The BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum has come a long way from its humble beginnings 10 years ago, when it was run by drama students above a north London pub. These days it stages its events at BAFTA, boasts an impressive list of patrons and industry guests and is looking to expand into America.
But it has remained true to the unpretentious ethos of self-help and mutual support that characterized those early days. The basic format is also unaltered, although executed with greater sophistication.
Young writers submit new work, either a short or a 10-minute extract from something longer. Tthe most promising are selected for a dramatized reading by a small troupe of actors (guided by a director), and the audience and industry mentors give their feedback.
It’s a process that provides aspiring scribes with much-needed encouragement and validation.
“When you’re a little geeky guy that sits alone in your room, just having people want to talk about your work, and really cool people too, is amazing,” says screenwriter Jack Thorne. “It’s like an authentication. You feel like you’re actually a writer for about half an hour.”
Thorne had a monologue performed at a Rocliffe event when he was still a student, and later recycled that speech into his debut screenplay, “Scouting Book for Boys,” which shot last year.
Farah Abushwesha, who’s half Irish and half Libyan, founded Rocliffe in 2000 when she was still at drama school. It was a way for her and her friends to get hold of fresh material to perform. “We wanted to put on a play, but there was a dearth of material for actresses in their mid-20s,” she recalls. She advertised for scripts on industry websites, and booked a room at the Angelique pub in Islington.
“The first week, eight people turned up. Next week there were 40. We charged people £2 to get in, actors and casting directors would come and we’d cast the pieces on the spot. Writers started coming along to hear their work read, people started to discuss the material, to give feedback. It was a great way to network, particularly downstairs afterwards in the pub when everyone had a few drinks inside them.”
In 2002, Abushwesha was joined by Pippa Mitchell and Kerry Appleyard in creating their own production company and to run the forums. Nik Powell and Alan Plater became patrons, later joined by the likes of Michael Kuhn, David Yates, John Madden, Richard Eyre, Mike Newell, David Parfitt and Finola Dwyer. Laura Dickens joined as Rocliffe’s resident casting director.
Rocliffe also started organizing Film Forums, where a filmmaker would show a short film and stage a reading of an early draft of the script, and discuss the development process. Andrea Arnold presented her shorts “Dog” and “Wasp” in this way, before “Wasp” won an Oscar.
In 2007, BAFTA started hosting the New Writing Forum. Rocliffe now organizes four events a year, two in London and two in the regions. Production values have improved, and the events are boosted by big-name directors such as Newell and Madden, who give instant script analysis. Everyone donates their time.
It’s clearly a labor of love for Abushwesha, who dreams of expanding into America. “I want to take this event to New York and Los Angeles, and BAFTA is very keen,” she says. “I personally love this event, and I’m passionate about trying to keep it as fresh as possible. It’s terrifying for writers that their script is taken away and performed, but it’s fantastic when you get people like Mike Newell talking to young writers who would never normally get that opportunity.”