In Defense of My Undergraduate Playwriting Degree
I'm from a fairly stereotypical suburb where the lawns are always freshly mowed; but I also study at a tiny liberal arts school with women who refuse to shave their legs. It's the kind of liberal arts school where people attempt to outdo one another constantly by discussing how to solve conflicts in the Middle East through dance ("Yeah, well I'm shattering heteronormative social constructs with my visual art"). I'm exaggerating, but not stretching the truth as much as you might think. Needless to say, there is a bit of culture shock each time I go home.
As I get my hair cut, as I sit down to Christmas dinner with extended family, as I talk to old friends or the friends of my parents, I answer the question that is par for the course, "Where do you go to college?" (my response is followed by "Oh, I've never heard of that school, where is it?"), and then "What's your major?" I respond with a confidence that fades by the second or third syllable: playwriting. If I'm lucky enough the inquirer doesn't gasp; my answer is greeted with a statement like "Good for you, just going for it in today's economy," or the less subtle "Well that's great, but what are you going to do after graduation?" as if my failure as an artist is pre-destined. Maybe it is, but so what?
These responses have an unspoken assumption embedded within them: you go to college to get a job. You could take it a step further even—said job will give you the money you need to be happy. Further still—theatre is pointless. This line of thought does arts education a huge injustice.
"Writing plays is really hard!" That's what I want to tell them, but I'm not sure that statement effectively communicates anything other than my own pretensions, so I'll expand on it here. Every time I start a play I fall into a trap: I start by writing about what's on my mind, the things keeping me up at night, the things that are making me anxious or some peculiar situation I've found myself in. What else are you going to write about when you are working within college deadlines? The problem is, suddenly I have to turn that first ten minutes into a full length play and I need to find answers to all my questions. To complete the narrative, I need my own sense of closure.
What's always made it work for me is an odd phenomenon that occurs within workshops. There's a line in Theresa Rebeck's Seminar which says it better than I could: "It really is the only way to learn anything about writing, to have a decent editor go through it word by word for you. Help you see what is is, what you meant. What you didn't even know you meant." I'd go further: it's the only way to learn anything, period.
When you write a play, you give the audience your worldview for ninety minutes, and I believe that is the strongest artistic statement you make. When they enter "the world of the play" they really are entering your psyche. I’m overstating my point, perhaps, but it’s unavoidable; it’s just part of being a person using language. The trouble is, I never know what statement I’m making. In fact, I always think I'm writing naturalism; it isn't until a dramaturg tells me how the world of a play I'm working on functions that I realize that not everyone's brain is as neurotic as mine, and that the world doesn't objectively reflect my cynicism. This realization is cerebral and invaluable; it’s a strange feeling when you can suddenly see your own vantage point, your own biases: the things you didn’t know you meant.
In my experience, playwriting demands intense introspection and self-knowledge. For other people, it may have other merits, but that’s what it is for me: a place to explore what's on my mind consciously and attempt to find some semblance of closure. Only a fraction of this, I've learned, is conscious, through workshops which I've found operate under a shared understanding that we will just pretend this definitely isn't group therapy; we can get in touch with the parts of ourselves we can't see and then get trapped grappling with them as well.
It isn't all selfish, though. Theatre forces us to exercise those philosophically impossible skills we all think we've mastered: compassion and empathy. Entering the world of someone else's play—entering someone else's psyche—is hard and it's something we have to do on daily basis just to be a human. Last semester, at the same time I started to see the subjective nature of my own neurotic cynicism, I started to truly appreciate the beauty of my teacher's view: that of relentlessly optimistic magical realism, as well as the various vantage points of each of my classmates. When you write or edit, you are constantly walking in other’s shoes and you start to realize that another’s disposition doesn’t always slip on as easily as sneakers. It takes practice; good thing there is fiction.
I'm practicing writing, sure, but what I'm really practicing is troubleshooting life; playwriting has taught me—and is teaching me—how to self reflect and how to engage with others.
These skills, I believe, are what will help me be a more content, well-adjusted person than the paycheck my hairdresser assumes I will receive from majoring in business. I'm practicing writing, sure, but what I'm really practicing is troubleshooting life; playwriting has taught me—and is teaching me—how to self reflect and how to engage with others.
"But what are you going to do after graduation?" I've gotten really good at tackling this one. Last year, I conducted interviews on behalf of my college's admissions office and I had a blast; both playwriting and interviews are about locating larger themes in conversation. Once I realized that interviewing is just a conversation game, all those Edward Albee play's I've read actually did come in handy (even if they just tell me what not to do). More importantly it made the interviews engaging. Who doesn't want to play with language all day? And when I heard myself asking questions like that, I realized I might be interested in clinical psychology. It actually makes a lot of sense: the plays I love put coping, growing, realizing and understanding into a narrative, never mind the connections I see with these things to my own creative process. So without completely abandoning my dreams of writing professionally, I'll pursue other careers for a bit and hopefully have something that looks like a way to make a decent living.
The skills are transferrable; that's the bottom line. Beyond compassion and self-reflection—skills that make life easier—playwriting exercises skills that are completely employable: you learn to be articulate, to be analytical, to be objective, to collaborate, to think...the list is endless.
We live in a time where nothing is one-to-one, where "siloed" is a dirty word and "synergy" is fetishized. As such, I'm not sure a business degree is practical anymore. It depends on the program, I suppose, but if colleges are preparing students for the workforce—and I've argued that that shouldn't be the sole purpose of an education—then learning transferable skills is crucial, not just the logistics of something as pigeonholed as accounting. A friend of mine who is a few years older recently told me that he's never been hired for a job in which he ended up doing what the job description said. Adaptability is crucial, and I'm going to study the skills I want to develop through what I'm most enthusiastic about, even if it means having mere "playwriting" on the top of my resume.
Theatre allows us to explore the world, to honor each person's subjective experience, and to inquire without necessarily coming to conclusions.
With regards to the original question of how I will not be a jobless bum, that’s the stuff you can convince people of if they’ll listen to you long enough. But I think the real problem—once you cut through all of that—is that most of these people don't see the value of art, or perhaps more accurately, the pain of art or the joy of art. The theatre is a place where we can engage with impossible questions through empathy, reason and every other way imaginable...that's why I think it is so essential. The scientific articles we read in newspapers might give us more certainty on the issues, but at the cost of emotional engagement. Broad generalizations in psychology papers like “victims of trauma,” for example, have utility, but are disrespectful to each person's individual struggle. It's reductive. It's easy. Theatre allows us to explore the world, to honor each person's subjective experience, and to inquire without necessarily coming to conclusions. Theatre can be messy and still ring painfully (or joyfully) true. That's why it is the perfect space for exploration and inquiry, personal and communal. How would one see the value of writing if they hadn’t experienced it on the flipside, as an audience member?
But if we think of art merely as entertainment or something to pass the time—as so many people do—then, yes, my degree is pointless: an enormous waste of time and absurdly high tuition fees. I won't accept that, though. I believe theatre is one of the most challenging places to search for answers and to find meaning; it can take you to places you don't want (but need) to go. I say this both as an audience member and as a writer. Regardless of whether or not I make it big (or if I end up working as a psychotherapist or a bookstore clerk), my theatre education has been incredibly informative and remarkably useful. I have no reason to believe it won't continue to be so as I grow older.