Can Playwriting Be Taught? 3Q4 18 Playwrights
A student once asked Joe Dowling, artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, where he would advise aspiring actors, directors and playwrights to do graduate work. For the first two, Dowling named the usual suspects, Yale Drama and Juilliard.
Playwriting was another matter entirely. He said he was drawn to the writer “with an entirely personal response to the world, not someone who works from what he’s read, but rather from who he is” and explained that he found it ridiculous to tell a playwright to reach a turning point after 30 pages of dialogue. “What if someone had said that to Beckett or Pinter?”
Certainly, perception and originality are necessary in all artists, but are they sufficient? An actor, for instance, must develop his instrument before he can play it in his own way. Is playwriting different? Sophocles didn’t study Aristotle, after all, then decide to write a play that built to a cathartic climax; Aristotle studied Sophocles and theorized about what the playwright did.
Are classes essential? Destructive? Are there better ways playwrights can develop their art and hone their craft?
If you ask 18 playwrights, you might get 18 variations on answers to these questions.
WHAT CAN GO WRONG?
Jeffrey Hatcher, who has written for stage and screen, never took a playwriting class but has taught some. “What is dangerous is if a teacher shows contempt for a kind of play–Neil Simon, Noel Coward, Lee Breur–which may inhibit an impressionable writer from doing what he or she does best,” says Hatcher.
“For example, Richard Foreman, the avant-garde playwright, started out in the 1960′s wanting to be a Neil Simon kind of playwright. It was only by trying to imitate Simon and failing that Foreman discovered that his own talent lay in something more experimental,” says Hatcher. “If someone had said to Foreman, ‘Don’t try to be like Neil Simon, Neil Simon is commercial fluff,’ it’s possible that Foreman would have made choices that did not lead him organically to his true talent….the prejudices of a playwriting teacher can sometimes leech into the attitude of the students.”
Playwright Lydia R. Diamond, who teaches at Boston University, believes teachers are useful unless they make writers feel small. “I have been in rooms where students are allowed to undermine one another’s work, where issues of personal aesthetics and political agendas enter the discussion, where teachers even tell students that they lack talent….”
Another playwright in this sample recalls a teacher who hated his play. The prof used it as an example of bad playwriting when teaching a dramatic lit class; the stories got back to the playwright through friends in the second class.
Problems are most serious when an insensitive teacher collides with a vulnerable student. Carey Crim thinks “if a student doesn’t have a strong sense of their own voice, and if a teacher is trying to mold the student into something that is inauthentic to them” the process might be destructive.
Braden LuBell has met playwrights who have lost confidence–and their passion for playwriting–after a bad class experience. That’s partly because “at the age most study, they don’t know enough about theater or the world to be really good… If you’re in an MFA program, by then maybe you’re starting to figure out your voice and you have people who know what they’re talking about help you get over the hurdles.”
Sometimes, even the fear of criticism can be destructive. Playwright Chuck O’Connor avoided classes when he was in his twenties for fear he would be judged. Some early success left him preoccupied with what he assumed were the expectations of others. He says he ultimately “forgot what prompted my writing interests. I quit writing because I didn’t know why I was doing it…Ten years later, I became interested in writing again.”
Michael Brian Ogden cautions young playwrights “not to give anything or anyone too much respect. If you have an idea that you are excited about and want to try, then by all means try it, no matter what those who know ‘better’ say. They may be right, but you’ll never know if you don’t sit down and write the thing. My artistic director thought that it was too soon to write about the war in Afghanistan, and in many ways he was and is right. But I had an idea for a story I wanted to tell, so I wrote it. And now it’s in line to be produced in the next two years.”
Hatcher believes students need to learn to sort the good advice from the bad, something that develops “with education, experience, intelligence, and guts–sometimes the guts to say no, and that’s a talent impossible to teach.”
“The most dangerous thing about any kind of writing class or seminar is that some people go in looking for a magic formula,” says David MacGregor. “Tell me the seven basic stories or the twelve steps of the hero. Tell me what page my reversal should be on. Taking a class becomes a crutch, a replacement for actually sitting down and writing and trying to get your work out there.”
Okay, so teachers can damage students by setting them on a path that isn’t theirs, if the student lets it happen. Or is that always damaging? Mia McCullough, who teaches at Northwestern, took a college course years back with someone who “had discovered a formula that worked for him, and he stuck by it. I thought it was useful to do things his way, at least once, though what it taught me was I would never write a play that way again.” Still, McCullough has “heard of teachers making students cry during office hours, which is inexcusable….I always tell my students that they must allow themselves to write badly if they ever want to write well.”
Playwright/actor Russ Schwartz suffers from what he calls “the Luke Skywalker Complex. I latch onto the ideology of a teacher, internalize enough to pick and choose the parts that I actually like, complete the class, and then go in search of the next teacher or another writer to read obsessively. I guess I just can’t do these things by halves. This is possibly because of my own insecurities, but also possibly because even when you disagree, what you can always get from a teacher is an understanding of their aesthetic.”
Richard Isen recalls a joke John Guare tells: “‘The four drives of man are eating, sleeping, sex, and rewriting someone else’s play.’ Each writer has his own sensibilities…and a good teacher will …guide the student to express that perspective,” says Isen. Those that don’t can be destructive when a student’s awareness of his own voice isn’t solid. “Certainly a teacher can point out inconsistencies or confusions in a play, but there’s an insight into the uniqueness of each writer that requires a certain kind of teacher.”
WHAT CAN GO RIGHT?
The short answer: Plenty.
Most agree with Kelly McAllister who says that people who “want to teach people to write the way they write…can shut people down, but others inspire people to find their own voices and set them on their own path.” He had two good teachers, one who taught craft, itself valuable, and Sheldon Rosen, who “would say ‘go somewhere you haven’t ever been before and write whatever comes to mind…almost like meditation…[we did] a lot of free association exercises.” After struggling to find an ending for his first play, McAllister managed to dream it up after doing a relaxation exercise before bed.
“While creativity can’t be taught, I believe that a good teacher can challenge you to be more creative, to go to the dark places with your script, to avoid ‘safety’ in your work, to honestly confront the subject you wish to address,” says George Brant, who studied with Steven Dietz. “A teacher can’t, or at least shouldn’t, be responsible for giving you ideas, but he or she can teach you how to construct or deconstruct a script, how to analyze the plays that have come before you, and how to apply the strategies used within them to your own work.”
McCullough, who says what helped her most was “just doing it,” believes that “figuring out how you write is part of the journey. A good teacher will help you discover how you write, what your hang-ups, strengths and weaknesses are, and guide you through the play that’s trying to come out of you.”
A class also provides community for those who are not yet getting produced regularly. For O’Connor, studying with the Chicago Dramatists Theatre, “where we practice writing and then present current scenes in a cold-reading format with Chicago professional actors,” provides a writing community that “has kept me in love with writing and has minimized my self-conscious fears.”
Many playwrights say good teachers mix how-to advice with ego support. “While I am always honest with students, I will only directly critique the work itself… where it falls down for me structurally, where the language feels less than authentic, where the stakes feel low, when I lose a sense of whose story it is and why,” says Diamond. In early classes, she wants students to feel “comfortable enough to boldly dive in, to give themselves permission to let the first draft be messy and unfocused. To ask questions of their characters out of which the story can rise. To learn to hear the rhythms of everyday speech, so that they might embrace, and I suppose to some extent, know how to replicate the rhythms and inconsistencies of communication in their dialogue.”
Craft, most agree, can be taught. Kim Carney picked up the tools she needed by watching plays, but she thinks playwriting “is a craft, which can be learned and mastered. Like sewing. Someone can teach you the proper way to sew a dress, but it’s up to you to design the dress.”
A playwright, or for that matter a teacher or critic or dramaturg, who understands a variety of possibilities will not be limited by one technique. Some of the best graduate programs give students access to several teachers from different traditions. And those who attend more than one institution generally expand their horizons.
I studied with Kenneth Thorpe Rowe, Arthur Miller’s teacher, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. Rowe was an Aristotelian who began each semester with a re-read of Poetics and showed us how to build from a situation in unstable equilibrium through a crisis to a resolution. He maintained that any play could be analyzed that way, didn’t matter if it was Oedipus or Godot. I took Rowe’s approach on faith until I did my doctorate at New York University, where Michael Kirby was teaching a class in theatrical structures; we looked at Brecht‘s epic structure, Beckett’s musical structure, and more.
Hatcher says in classes, students can react to each others work and see “their reactions to yours, and …talk about plays–famous plays, classic plays, plays that work, plays that don’t. Teachers can be helpful “by encouraging what’s good in a writer’s talent and trying to build up the weaker abilities. One can teach structure in its many variations so that dramatic writing in a structural sense becomes a reflex. A teacher can point out methods and techniques that other writers have used in the past, the ones that ‘always work.’ And one can point out what techniques have become clichés and have exhausted themselves.”
Sometimes, a class is effective just because it helps students build the writing habit. Dave Rabinow “absolutely would not be a writer today were it not for a mandatory, one-semester playwriting workshop taught during my first year at the Trinity Rep Conservatory…If you are the kind of person driven by an innate need to put words on paper and will write for hours and hours on your own, then maybe you don’t need a class. What a class does is provide an admittedly artificial deadline for a writer as well as giving s/he a safe place to receive feedback, which is also critical, and a reason to write.”
A class can help new writers get into the practice of writing every day or at least every week,” adds Crim. “They also provide a setting to hear the work out loud, which many new playwrights never get because they haven’t been produced yet.”
OTHER WAYS TO LEARN TO WRITE PLAYS
“Playwriting can be taught,” says Faye Sholiton. “Much of the time, it’s just a question of expanding the definition of ‘classroom.’” She has found the best teachers in fellow playwrights. “I know one playwright who begins many of her scripts by typing a character’s name, allowing that character to speak, then typing a second name and waiting to hear the response. One conversation with her opened whole new ways of working.”
MacGregor never took a playwriting class. Did anything else feed his development? “Lust, anger, unrequited love,” says the playwright. “Desire and pain and empathy are your friends.” Although he believes teachers can provide basic information about craft, networking opportunities, and inspiration through example, he’s learned through reading and seeing plays. “Movies and novels are good too. Enjoy the narratives and the characters for what they are, but then think about what you have seen or read. Why did it work? Why was it funny or tragic? What made this or that character hateful or lovable? What was there about the story that kept you engaged?”
“The whole world can be a writer’s classroom,” says Crim. “One of my favorite real world classrooms has been the American Theater Wing Downstage Center Podcasts. Just listening to other writers talk about the craft is invaluable, not to mention incredibly inspiring.”
Many playwrights agree with Hatcher who says “any practical experience of the stage…is useful.” Playwrights learn how the stage works that way, and they develop an understanding of what others involved in a production do.”
Ogden, for instance, learned from exercises in playwriting class, but not nearly as much as he has from acting. “Being in plays–in good ones, in terrible ones–you start to learn what works and why it works and what doesn’t work and what could have worked if it had been done right,” he says. “Fortunately for me, the Purple Rose, which has been very much my creative home since I finished grad school, does new plays all the time.”
Patrick Gabridge founded theaters in Boston and Denver. He’s acted and been a stage hand, and he had some acting and screenwriting classes before he wrote his first play. “I do believe strongly that it’s helpful for playwrights to have some experience acting, directing, designing, producing, so they have a complete understanding of all aspects of theatre. If I put something down on paper, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m asking of the people who will have to flesh it out into three dimensions.”
Gabridge says he thinks about going back to graduate school, every once in a while; a mentor might speed up his learning curve. “But I also have a certain love of learning by doing, and failing, which is an important part of it, and so far that’s been my path,” he says.
Many have found other kinds of classes–acting, directing, even fiction writing useful. Kathe Koja, who has written 14 novels, says she relied on novel-writing skills when adapting her own work for the stage. But hearing actors read her work “was the best classroom possible.”
That’s the general consensus. “A third of playwriting doesn’t really happen until you start hearing actors read your words, and another third doesn’t happen until you have an audience responding to it,” McCullough says.
“Actors ask a lot good questions, and as a writer, each experience with a production teaches you to ask the questions that you know you’re going to get,” says Isen. “A good director is also important.”
While a good director can be extremely valuable, some say they may be as destructive as insensitive playwriting teachers. “I had the good fortune of working with the late Jim Posante,” says Barton Bund, a Michigan actor who has written plays, too. “He asked the right questions. Asking questions is almost getting inside of playwrights’ heads and asking the questions they need to ask themselves …without taking over the play. But not every director is like that. One of the most dangerous things that has been said to me is ‘Whose play is this?’ That’s not a useful thing to say. The other is ‘What kind of story are we telling here?’”
So what should you do? Take a class? Work backstage? Try to get someone to direct your play? Kill all the teachers and directors?
“The best way to learn to write plays is hands down just to write them,” Crim says. “Write them and find a way to get them heard. Even if it’s a bunch of actor friends in your back yard you bribed with beer and burgers. Find a way to hear your words. And read plays. Go to plays. And not just plays. Read the paper. Books. Listen. Be involved in the world around you. Care about it. And write. Just write.”
Most important, I think, is finding the courage to tell the truth, and by that I don’t mean revealing something personal–plenty of untrained no-talents spill their stories on talk shows and reality TV every day, and that’s the worst kind of realism. The playwrights I most appreciate expose the things they’d never do but have done in their imagination. They explore ideas that are original, maybe even taboo. Can that be taught? I’m not sure. But assumptions that interfere can be undercut and, as Hatcher suggests, clichés can be undermined in a good playwriting class.
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Photos: 1, The Great Henry Boyle by David MacGregor at The Purple Rose Theater Company; 2, Burning the Old Man by Kelly McAllister at Boomrang Theater; 3, The Cabin by George Brant, Elemental Theater; 4, Carey Crim’s Wake at Purple Rose
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