Diversifying Creative Writing Educational Programs with Playwriting

 

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I flew to Seattle on February 26th to catch my first sight of the Pacific and attend the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). During the preceding months, those who pay any attention to the creative writing world may have noticed roughly one zillion blog entries about “best practices” for the conference. Not unwarranted chatter; if you’ve ever attended AWP in one of its rotating host cities, you know it’s a draining yet invigorating beast, both obstacle course and haven for writers and teachers of poetry, prose, and... plays?

The neglect of playwriting as a genre in what I’ll lovingly call the creative writing industrial machine—poetry, fiction, and non-fiction/memoir are the ruling three—hasn’t escaped conference organizers. They actively encourage pitches for playwriting panels, which are typically in short supply. This year, this poet and part-time playwriting instructor made a point of attending as many theater-related panels as possible. It was an incredibly heartening experience, mainly due to the emphasis placed on the benefits of incorporating playwriting into creative writing and literature classrooms.

Before I outline a few of these high points, I’ll emphasize that I’m not necessarily recommending that all theater artists attend the conference; though there are more playwriting panels, it’s mostly in a CWIM context. Still, the attention paid to plays is absolutely noteworthy and exciting to hear. This account is by no means a comprehensive outline of the panels or the panelists’ expertise; fully exploring every point mentioned would make for a very long and sprawling journey, but I’ll unpack the key points I brought home.

It’s sadly understandable that one panel was called “Playwriting: The Bastard Child of Literature.” In academia, playwriting too often doesn’t quite fit in with the English or theater departments. Lisa Schlesinger, panel moderator, relayed her frustrating experience of pitching a play–centered class to the literature department and getting nowhere. The study of plays, besides Shakespeare and maybe A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman in American literature, are relegated to the theater department, which in turn is typically more focused on production than literary analysis or developing playwriting skills. Not that that’s not understandable, but contemporary plays still hold a great cultural and literary significance, and academia usually deprives non-theater folk of that. I imagine a play-reading literature course focused on language, structure, themes, and historic/cultural context, encouraged for writers and actors but open to other majors. It sounds like a winning recipe, if it could wrangle department approval.

I wonder if this definition would change if plays, particularly contemporary ones, were more handily published. During the Q&A after the musical theater panel, one audience member lamented that it was “easier to buy heroin than find a full libretto” to study in class.

Rhythm, pacing, action, indirection, subtlety: “a crucible” for all genres in the creative writing classroom. Writer and academic, Peter Grandbois said this well in the panel he led about incorporating playwriting into the introductory creative writing classroom. Besides the technical benefits, playwriting brings an immediate energy and bonding to the classroom.

Specifically, playwriting can adjust students’ attraction to the overwrought, action-less and wordy. Starting an introduction to creative writing class with playwriting warns students away from navel-gazing narrators. A comment on a block of text is one thing, but it’s undeniable when they hear it in dialogue.

Younger writers have trouble embracing revision. Plays are relatively simpler to revise, and dialogue is easier to generate. Turning a play on its head typically takes less time than doing the same for a poem or story, and performing it displays the differences immediately. Showing students early on—I would say middle or high school, but college works too—that it’s not just okay, but necessary to embrace revision is absolutely essential, and revising their plays can be a more accessible path.

It’s a wake-up call both practically and philosophically. On a deeper level, reading out loud brings an immediate importance to the work, be it a play, essay, or poem. One of the most important transitions teens make is changing their self-perception from passive grade-getters to active participants in academic discourse. Or artistic discourse. Or just someone has a point of view that matters beyond regurgitating information for a grade or standardized test score. I won’t lump all teens into this category, and won’t claim that playwriting is a gateway to that 100 percent of the time, but it’s certainly a fun, meaningful way to get started.

The collaborative aspect of making theater (especially musicals) transfers to countless fields. Even if the playwright acts first and acts largely alone, they are writing with others in mind: not only the audience, but directors, actors, and designers.

...And the energy of collaboration can be extremely beneficial for some writers. Federico García Lorca came up frequently as an example of a poet whose work and beliefs were invigorated by his transition to playwriting

These are the tenets I couldn’t quite articulate when I applied to teach for emersonWRITES, a free Saturday creative writing program for high school students offered by Emerson College, Boston. I was neck-deep in my poetry MFA, but I didn’t pitch a poetry class; I recalled my experience in my undergraduate directing and playwriting courses, how analyzing a creative piece from all angles and putting it into motion opened my mind not only artistically, but to other academic endeavors. I couldn’t think of anything more important to impart to high school students, or, frankly, anything more fun.

This was my third and final year of teaching the course. I’m not sure I’ve successfully imparted my grand aspirations to my students, but their treatment of revision has evolved and they’ve embraced the workshop process, not to mention written some damn good plays. While I wonder how they’ll experience playwriting in college, the discussions at AWP have definitely made me optimistic. If English departments embrace playwriting and dramatic literature, who knows what’s next? Is it too much to hope for marketing majors writing a musical together for their final grade? A woman can dream.

 

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The conference sounds like a great learning experience. You make many good points for a playwriting class. I hadn't realized that there was a lack in teaching the genre. But now see how right you are. Thanks for sharing, Joelle.

My undergraduate degree was split between the theatre and English departments, and you're absolutely right about playwriting/drama not quite fitting into either. Shakespeare didn't quite work in the literature department because it focused on analysis over the humanity and nuance of the characters, and analysis is often left behind for (or rather, veiled by) achievement of craft and technique in the theatre department. A middle ground is needed, and I'm glad there's been some acknowledgement of this at AWP.