world is closely linked to the TV writing world in the States. Writers’ rooms are filled with improvisers,” McGathy says.
“Improv teaches you to collaborate with other writers,” she says.
One exercise that Mob Theatre ran pre-Covid-19 was to get two students to stand back to back, count down from three, pick a random emotion, spin around, and create a scene from this.
A writers’ room operates similar to improv like this, McGathy says. “It’s all about listening to what someone says and heightening it.”
Showing the Way
In November 2018, McGathy set up the Mob Theatre with Stephen Bradley and Neil O’Rourke.
Bradley and McGathy met on a web series, Long Dark Twenties, a comedy about two friends who suck at life.
After one shoot, Bradley invited McGathy to see a wrestling match. “I’m an unapologetic fan,” Bradley says. “We just hit it off from there.”
The Mob Theatre ran improv sessions in the basement of Wigwam on Middle Abbey Street, but with Covid-19 then switched to online classes.
The online classes are divided between talks and written exercises.
“A certain amount of time is used as an almost-lecture. We explain certain concepts of sketch writing,” says Bradley.
The hot-dog car sketch from the sketch show I Think You Should Leave on Netflix is one of Bradley’s favourites to share with students.
“There’s a guy who crashes a hot-dog car into a shop and everyone is wondering who’s responsible for it,” he says.
Among the crowd is a man dressed in a hot-dog costume.
“He’s just saying, ‘I don’t know who did this. But whoever did this we are going to have to find him,’” he says.
“It’s a nice illustration that you don’t have to come up with this brand new comedy changing idea. It can be something as simple as that,” he says.
The classes are about creating an environment where students can write in a group, Bradley says, even if it’s just on a Zoom call. “You can bounce ideas off each other.”
Back in the smaller chat room, the students continue discussions.
The Mob Theatre class creates a writing environment that wasn’t here before, says Grace Mulvey, from her chat window that sits above student John Spillane’s on the computer screen, akin to The Brady Bunch show intro.
“It gets you used to criticism,” Mulvey says, which is only going to make a script better.
“It’s great when someone reads your script and tells you they didn’t understand a part of it or, ‘Why did the character say this?’ ” she says.
In the row above Mulvey sits Dan Binchy’s head and shoulders in his chat window. He nods as Mulvey speaks.
“It made it possible for me to feel like I was a writer as opposed to pretending like I was a writer,” Binchy says.
Spillane says: “You don’t want to go to your pals and tell them ‘I’m writing this comedy script and the second act just isn’t coming together’. Everyone will look at you like you have infinite notions.”
“It’s nice to be in a group of people who have the same delusions. There is no judgment,” he says.