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.

An infographic of Jim Careys graduation speech
Quotes from Jim Careys graduation speech to Maharishi Universirty, 2014. Photo by Graduation Wisdom. 

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.

 

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark

Interested in following this conversation in real time? Receive email alerting you to new threads and the continuation of current threads.

subscribe

Comments

13
Add Comment
Newest First

Sorry to the enlightened commenters, but I cannot take the use of "scare quotes" seriously. That was hammered out of me in lower division writing classes. Well put Alan, but keep in mind that this type of knowledge has always been an elite asset.

Thanks Alan for your take on your experience as a theater student and young playwright. Although many of the users and members of Howlround have been through very similar situations as you describe and agree with much of what you're saying, I think it's important to have the voice of young artists like yourself highlighted here. Aside from the fact everybody every Howlround reader/author, myself included, is neither a "theater industry folk" nor even a "theater person," many of us are teachers of young artists and it's important to hear their perspective outside of the classroom, both for use to become better/more aware teachers, and for us to have some sense of what the future is for our field, after the theater industry has finally crumbled away. It is also incredibly important for the rest of the world (who aren't necessarily "non-creatives") to understand what we do and for us to be able to articulate our experiences in open and thoughtful forums such as this: I don't think of Howlround necessarily as a trade paper.

If I may Alan, I suggest you maintain your open mind, both to your own work and the work of other artists whose methods, experiences, and goals might be quite different from your own. Also consider using the same inclusive, empathetic approach you mention here to finding new and diverse audiences for your work. Good Luck!

-Jacob (http://www.howlround.com/au...

Beyond this post being rather navel-gazing, ultimately it isn't serving much of a purpose being on howlround. Readers on this site are generally theater industry folk. We get that a degree in the arts can be useful in ways that non-creative people can't always understand. You really don't need to defend it to us.

What a revolutionary 20-something, studying toward a theatre degree and undecided about whether his career will be in theatre. Really cutting-edge stuff hitting the feature section these days.

1. Theatre (moreover playwriting) is not the best mode to exercise Empathy. It's not even a very good one. I sincerely hope writing scripts isn't your primary avenue to care about other people. Feeling things and manipulating others to feel through storytelling IS NOT THE SAME as ACTING (in the real world) with empathy. The propensity of theatre students and recent grads to conflate the two is an insult to my friends in social services.

2. The tone of superiority vs. other students, on similar quests of education in other disciplines (maybe physical art CAN explore heteronormative structures?; what's with the mockery re. studying "victims of trauma?") is a load of garbage. Maybe your peers are nurturing THEIR empathy differently than you. Thank heavens you are blessed with the privilege of insight into the human soul after dramatic lit, instead of pondering such general concepts as "victims" and "trauma" alongside oh-so-countercultural women who "refuse to shave their legs" - obviously in defiance of your sense of heteronormativity, right? - or maybe just their choice as individuals ("refusal" implies mandate to shave).

3. Citing "Seminar," that outside observers correcting unconscious errors is "the only way to learn anything, period", is preposterously dubious. If workshop dramaturgy is your most impactful avenue to take home a pretty elemental life lesson - I Am Wrong A Lot - I am awed by your luxury of self-righteousness. The purpose of theatre is to tell stories, not transform plawrights into deeper people.

4. Theatre has "transferable skills." I read and hear this terribly often. Newsflash: every career, occupation, and course of study inevitably carries a set of lateral applications. Theatre is NOT unique in this regard. Neither is it in terms of engendering adaptability (I've met plenty of military families who know fuck-all about Chekhov). Those same peers studying psychology and art might be your bosses someday - because THEY'RE learning while learning, too. And they probably don't all believe it makes them special and immediately more qualified in the applicant pool.

5. I don't think a playwriting degree needs to be defended. Further, I don't think it has been defended here. Many [liberal] artists work outside their baccalaureate paper totems; it's not as if their group projects have anything to do with their present occupations.

And even so, shouldn't you be studying playwriting first and foremost to, you know, write decent plays? If you believe it's to accomplish more than that (and thus essentially NOT ABOUT that), so much gravy for ya and good luck applying to law school. Maybe focusing on telling good stories well might be a solid beginning. Heck, it might even make your propects as a career artist firmer than the "incredibly informative and remarkably useful" lessons being absorbed from the periphery.

The thesis of this piece appears as: a degree in theatre might not make a career in theatre - but it is justified by picking up actual useful skills and the ability to express "empathy." Each bit is old news, low stakes, and ultimately pessimistic about the purpose of arts education: to train in the craft of that art. Whether conservatory, accredited, or somehow less dignified "liberal arts" in source, you shouldn't be learning how to practice an art with the intention of eventually doing, you know, something else, because universal skills.

I hate to be this guy, but... I started reading HowlRound because it seemed a progressive community, generating innovative ideas toward the adaptation of theatre as an industry and artform. This article, a feature "essay" supposedly of some academic or editorial value, is why I'm pretty much done with it now. It meanders wildly, rehashing tired tropes and exploring sophomore-year wisdom. The little that is said, and the absurdly absent value thereof, depresses me.

Wow. This anonymous guest must surely be a disgruntled sort to vent his unhappiness on a young artist trying to understand and explain his choices. If empathy is a goal, this guest has certainly missed the mark, and he or she ought to re- read his/her own remarks if he's pointing out superiority and self-righteousness. If this is the level of venom in Guest's psyche, then good riddance from the communal dialogue. Young artists don't need to have other artists hate and disappointment slathered on them.

Good luck to Mr. DuPont wherever his life takes him. I'm glad he is seeking education in education and not just job-training.

I'll actually sign my name to my rant.

Peter Ellenstein, Artistic Director, William Inge Center for the Arts

Thank you, Peter. Positive, empathic and voice of reason. We know that vulnerability is critical to the creative work and must be fiercely protected by us all, lest we kill the very part of our society that feeds the soul. And everyone loves soul food ~

sounds like the person who wrote this comment is steeped in a world of "academia" and is standing on a soapbox that makes them see all things all people at all times express- through their own very narrow narcissistic lense. me thinks though doth protest too much to the young, authentic voice of this article. #masterbuildersyndrome yo

How do you read a long, thoughtful article about the ability to apply anything you have learned in life towards whatever comes your way next and walk away thinking the point was "Theater is better than Visual Arts and also all Business and also all Psychology ha ha ha I'm better than you nananana boo boo."

When did tough criticism become "disgruntled..." and "rant"? I find myself agreeing with many points made by 'guest.'. Is this really "venom"? I'm confused: Why should a "young artist" write about his "trying to understand his choices" here?-That sounds like journal work. I thought he was attempting to impart some knowledge. "Hate" is a purposefully strong word--certainly misplaced here, and yet containing its own fomentation as used. Anyhow, since this thread became not a response to the article--perhaps its pros and cons--I'm glad to see the mob, with such illuminating insights and repudiations of guest's ACTUAL POINTS, has put 'guest' in his or her place.

It's funny, ordinarily I'd write you off as a jealous A-hole who wishes he was an artist but isn't. However, something about this article really irked me and you, for all your narrow-minded shortcomings, actually kind of nailed it in #5.

As a recently graduated college student who has a theatre degree with an emphasis in playwriting, I've been facing many of the same issues as the author. However, while I do find people constantly expecting me to justify my field of study, I actually find myself not needing to. I majored in playwriting because I want to become an amazing playwright. I recognize that it's difficult, as I would hope anyone with a degree in the arts would. However, I don't see a substantial difference between that and a math major who really wants to solve a difficult proof. Or a bio major who wants to cure cancer. Doesn't everyone want to be the best in their field? And isn't that equally difficult regardless of the subject matter?

I majored in what I love and I intend to spend my life pursuing it. I spent school working next to a number of people who seemed to be getting theatre degree because it sounded like fun, and had every intention of utilizing the skills that it taught them in a different occupation entirely. I have no problem with someone changing their mind on what they want to do, but the ability to work in the field of psychology is not the thing that justifies a playwriting degree. Writing a moving, intelligent, empathetic play does.

So yes, mysteriously bitter anonymous guest (like I should be talking, right?) I actually agree with you. If a person is studying playwriting he should go ahead and take all the added perspective that comes with it, but put that into the writing. Pay the bills, of course, but don't forget what a playwriting degree is actually about. You got the grades, now do the work.

I guess I'm just not sure why the two are mutually exclusive. Of course I want to write amazing plays and I have an enormous respect for the craft. But I think all of the best plays have some sort of honesty or openness that come from the playwright putting something at stake. My first playwriting teacher told me my work was good academically, but the heart was missing. At the time, I thought it was the dumbest thing I've ever heard. I've come to realize that using plays as a place to process and investigate really solves this issue; and that that is actually the core of a good work. That's just me. I think it is a profoundly difficult thing to do and I believe the most intensely personal plays somehow become the most universal.

Theater is my space to do that, but I think that this is true of all the arts. I also think it's the point of education in general. Call me idealistic, but I think there is an intrinsic value in a liberal arts education (or any education) that shouldn't be ignored or dismissed. I worry that focusing too much on skill exclusively overlooks very important aspects of college. It has been an amazing experience to learn about myself and what I'm passionate about while simultaneously finding my voice as a writer. To me, they are one and the same narrative.