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Interview with Len Berkman & Zak Berkman

Ron Russell: You are of two very different generations and backgrounds in terms of the evolution of playwriting in this country. That said, you share an interest in how playwrights might become more of an autonomous force in our field rather than mere participants in the “waiting game,” and in exploring the implications for training and nurturing playwrights with this in mind. So, first, for context, how has the understanding of how you train a playwright to enter the professional world changed over the past forty years?

Len Berkman: Grinning dinosaur that I am, I grew up with a training in script-craft in the 1950s and early 1960s predominantly focused on what a watered-down mid-career Ibsen might have shaped for an intelligent Broadway audience. I respected John Gassner, my primary mentor at Yale, but I had to fight him all the way. (He treated me with the warmth of a disappointed parent. He so wished me to want a lucrative writing career.) One vivid memory: my classmate John Guare had written a romantic comedy that highlighted the passion one lover had for the purple blotches on the other’s physique. One of our professors exclaimed, “John! Your play could reach such a wider audience if only you’d remove those purple blotches.” Such moments, and the general resistance the training programs of that time had even to the growing interest in off-Broadway (yet to extend to off-off), reinforced my sense that craft, values, and a rigid definition of “wide audience” had become self-destructively entangled.

Zak Berkman: Even with its rigidity, I find myself mourning Gassner’s vision of his pupils obtaining some sort of mainstream acceptance from a large ticket-buying audience, that he had reason to be disappointed when he saw students veer in more experimental directions. Today the notion of ongoing commercial success for a playwright—so they can raise a family, have a life—is so laughable, I can’t imagine a good rationale for pushing a student to aspire for it.

Imagination should feel it can at first fly free of practicality, but in subsequent stages it is remiss not to take collaborative contexts into account. Knowledge of how a theater company works, how a community operates, is imperative, though of course it’s a two-way street, not simply left to the playwright’s interest and acumen, but also a responsibility of the colleagues and company with whom and which that playwright engages.

Portrait of Len Berkman.
Len Berkman. Photo by Smith College.

Len: Yale had changed by the time I returned in the mid-1960s for my second graduate degree. Playwright training virtually stood on its head with exploratory glee.

What I began to see in the 1970s were the benefits and growth of peer support: how, for example, Wendy Wasserstein and Chris Durang became each other’s affirmative sounding boards. This altered enormously any critical clinging to a playwriting “norm.” As the 1980s became a fountainhead for play-development colonies, readings festivals, and the like (much as the mid-1960s’ launch of regional theaters had altered our national sense of intended audience), it nearly felt as though playwrights could now climb into professional theater through whatever windows they found unlocked. Access was never that easy, of course; but in appearing so it also fostered a playwright’s conviction that what mattered most for a play to “succeed” was its staying true to the playwright’s vision (intrinsic to which was the playwright’s clarity of vision). That turn in playwright training and professional development, challenged as it’s been by those who argue workshops have duplicitously replaced productions, extends in evolving forms to where we are today.

Portrait of Zak Berkman.
Zak Berkman.
Photo by Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.

Zak: It strikes me what the emergence of the 1960s and 1970s ensembles and 1980s development labs spurred is a perhaps more realistic, pragmatic aspiration: write for yourself, write for a small group of artists who will understand and perform your work, write for a specific audience who embraces your evolution, write for specific artistic leaders who will nurture and promote you. And I’m sure this impacted playwright training. Now what I’m hoping is that this next decade will see the emergence of cross sector new play development and production—where a partnership between theater artists or theater companies and civic or activist organizations is the launching point for new work to be conceived, created, and shared. This would again shape the aspirations of any young playwright and force training programs to maximize their interdisciplinary energies as opposed to being hyper insular.

Len: I shout amen to your hope for the next decade, Zak. I counsel theater-bound students to consider non-theater courses or majors because we all thrive on the buzz of interdisciplinarity and artist/community fusion… with sheer gain, not loss, in scope, depth, and sharpness of artistic vision. It’s mind, heart, and globe. It’s play and audience both within and beyond performance (as embodied in your Epic Theatre post-performance panels, comprised primarily not of theater folk, but of folks experienced with the implications of each presented script). It’s what Arthur Kopit drew from Samuel Beckett: The End of the World (With a Symposium to Follow). Cataclysm faced head-on by the energy of love and thought.

Ron: As you mentioned, Zak, with pure commercial success off the table, what remains viable is the potential satisfaction for the playwright to reach fairly large audiences with their ideas. Should playwright training potentially include learning everything that goes into the choice of producing a play at our institutional theaters that reach these folks, so as to better navigate their way to the fore?

Zak: Yes, training programs should absolutely be teaching playwrights what is involved in producing theater in a number of circumstances and scales, nonprofit, for-profit, in cities, in towns. Playwrights should never think their work exists in a vacuum unless they plan to present it inside one for an audience of dust.

Len: In my undergrad and grad writing classes, I sometimes salute Charles Ives, who composed (at times) for musical instruments that did not yet exist. Imagination should feel it can at first fly free of practicality, but in subsequent stages it is remiss not to take collaborative contexts into account. Knowledge of how a theater company works, how a community operates, is imperative, though of course it’s a two-way street, not simply left to the playwright’s interest and acumen, but also a responsibility of the colleagues and company with whom and which that playwright engages.

Zak: I think there’s a perception that playwrights who know how the sausage is made or who make it themselves—who learn all the components that go into selecting, funding, and staging a play, connecting that play to communities new and longstanding—it damages their imagination and writing. That there’s some creative downside to knowing the practical realities our theaters confront every day. And I think that’s a total myth. I’m not sure when it happened. Maybe, Dad, you know when that moment occurred when the image of the playwright changed from being, you know, Sophocles and Shakespeare— some charismatic ringmaster of theater-making—to the current stereotype of the fragile outsider, restlessly stirring with inspiration, but easily squashed and derailed by any thoughts of the marketplace, the desires of the communities they’re part of?

Ron: Len, do you know of an actual historical moment that caused this shift in perception of the playwright as someone to be protected and isolated, rather than someone to be engaged and challenged?

Len: I don’t know of any specific historical moment, but I suspect our rightful idealizing of a playwright like Georg Büchner contributes to that. Here’sWoyzeck, unfinished (in the 1830s at Büchner’s death in his youthful twenties) and surviving in neglect throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, the product of a hounded, passionate, politically acute playwright, virtually a century ahead of his time. But what’s idealized is often Büchner’s isolation, nothow much he had within him to convey, to argue, to confront.

Ron: Does this idealized image of the “lone visionary” crying out in the wilderness impact our ability to see writers as collaborative leaders engaging deeply with their communities, both creatives and audiences?

Zak: It’s certainly not a uniform opinion, but there is definitely an entrenched view now —as represented by the way most theater is made and talked about—that playwrights are not wired to be leaders in the room, talking with actors and designers, let alone donors, press, and beyond. I don’t know if this is a product of changes in training, of directors executing some artistic coup—maybe this was always the case in this country, but it’s why so few playwrights are running institutional theaters these days and why often I find less experienced playwrights needing the artistic version of Dramamine every time they engage with a large theater to work on a world premiere.

My hope is that all artists will strive for some fluency in the complex, very human dynamics involved in every aspect of theater-making. I think that increases the likelihood of innovative and compassionate collaboration and of the health of our theaters that serve as the uniting force between artists and communities. But as a playwright who also is an artistic leader, I do specifically have the selfish desire for more playwrights to develop an expertise in the architecture and engineering of our institutional theaters, so they can interface with them better and lead them in the future. Plus, television demonstrates how writers can be leaders in the room; how we can multi-task and collaborate and strategize. Since clearly playwrights are capable of possessing these skills, maybe we should turn your question around, Ron, and ask who does it benefit for playwrights to be less informed about all it takes to produce a play?

Ron: So, if you’re a playwright who wants your work produced at a large regional theater or Off-Broadway, should you take into consideration what the audiences of those theaters already have demonstrated a desire for? What their funders have already supported? Should you research this and let it inform your work?

Zak: I think it’s a slippery slope to start writing for any community you don’t already feel in some way part of, to try to adapt and twist yourself to fit into what you perceive is their sweet spot of artistic and economic tastes. I think that’s begging for disappointment and resentment. It’s just not that predictable no matter what anyone says. Programming at most theaters is such a magic brew—trying to turn it into math is a bit like trying to create an equation for God. Does this sound contradictory to what I said before? It’s not meant to be. It’s the difference between becoming familiar with the workings of a given theater, part of its life and community versus surfing its website or reading American Theatre Magazine and then trying to write for what you deem to be its programming tastes. Knowing as much as you can know about the realities of theater producing is incredibly important. Knowing what it takes and appreciating it rather than resenting it— being willing to participate in it instead of feeling alienated by it—is vital. Because we are in the human business. It doesn’t work when one of those humans is not really part of the entire enterprise. And it’s tragic when that person is a playwright.

Len: I’ll also note that while corporations are not people, the people who run corporations evolve (even when they’re not replaced) just as playwrights evolve. In sheer practical terms, roaming through how a theater company operates before writing a play for that company may result in an extra set of untied shoelaces for playwrights to trip over. As we know, drafting and revising scripts takes considerable time, time in which the economic, artistic, procedural, personnel (and other) recipes for production selection and fit may startlingly travel past many a script’s tightly laced launch point.

Ron: So, in the United States today, directors often enter the field via a series of “assistant 
directorships,” which are often more business lessons than artistic mentorships. As a result, I think, directors can often jump-start their careers by self-producing, and this seems less common for writers. Are there or should there be formal opportunities for early career writers to apprentice, or to self-produce?

Len: Right off the bat, Ron, I feel that it’s essential that student playwrights realize that their initiative in drafting their scripts can creatively extend to their testing out the scope of their dramatic clarity and power through enlisted directors, actors, and audiences that include and go beyond friends. Ideally, student playwrights can serve each other in this regard, mutually promoting and presenting each other’s work rather than strictly their own. This would reverse the pattern of many training programs that honor a longstanding tradition of early playwrights subjecting themselves to the selection process enforced by (even fellow student) directors and producers. For newly professional playwrights who have not yet leapt into what might be deemed the investment market of modest to full productions (that require a project’s securing grants or other raising of funds), this reciprocal playwright/playwright arrangement can remain pertinent, both with regard to inspiring draft-revision (as any phase of a script getting on its feet can stir beyond what reading and considering a script can stir) and to extending theatrical colleagues’ and general public awareness of a script’s achievement and promise. Phases of investment enterprise, both self- and collectively organized, could flow naturally from such a communal play development sequence.

A concurrent early career playwright assistantship, wherein—with the structured arrangements of theater companies producing new plays by veteran and mid-career playwrights (and those not-so-infrequent fast-rising playwright prodigies!)—a playwright of little professional experience would become a useful outside eye as well as observer for the more experienced playwright’s process, strikes me at once as paradisical and fraught with intricacy. “Yet one more person in a rehearsal room,” for many, spells trouble. But, carefully selected, that one more person (akin to a well-selected dramaturg, but with a different purpose) could well embody trouble’s opposite. And could do an end run around one of theater’s recurrent and widely perceived limits: the barriers of clique-driven exclusivity to the discovery and nurturance of ampler troves of talent than any clique can encompass.

Zak: Aren’t all those intricacies and concerns you describe, Dad, true for the director/assistant director relationship as well? I’m not sure how it’s different except we have this notion that the playwright works more in private and the director more in public. A playwright has her inspirations in dark corners of small houses while directors perform their magic in big rehearsal rooms and theaters in full view of all involved. There’s also this idea that playwriting is only successful and authentic when it’s a solitary act while directing is collaborative—albeit often a benevolent dictatorship, it still has the look of collaboration. Why can’t playwriting be given that latitude? Why can’t it too be a benevolent dictatorship? I’m just saying if you take away those two myths then the idea of an assistant playwright is as viable as an assistant director. And wow would I have benefited when I was in my twenties with having the kind of opportunity to learn and engage with more experienced writers in the same way I did with directors like Joey Tillinger, Michael Mayer, or Mark Wing-Davey during my various stints as a young assistant director. This said, who would be responsible for this to happen in the future? Would we need theaters to consider hiring assistant playwrights and take on that expense as an investment? Would we need the playwrights to cultivate relationships with younger writers that result in these kind of relationships? Is it up to the young writers to have the courage to offer their service to more established writers, for them to understand the longterm benefits to this over the short term loss of writing time or income? Probably all the above, eh?

Len: If education is counted part of the payment, an assistant playwright would not receive a greater stipend or wage than assistant directors do. Many a playwright, severely isolated during the writing process, thirsts for the inclusiveness of rehearsal dynamics, of scene-by-scene discussions and decisions. How a playwright handles remaining “on the outside” of her own play’s progress toward opening night, and how a perceptive assistant may become as much that playwright’s script-focused isolation-diminishing companion as her increasingly comprehensive “outside eye” can well (as I reflect upon those times when, as dramaturg, I’ve shuttled between remaining at rehearsals and staying at a playwright’s problem-solving side) have staggering advantages. So, yes, all of the above, Zak, though I suspect that it will take veteran playwrights’ and their producing companies’ grasp of the benefits of having assistant playwrights to pave the entranceways.


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