On Teaching as Creative Practice

I wrote my first play under the guidance of Paula Vogel and Donna DiNovelli at Brown University. I’d been making plays as part of a collaborative ensemble with the Pig Iron Theatre Company for a couple of years before that, but I’d never sat in front of a computer by myself and written a play, by which I mean the process where the theatrical event exists as words on a page before it exists in space. I’d submitted two collaborative Pig Iron scripts with my grad school applications, along with an essay explaining the process through which they’d been created; most schools said, “come back when you’ve written something by yourself.” But not Paula. Paula called with questions about our process, and an invitation to join her program. I was too star struck at the time to remember completely, but I think she said something like “come and share with us what you’ve been doing.”

And that first lesson turned out to be one of the most important lessons I would learn from Paula. Whenever I have taught playwriting—to undergrads and graduate students; to adults in continuing education programs and, most recently, to the amazing clowns at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training—my invitation to students is always: show me what you do. I can fill the syllabus with a stew of experimental and classic and groundbreaking and canonical texts and images and performance videos, but every classroom is populated by ravenous, vibrant minds, each working in their own idiosyncratic way. A student in my classroom has as much to show me about the world as I have to show her.

Because theatre is not—never has been, and really can’t/shouldn’t/mustn’t ever be—a solitary endeavor. In our young century, this collaborative, communitarian aspect of theatre is needed more than ever. In our increasingly atomized world, theatre is a place where we come together, where if we don’t work together, nothing will happen.

Color exploding on a background
The flash of inspiration. Photo by Free wallpapers libary. 

In the theatre, we are always in conversation with each other—and we are always in conversation with the generations who came before us, and those who will come next. Theatre stages this simultaneity of past and present; a theatre education provides access to these ghosts.

Today, pictures are a kind of language, and words are image. This apparent paradox has been the realm of theatre for millennia; today, those with an ability to think about language and image elastically have more access to the thickness and richness of the world(s). And at the same time, the live-ness of theatre, its central communal and community-building aspect, is increasingly rare.

Why “making” instead of “writing”?

It goes back to that obsessive interest in process, and the dismissals of “come back when you’ve written something by yourself.” Because theatre is not—never has been, and really can’t/shouldn’t/mustn’t ever be—a solitary endeavor. In our young century, this collaborative, communitarian aspect of theatre is needed more than ever. In our increasingly atomized world, theatre is a place where we come together, where if we don’t work together, nothing will happen.

So I’m always asking my students to think about space, to think about their collaborators, to think about what kind of process they want to foster, to think about voices different than their own, to think about audiences. I’m just as interested in having them try things they don’t like as having them write the plays that they do. Because what does a theatre education prepare you for, if not how to communicate across gulfs of difference? To understand something completely foreign through the act of embodiment?

Well that’s just part of what a theatre education provides. Also: to be an effective collaborator; to think innovatively; to make something where there had been nothing, using the limited tools at your disposal. To imagine something that does not exist yet and to bring a community together to make that vision a reality. Another thing Paula tells her students is: find your fellow travelers. And so I encourage students to think of theatremaking as a process of discovery—not just of ideas, of new and old forms, but also of collaborators and collaborative processes.

In The Presence of the Actor (a book first given to me by Allen Kuharski in his directing class at Swarthmore College; Allen inspired a generation of his students to take the means of production into our own hands by forming companies and making original work), Joseph Chaikin writes, “I have a notion that what attracts people to the theatre is a kind of discomfort with the limitations of life as it is lived, so we try to alter it through a model form. We present what we think is possible in society according to what is possible in the imagination.

In teaching playwriting, we endow our students with just this power: to develop the muscles and the will to imagine the world as they wish it were, and to develop the tools to make it so.

An exercise that embodies all this! (Or, well, tries to…)
My favorite exercise right now is one that I’ve been experimenting with and refining for about a year. It’s about sparking collaboration, about creating a forum in which students can be inspired by the imaginations of their peers, and to foster the peculiar hybrid of collective and sole authorship that I find is necessary to be a writer in a collaborative process.

Important note/plea! This exercise is based on an actual rehearsal practice of my company, Stein | Holum Projects; as a teaching tool, it’s still in the experimental research phase. Please try it, and if you do so, please let me know how it goes—especially any adjustments or refinements you make!

Let’s call it “Catch and Release.”

  1. Start with a short writing prompt. This can really be anything that gets the juices flowing—the most important thing is to yield a fair amount of writing quickly. I usually provide a pile of photographs (I keep a file of photos torn from old copies of the New Yorker and ArtForum, etc. for this purpose, because I use images in class a lot) and ask students to write an internal and then an external monologue for the main character in the photograph, as well as a paragraph stage direction setting the scene.
  2. Everyone shares. No verbal feedback at this point. Instead, everyone else should jot down notes of phrases, images, moments, etc. that strike a chord as they listen to their classmates. They can think of this as “catching” language and image from each other’s work. (Very important: this is not a time for judgment or constructive criticism. It’s not even time for saying they “like” something.This is just active listening and listing.)
  3. Then, I roll out a big piece of butcher paper on the floor and hand out different colored markers. I tell them that their task now is to fill the paper with the notes they took during the round-robin reading aloud—all the moments, phrases, images, etc. that struck them in some way, that they remember. This can be in words or in pictures. After they’ve written (or sketched) at least five moments they caught from other people’s writing, they can add moments of their own writing that they are excited by, that they want to catch.
  4. In silence, everyone walks around the paper and reads the markings. As they read, they should start to notice things that seem connected—especially moments from two different pieces of writing.
  5. In another color marker, ask everyone to draw at least three connections that they see on the page. They should really draw this: take your orange marker, make a big old circle around one thing, and draw a line to another and put a big circle around that.
  6. Finally, it’s time to share—everyone takes turns explaining the connections they saw. The more idiosyncratic the connection, the better!
  7. Lastly, another writing prompt—this one is usually a take-home but it doesn’t have to be. This is the “release” part of “Catch and Release.” Write a short piece inspired by one or more of the connections on the paper (it doesn’t even have to be one of their own), while also including the image you originally wrote from at the beginning of class.

What the students end up with is a piece of writing that is very much their own, but which is born from a collective exchange of ideas and inspiration.

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Thoughts from the curators

Anne Garcia Romero and Alice Tuan share their wisdom on teaching playwriting.

Teaching Playwriting

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FANTASTIC exercise! Can't wait to try it! I love the collaborative nature of it and of your whole view of theatre and playmaking. After all, one can't create theatre in a vacuum - it's always a collaboration. Thank you!

I appreciate your thoughts about how "we are always in conversation with each another". I, too, share that fact with my playwriting students - young and old - and emphasize throughout that what they write is a communication with a larger group. That realization tends to bring about more compelling, more emotional plays.

Really enjoyed the "Catch and Release", too. I typically do something like this in the first days of a residency, but not with the direction of writing with an inspired connection AND the original one. Will definitely try that in the future. Thanks!

wonderful exercise! I will use that/ steal that-- with credit of course! thank you for sharing your ideas and inspiration

Very important: this is not a time for judgment or constructive criticism. It’s not even time for saying they “like” something.This is just active listening and listing.)

Thanks for this. This seems so much more productive than the usual reading of ones work and than enduring critiques from classmates whom might or might not know what their talking about.

So positive and creative. I love this!