Mapping the Experience of the Student Playwright
My name is Zoe. I am twenty years old. And, I’m a student playwright. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’d like to make it clear that what you’re about to read is not about me. It’s about us: the-not-quite-teen, not-quite-adult theatremakers whose stories and points of view will populate American stages in the years to come. Generally quieter, and certainly fewer in numbers than our performer peers, undergraduate students pursuing a playwriting degree can feel invisible.
In the past five or so years, a growing number of plays about the sticky, uncomfortable turmoil that is young adulthood have come to the forefront. Lauren Gunderson’s I and You examines race and gender politics through the relationship of two awkward teens. Ruby Rae Spiegel wrote her critically lauded play Dry Land—about high school swimmers and female friendship—when she was still an undergrad student at Yale. Still, it’s surely time for the theatre community at large to examine how we train and nurture our fledgling writers.
“Emerging playwright” is frequently thrown around when it comes to development and workshop opportunities for early-career writers, but how often does this term really include students? There are so few reputable, economically sound production and development opportunities that students are considered viable candidates for. As a result, there is an untold number of young people with unique dramatic voices and potential who are being swayed from pursuing playwriting as a serious profession. And, even those who do enter the professional world are often unequipped with the proper technique or experience needed to excel in the field, despite raw talent.
If we expect young actors to acquire a rigorous training before entering the world of professional theatre, why doesn’t the same expectation exist for our young dramatic writers?
It’s no secret that any career in the performing arts can be brutally difficult. But, if we expect young actors to acquire a rigorous training before entering the world of professional theatre, why doesn’t the same expectation exist for our young dramatic writers? I myself am young, and I’m learning. On my own, I can’t begin to face these enormous questions with any sustainable solutions. What I do feel capable of doing is beginning a conversation between collegiate playwrights and the greater theatre community in order to squash stereotypes, and foster potential future conversations.
With this in mind, I spoke with nine undergraduate playwrights, picking their brains about mentors, classes, majors, and the people and things that interest them as writers.
Below are just a few of the points that they made–collectively and individually.
Even the best college playwriting programs often lack opportunities for practical experience. Eliana Pipes, a sophomore at Columbia University, noted that the playwriting concentration at her college, which is nested within the theatre program, is “pretty heavily based on theory rather than practice.” According to Vassar College student John Michael Rezes, his school offers only one playwriting class. And at Yale University, there are just two unique courses.
There is an underlying assumption that we can only write about what we’ve personally experienced. Hannah Leach cited an incident that occurred in her sophomore playwriting class at NYU. “My professor asserted that I ‘probably had some subconscious psychology issues to work out’ when saying that I needed to work out some similarities of plot between two of my plays.”
But, in reality, what we write about is as varied as we are. Nancy Pop (Marymount Manhattan College) noted that she likes the absurdity of everyday life. Matt Zimmerman writes about romantic relationships, while Ian Campbell explores mental illness and black comedy. Eliana recently wrote a bilingual play, partially in Spanish, and is interested in “thwarted ambition.” Alexa Derman (Yale) writes about “teenage girls and Medieval Denmark.” John Michael is inspired by “Queerness and adolescent issues.” May Treuhaft-Ali (Wesleyan College) writes about “female rage.” Jimmy Pavlick (Vassar College) loves “Purposeful spectacle.”
Mentors are vital. The best mentors can identify what makes a burgeoning voice strong and unique, and know what a young writer needs to develop this strength. Sometimes, this comes in the form of unadulterated encouragement: “[Professor] Francine Volpe truly taught me the value of writing stories only I can write and really encouraged me to embrace the emotionality of my writing and not to be ashamed,” noted Hannah.
Sometimes, discipline and structure is the best tool a mentor can provide. Nancy appreciates learning the “What I love about [mentor Kenny Finkle] is that he is all about helping you become your own writer. You need to find your own way to write and your own voice, but you also need to develop a schedule and maintain consistency.”
A mentor can make facilitate valuable, professional connections for a student. Success in the theatre community is so heavily dependent on meeting the right people. For this reason, a writing mentor who is an active participant in the theatre community is especially valuable. “[Mentor Quiara Alegría Hudes] put me in touch with Jenny Schwartz when I was directing God's Ear, and sent Paula Vogel a paper I wrote about her,” gushed May.
A good mentor can be hard to come by, especially at a large university. More than half of the playwrights I interviewed said that they did not have a playwriting mentor, but would like one.
We are self-motivated and proficient at creating our own success. When opportunities aren’t presented to us through our degree programs, we passionately seek them elsewhere. With the support of his mentor and fellow students, Ian self-produced his play Ratcatcher on the Marymount Manhattan College campus. Alexa, who is not able to take Yale’s 400-level playwriting class until she is an upperclassman, takes a class instead at ESPA Primary Stages in New York City. Jimmy is “self-taught as far as the actual writing process goes.”
Studying playwriting without the intent of pursuing a playwriting career can foster universal skills. “I use plays to work things out,” says Matt Zimmerman (Marymount Manhattan), who primarily identifies as an actor. “Being a playwright has informed my perspectives on my other pursuits…and I don’t see a career for myself where I don’t continue to write.” And in the words of Eliana, who is pursuing a variety of creative arts: “I think that having a good ear for dialogue and a sense of different ways of structuring stories is a universally translatable skill. Stories draw people in, and narrative forms are the best way to get people invested in information.”