Course Details

The John Burgess Play Writing Course begins in September and runs over an academic year consisting of 40 weeks, as outlined below:

Weeks 1-10

  • Basic building blocks. Word of one syllable, rhythm, exits and entrances, building a page, surprise, stichomythia, images, actions, silence.
  • Study of three carefully chosen plays.
  • Writing a ten-minute play in 3 Acts.
  • Individual feedback sessions on your play.

Weeks 11-20

  • Exercises including direct address, children, anxiety, time, character, nightmare, science, vulnerability.
  • Writing a 45-minute radio play based on the study of numerous examples.
  • Individual feedback sessions on completion.

Weeks 21-40

  • Working on a full-length play.
  • Further exercises on rhetoric, history plays, the use of verse, hesitation skills, intellectual life, mosaic structure.
  • Individual feedback on completion.

Structure of Sessions

A typical session will include the following:

  • Discussion of assigned reading and reading out of homework (see below)
  • Study of 3 or 4 examples of a particular problem (e.g. silence, direct address, the use of images) from the work of different playwrights, focusing on their different approaches and solutions.
  • Writing in class, using the examples discussed as a jumping off point
  • Reading out what’s been written and discussing it. Has it successfully addressed the issue? Has it come up with an interesting and individual solution? If not, why not?
  • Assignment of homework on the same topic, to be written for the following week’s session, where it will be read out and discussed.

Students benefit from hearing each other’s solutions to a clearly defined problem and rapidly learn to distinguish in a direct and practical manner what works and what doesn’t.

The problems are always clearly defined. Those tackled at the start of the course are comparatively straightforward and they rise in complexity as the course progresses.

By the end you will have worked on, and found your own solutions to, an extremely wide spectrum of dramatic possibilities. You will have developed through practise your ability to handle any number of ways of telling a story in dramatic form.

The intensely practical focus and use of clear well-chosen examples means that you will find it easy to grasp and apply the principles of good dialogue and powerful, cliché-free dramatic writing.

You will also have discovered a variety of different strategies for generating material and ways of developing and extending your ideas.

In Your Own Time

You will be expected to read or have seen at least one new play every week and be prepared to talk about it briefly.

Each week there will be written homework (generally one or two pages long) to be read out at the next session. The emphasis is on quality rather than quantity.

After the first few sessions, in parallel with the regular homework, there will be work on longer forms – the 10-minute play, the 45-minute radio play and, finally, a full-length theatre play.

It’s up to you how you structure your time but the burden of work increases as the course progresses.


No one in the theatre pays any attention to formal qualifications. What counts is the quality of the work.

John Burgess’ insistence on writing to performance standard from the very beginning, even if the assignment is only ten lines long, is a big advantage here. The completed work offers examples in three very competitive genres to interest theatres and commissioning editors.

John’s Southampton group has an enviable track record of success. Highlights can be found in Course History.