August 30, 2012
I teach playwriting because Edward Albee told me I’d be good at it. That was nine summers ago, at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. Before that, I’d written a lot of plays and done a lot of dramaturgy (helping playwrights write the play they want to write). James Price was my Meisner teacher at Trinity Rep Conservatory in 1983, and I was a playwright-in-residence at Chelsea Rep in the late 1980s. A few years ago, James and I started talking about adding a playwriting component to the Studio, and two years ago I started teaching at the Chelsea Rep LAB. So there we are.
There are plenty of scarier things than confronting a blank page, or a blank computer screen: being interrogated by the secret police in a totalitarian state, being in a Third World prison, watching the person you love most in the world die. But for most of us, most of the time, facing the blank page is plenty scary. And that’s what writers do every day.
I’m not sure that you can teach someone how to write plays. But I am sure that you can give someone who wants to write plays a set of tools, and create a supportive environment that encourages them to do so. In every class, students learn at different rates- that’s completely normal. Some exercises they’ll love, and other will leave them completely cold. Many people take the class simply because it makes them write- it gives them the structure to complete work. It isn’t easy to find that sort of structure in your everyday life. The process of creating a piece of art, all alone with your laptop- it’s lonely. It’s a lot of time writing and thinking and playing solitaire because you don’t know what to write next. In spite of that, to me, it’s the most fun you can have- to create a world and populate it with characters who talk (some even talk back- I’m dealing with a very chatty Bengal tiger at the moment), and then watch it come to life in rehearsal.
For every student there’s a great pay off when he or she hears the words they wrote read aloud for the first time: the realization that they have created something new. And later, sees actors embodying their characters in front of a live audience. I have a distant cousin who wrote TV shows, Adam-12 and Charlie’s Angels among them, and he admitted to being jealous of me when I had my first play produced in New York. To him, Off Off Broadway was more fulfilling than network TV.
The beginning class is made up of three main components: in-class writing exercises, reading students’ work, and reading and analyzing plays. The writing exercises are targeted and specific- character, action, images, etc. They break the process of writing down into smaller pieces, so that you can concentrate on one aspect and not worry about the others. Students’ work is usually generated from the exercises. Students rewrite the exercises as homework. We read published plays for two reasons: first, to look at how other writers attack their work, and second, to give us common ground to talk about what a play is. We analyze these plays and the students’ plays for dramatic action, beats, images, tactics, obstacles, and the specifics of the world of the play. I think particularly for actors and directors, this part of the class is extremely rewarding. It teaches you what to look for in a script- what is the writer trying to tell you, and what kind of choices you can or should make based on that information. We also do some listening exercises in class, overheard dialogue, or music, or both.
Being a trained musician, I tend to experience the world primarily through my ears, so my classes are more aural than others may be. I use exercises that I learned in school (which tend to be art-based- fine art photography and painting), writing from newspaper and magazine articles, and the exercises of Jean-Claude Van Itallie and Maria Irene Fornes. I encourage questions throughout the process: there is no such thing as a stupid question. I’m also extremely accessible via email outside of class.
The class is designed for each student to find their voice as a writer- not mine, nor an echo of mine. Last year, I read an article where the literary manager at the National Theatre in London was quoted as saying he could tell in an American play in the first ten pages where the playwright went to graduate school. That is the last thing I’m after.
By the end of the class, each student has written at least one monologue and multiple short plays. One piece by each student is selected by the staff, and put into rehearsal with actors and a director, so that the student has the experience of being in the rehearsal room and working in a collaborative environment. Two of our students have had plays in festivals: Michael Aquirre’s ALMOST A FANTASY was in the 2012 International Fringe Festival, and Keith Filangieri’s play, PAULA’S VISITOR was in the Strawberry One-Act Festival. Angelo Berkowitz’s WALT WHITMAN NEVER PAID FOR IT was made into a short film.
The advanced PLAYWRITING 2 class is a pre-professional workshop that builds on the foundations of the beginning class. Students choose a play to work on: a long one-act or the first act of a full-length. We read and analyze a full-length play in each class (for example, we’ve read Chekhov, Shaw, and Nottage). There are also periodic lectures about the business aspects of being a playwright- ie. resumes, synopses, submissions, etc. The class meets every other week. Students choose which play they plan to work on before the first class. At the end of the advanced class, students submit plays to be considered for rehearsed readings by Chelsea Repertory Company actors and Acting Studio, Inc. students. Much of the advanced class is devoted to rewriting: figuring out what works and what doesn’t, taking in the notes that are helpful and discarding the ones that aren’t (for me, that was the most difficult), working harder on the elements of the craft that come less easily to one (plot, diction, conflict, etc.)
I used to be an actor, and I studied directing in school, and if you have any training or experience as an actor, singer or director, I think it definitely gives you a leg up on learning to write plays. The questions that actors have to answer for scene work (What do I want? How can I get it?, etc.) are the same questions a playwright has to answer for each of their characters. It’s also a wonderful way to learn both more about the theatre, and more about yourself.