When Work is 'Play'
Five Washington University alumni find success in writing plays and creating new theater; all grew under the inspiring tutelage of Carter Lewis, the University's playwright-in-residence.
There's only so much you can teach about playwriting. The rest is a cycle: Do it, fail, do it, fail, do it, fail—until something breaks through."
Carter Lewis, Washington University's playwright-in-residence, may be modestly underestimating the importance of his time with students in the classroom. But the well-known adage does translate to Lewis' craft: There's no better preparation for playwriting than playwriting itself.
"Playwriting is trial by fire," says Peter Hanrahan, A.B. '02, whose plays have been produced at theaters around the country. "It's an arduous process at times, and a revelatory process at others. But at all moments it's an invaluable, amazing experience."
Lewis, Hanrahan's teacher and mentor, says the difficulty in teaching playwriting is rooted in this fact: Writing a play doesn't begin and end with a solitary writer sitting at a computer. It's a process that involves dramaturgs, directors, actors, and even the audience, he says. Yet at Washington University, student playwrights have an unusual number of chances for "trial by fire."
"Washington University is such a great place for young playwrights because there are so many opportunities to test your skills and to mess up and learn something from it," says another of Lewis' former students, Dan Rubin, A.B. '03, M.A. '06. "The importance of actually doing productions can't be stressed enough. When actors get their hands on your work—that's when you really see what's happening with your writing."
The most structured and elaborate of the opportunities for student-playwright productions is the A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival and Competition, which has roots dating to 1988. A.E. Hotchner, A.B. and J.D. '40, who endowed the competition, is a novelist, playwright, and biographer best known for Papa Hemingway, his 1966 biography of his close friend Ernest Hemingway.
The Hotchner event began as an annual competition to award a student-written play with the honor of a Performing Arts Department (PAD) production. After Lewis came to Washington University, he added a festival/workshop component to focus less on competition and more on the development of several playwrights. Now the festival includes 10-minute and one-act plays, as well as full-length plays. All of the winners participate in a workshop together and have readings of their plays, and a full production happens every other year, allowing those plays to get the full attention of the PAD faculty directors.
The impact of this type of festival, which is rare among undergraduate programs, is clearly powerful in the development of young playwrights. Take Marisa Wegrzyn, A.B. '03, who was selected for the festival three times—she has since had a play premiered at the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (as well as many other theaters in major cities) and signed with one of the country's top literary agents. And Hanrahan—his selected play helped him enter the respected M.F.A. playwriting program at Rutgers University (now he reads screenplays in Los Angeles for the United Talent Agency). Or Brian Golden, A.B. '04, one of the founders of Theatre Seven in Chicago—his own Hotchner-Festival play is being produced in venues around the country.
The Hotchner Festival clearly shapes young playwrights. In many cases it also inspires them to write plays in the first place.
"The Hotchner gives you a reason to write a full-length play under a deadline," Golden says. "There's no substitute for the animal of writing a 70-page play. It's the best introduction to playwriting you can get."
Other opportunities to be challenged and stretched as young playwrights at the University range from the Cast 'n Crew 10-Minute Play Festival, which showcases student-written, -acted, and -directed plays each spring; to the Day o' Shame playwriting slam, which challenges students to write, direct, rehearse, and perform a play within a 24-hour period. The student group Thyrsus—an organization started in 1904 and "revived" in 2002 by a student, Pushkar Sharma, A.B. '06—hosts the Day o' Shame, and it also performs site-specific plays.
"The playwriting program is basically two classes taught by an amazing professor, plus a bunch of courageous students and a community that fully embraces new work," Rubin says. "It isn't really as structured as a program, but it's ideal as a learning environment."
Rubin, who earned an M.A. in drama from the University and currently teaches writing to Washington University undergraduates and students in University College, describes the Hotchner Festival as "serious and all about revision," while the Day o' Shame is "crazy, intense fun" that's focused on trust and fearlessness.
"With the Hotchner you learn about not being so in love with your script that you can't see what you're doing," he says. "It's about being unafraid and accepting critique. It's about killing characters and letting go."
Workshopping plays for the Hotchner Festival involves inviting professional dramaturgs to work with the students. Alums say this is one of Lewis' strengths. He has brought some of the best dramaturgs in the country to campus, including Naomi Iizuka and Liz Engelman, who worked with Golden on his play Six Seconds in Charlack. Golden's Hotchner-Festival play is scheduled for a 2007 summer production in New York.
"[Engelman] has such focus, sensitivity, insight, and a relentless pursuit of the next thing. It's amazing to work with her," Golden says. "Carter is also a real question-asker, pushing the writer without saying what's right or wrong."
This collaborative process is what so many young writers fall in love with, turning them into true (and successful) playwrights.
"What I love about new theater is that everyone's in the room, making changes on the spot," says Carolyn Kras, A.B. '05, who has spent the last year as the literary intern for City Theatre in Pittsburgh. "It's a more dynamic environment with the playwright in the rehearsal room. It's neat to see actors put your words into action—to see how the words change and how the play takes on its own life."
Wegrzyn feels the same.
"I took a shine to playwriting from working with the actors, directors, and dramaturgs," she says. "I liked all the feedback, and the fact that writing and rewriting could be such a collaborative experience. To enjoy writing plays you have to be open to collaboration. You can't be tight-fisted with your words."
This focus on collaboration is brought up again and again by all the alumni included in this article. In the end, it emerges as one of the key differentiators between playwriting and other forms of writing.
"If you're not into collaboration, you should write a novel or some poetry," Rubin says. "Theater is about losing control. It's about giving up ownership and trusting the people putting on your play."
Lewis, who has been teaching at the University since 2000, says collaboration and learning happen through a variety of experiences.
"Different levels of learning exist for a playwright. First, you learn when you're sitting there looking at the script, and maybe talking to people about it in class," Lewis says. "Then you learn even more when actors start asking questions about why they're saying or doing what you're having them do. Actors are truth monitors. Another level happens when you listen to your play with an audience, which means, of course, that a play is constantly in the process; it's never really done."
In the classroom
But a student has to actually write a good play before he or she can proceed to these subsequent levels of learning. Good playwriting does, in other words, start somewhere—like in Carter Lewis' classroom.
"Carter is very devoted to his students," Hanrahan says. "He has an uncanny ability to highlight strengths and weaknesses, making the most of our strengths but not shying away from the things that are missing from the play."
"Carter is very generous with feedback and constructive with criticism," agrees Wegrzyn. "He's always focused on improving the writing and improving the person as a playwright. He really pushes the idea of discovery."
When asked what's at the heart of good playwriting and how one goes about teaching it, Lewis focuses on the study of human behavior.
"There's a big difference between writing prose, which is about narrative, and playwriting, which is all about behavior," Lewis says. "In playwriting, you're not actually talking about anything. You're showing it, demonstrating it."
There's also a big difference between the styles and techniques of the playwrights. Lewis points out that all five of the alumni in this article have "very dissimilar styles." In his mind, this is a sign of a good program—one that allows individual voices to emerge. But it also can make the teaching of playwriting tricky. Lewis' approach to teaching is all about freedom within a structure.
"The first thing I do is try to keep the classes very small, so I can create a community," he explains. "Then I offer a sort of buffet of options and let the students select what jumps out at them. If you present a single way to write a play, or the best way to write a play, their voices will be stifled. They'll be too focused on what they think you want them to write. The most important thing is to get them to develop their own voices."
"Everyone's process is different," agrees Rubin, whose own plays involve more research and less actual writing time than average. "Carter is great because he helps you find your own voice. By giving you lots of exercises, he helps you figure it out. He has a very distinct style as a writer, but he doesn't inflict it on anyone."
"Carter is great at facilitating an environment where it's okay to take risks," Kras says. "He's a great dramaturg, and he asks great questions that help people focus on where they want to take their writing."
Lewis says he encourages community in the classroom by "coming down hard" on students who miss class or who aren't giving their full attention to another student's work.
"In a playwriting class, especially at the introductory level, we spend a lot of time writing and then passing our work to the next person to read aloud. Then I ask the class what popped out at them—what worked. I don't focus on what didn't work," Lewis says. "The community becomes so strong that the students usually start meeting outside of class, and form a real playwriting group. That community then has a way of spreading beyond the campus."
Within this community, students go beyond critiquing each other's work, they genuinely respect, support, and admire each other. All of which is fostered again in the classroom and through the Hotchner Playwriting Festival.
"The Hotchner is really supportive," Kras says. "People respect each other and are happy for each other's successes. Marisa helped Brian when he won, then Brian helped me a lot on my play. Carter nurtures that kind of environment."
Community after college
For several of the alumni playwrights, staying connected with fellow graduates has developed into much more than just reading one another's newest plays. After graduating and evaluating the state of opportunities in new theater, some recent graduates have joined together to start theater companies (see article under alumni profiles), filling niches that seem to be neglected in many American cities.
"More than anything, I think the students just had a great time together here," Lewis says. "They formed trust and great bonds, and they realized that working together on new work is what they find most exciting about theater. They're very talented playwrights and genuinely wonderful people."
And the program that shaped these talented people? The students themselves reflect its strength.
"My experiences in theater since Washington University have been very much as I learned they would be when I was a student," Wegrzyn says. "What I learned in the PAD and with Carter and the Hotchner [Festival] were pretty equivalent to what most people get in graduate school, getting an M.F.A. It was obviously very good preparation. All of the successes and opportunities I have had lead back in one way or another to my experiences and connections at Washington University."
Lewis, in turn, as he nurtures young playwrights, is simultaneously nurturing his own colleagues, with very different styles but very similar goals.
"It's very rewarding to work with these students, and essentially to develop my own playwright colleagues. We respect each other and send our new scripts to each other," Lewis says. "They're out there doing really exciting things, shaping new American theater."
Carter Lewis: On Becoming A Playwright
As a college student, Carter Lewis imagined being a tennis player, a philosopher, or a disc jockey (or some combination of those things). But not a playwright.
Lewis had some experience in theater, though, partially by virtue of association to his sister, an actress at the same Ohio liberal arts college.
"They quickly discovered I was not as talented an actor as my sister, so I went into directing," jokes Lewis.
His senior year he decided, somewhat out of the blue, to write a play as a special senior project. It came naturally.
Lewis decided theater—but not necessarily writing—was his gig. After graduation, he went on to direct about 50 productions around the country before becoming "burnt out" on directing and deciding to try writing again in the mid-'80s. The play he wrote, The Women of My Father's House, won an Ohio Arts Council grant. With the award money, Lewis moved to the San Francisco area, where he spent the next decade writing plays, including the hugely successful Golf with Alan Shepard. Lewis also co-founded Upstart Stage, a new works theater in Berkeley.
While dark humor and interpersonal relationships are common themes throughout Lewis' two decades of playwriting, he says his writing has "shifted ground" over the years.
"I used to be known primarily as someone who wrote issue plays couched in humor," Lewis says. "One guy said to me once, 'Oh, I know you. You're the guy who writes issue plays, then tries to make them funny.' But for the last eight or 10 years, my writing has become more political."
Lewis' recent play Ordinary Nation, for instance, is about the gulf between red and blue states and people. The issue is examined through interpersonal relationships. Women Who Steal focuses on the politics within relationships, rather than political leanings.
"In playwriting, you don't write to inform people of anything, or to make a statement. You write to explore something you don't get," explains Lewis. "If you focus on writing about something you're trying to explore and understand—the gray areas within the question—the clarity will start to emerge as the play is performed, not as you're writing it."
This approach to playwriting seems to resonate with directors, actors, and audiences. Lewis has been recognized with several national playwriting awards, including a two-time nomination for the American Theatre Critics Award, an NEA/TEC Artist-in-Residence Award, the New Dramatist Playwriting Award, and twice the Cincinnati Playhouse Rosenthal New Play Prize. His most recent play, Ordinary Nation, was nominated for four Kevin Kline Awards in 2007.
Before bringing his rich experience to Washington University's Performing Arts Department (PAD) in 2000, Lewis was the literary manager and playwright-in-residence for Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York. While in that role, he focused much of his energy on developing Geva's playwriting program, which had one component when Lewis arrived and seven when he left.
"Developing playwrights, at whatever stage of experience they are at, is exciting work to me," Lewis says. "That is why teaching at Washington U. (as well as moving the Hotchner toward a festival and workshop) has been rewarding. I've had huge support from other faculty, especially Henry Schvey [outgoing PAD chair who also is a playwright]. I've collaborated on projects with all of my colleagues (four world premieres with Andrea Urice alone) and have experienced the freedom to continue developing my work. It is a very satisfying place to be."