Friday, May 15, 2009

Does This Explain It All?

I'm fascinated with a dialogue in the March/April issue of the Dramatist, in which playwrights Marsha Norman ('Night, Mother, and--among other works, the book and for the musical The Secret Garden, seen recently at Ferndale Rep) and Christopher Durang (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, which coincidentally was also on stage at the Rep recently, performed by the teen ensemble.)

They were talking about a playwrighting class they taught together at the Julliard School in New York. The students, described as a year or two out of college (grad students then?), numbered only four in the beginning, though the next year another class of four was added to the four who remained for a second year.

After describing how they came to teach the class together, the playwrights talked about their approach and how things worked out. Early on, Marsha Norman described the effect of the second year students on the first years': "They're also very good about helping the first year writers learn to talk in the Julliard way. We really do speak about plays in a very particular language, to the point that when they leave us they go out and start writers' groups and still kind of travel in this pack. Which is great, because what you need as a writer is to feel that you're in some kind of group that's going to help you. You can't make it if you're out there by yourself."

There is no denying the truth of those words I've put in bold. But the spectre of a pre-elite is pretty stark, as is the danger of groupthink. Going to "the right schools" is pretty much defined by the advantage those schools provide, not just in excellent teaching but in excellent connections. Theatre is susceptible to this, especially since it requires that people work together. Actors need producers need playwrights need directors need each other. Right now the road to success in American theatre (as well as TV and movies) often runs through Julliard, Yale Drama, Carnegie Mellon and no more than a half dozen other programs. (Here on the North Coast, it runs through Dell'Arte, and in design and technical areas, HSU. )

Those eight students are likely to be among the most serious and most talented, but they are also most likely to be from upper middle class big city families. Now they are being formed into packs, which will hurt them a little (if they come up against other gangs) but will help them much, much more.

There are other ways to form and become part of groups that support and advise each other. The young black playwright from HSU, John ADEkoje, is now plugged into a couple of strong support groups: Boston University, which has a production arm in the Boston Playwrights Theatre, and an informal but very involved group of black playwrights on the East Coast.

The summer Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Center in Connecticut also was an institutional support mechanism, which re-generated and broadened itself every summer with a dozen or so new playwrights from various backgrounds and parts of the country. That's much less the case there now, and it's more of a pre-elite situation. O'Neill participants never forgot each other, or what they learned there: not only how to approach plays, but how to support each other.

This isn't all that interests me in this dialogue. Norman and Durang have interesting things to say about how they approach the class, which also suggest what playwrighting and theatre are like these days. The playwrights are encouraging, positive and supportive, but they try to get the student to focus on some practical matters. Norman suggests that "On page eight you have to tell the audience when they can go home," meaning that early in play, the audience should know what the question is that the play is asking, so when it is answered, the play is over.

"Rules" like this are distillations of experience, and I especially like suggestions that get writers (and others involved) to think about what they're doing from the audience perspective. August Wilson told me that one of the most useful pieces of advice he got at the O'Neill was to make sure that at the beginning of the play, the audience knows where the action is, and when. It's very simple, but it's smart, because if the audience is trying to figure that out, they miss what else is going on. And we all make sense of things based on time and place.

Something else that emerged from this class I learned at the O'Neill and elsewhere: it is very useful for a playwright to see the play read by actors, and to get actor feedback, because it is usually specific to their character, or to how that character might or might not say something. That's another major advantage of a place like Julliard, which attracts excellent acting students.

Another "tool" that Marsha Norman uses also suggests that not everything works for every play. To test the attraction or power of a play idea, she has everyone write five sentences about their play ("This is a play about___. It takes place___. The main character wants___. It begins when___. It ends when___. ) Then after each 5 sentence summary is read, students are asked which ones they remember (other than their own.) Norman says that out of 20, the most that are remembered is usually five. And then she asks, which would you pay to see? The money question, in both senses. Usually it's one, or two.

Two would be about right. It's the ten percent rule which governs the arts, and possibly a lot more. When he was director of the O'Neill, Lloyd Richards told me that it's uncannily consistent: of the plays that come in, 10% are passed on by the first readers. Then 10% of those are considered worthy by the judges. And so on.

But I wonder if this exercise doesn't have some pitfalls. I'd like to see added to the mix those five sentence descriptions of a few other plays, like say Waiting for Godot. It would be interesting to see if it makes the cut. (Maybe it's worth mentioning in this regard that Christopher Durang told me that the reason he stopped sending plays to the O'Neill was that he was afraid the first readers would screen him out and he'd be crushed.)

But this isn't to criticize their teaching techniques. I'm frankly in awe of the whole thing--of the attention and care they give, the discussions they have about every student's work. But I'm also very aware of the many of us who never got and never will get that kind of attention and support.

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