Your Guide to Theatre Education

David Henry Hwang

In this series, David Dudley looks at the different models of theater education around the country through interviews, with the hopes that a new student will have an easier time finding the model that works for them.

David Henry Hwang is an award winning playwright, opera librettist, and screenwriter. He recently succeeded Chuck Mee as Director of the Playwriting program at Columbia University in New York City. Few playwrights have mastered such a broad range of styles as Mr. Hwang has: from musicals such as Disney's Tarzan, to plays like M Butterfly, which explore complex issues of gender, identity, culture, and ethnicity, to avant-garde operas in collaboration with Phillip Glass. Mr. Hwang has been awarded a Tony (M Butterfly) and three OBIEs (Yellow Face, Golden Child, FOB), and he was selected twice as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (M Butterfly, Yellow Face).

When was Columbia's MFA playwriting program started? When did you join?
I am a new arrival to Columbia, having joined the faculty in September 2014. However, I previously served four times as a mentor to MFA playwriting students for their third-year thesis productions. The playwriting MFA at Columbia began in 1965.

What does Columbia's program offer potential students?
The Columbia program takes diversity, in all its forms, as a core value. We believe there is not one way to write a good play, but many, and value work that spans a wide range of aesthetic and story approaches. Our faculty reflects this eclecticism: from Lynn Nottage to Chuck Mee to Michael John LaChiusa and beyond, we feel every student can find an instructor uniquely well-suited to appreciate and nurture his or her artistic voice.

What makes Columbia's program different from others?
One major advantage Columbia offers to students is the opportunity to study playwriting in New York City, which most would consider the theatrical capital of America. Columbia MFA playwrights make connections, have their plays read, and sometimes get productions with NY theatre companies. Moreover, the majority of America's leading theatre artists live in New York, and visit campus to speak with and mentor our students. For instance, Tony Kushner came to a class on rewriting this past term to discuss his process developing Angels in America. In their third year, playwrights receive a full production of their thesis plays, mentored by an artist of their choosing; recent mentors have included Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Christopher Durang, Dael Orlandersmith, Young Jean Lee, and Sarah Ruhl. Columbia's playwriting program is medium in size compared to some other NYC-based MFA programs. We feel this gives us the opportunity to offer a wide range of courses, while also ensuring that all our playwrights are appreciated as unique artists.

What are the guiding principles of the program?
As I mentioned earlier, our program is organized around an appreciation of diversity—artistic, cultural, international, and in all its forms. We take a practical approach to teaching playwriting, including career development and courses to help our students survive and prosper as professional writers. Furthermore, in addition to hearing and critiquing student plays, we believe that playwrights must have production opportunities and see their work "on its feet" to grow fully as dramatists.

Following that, what's working?
The program has been successful, thanks to the vision of previous Head Chuck Mee, in providing production opportunities for students, including the third-year mentor program discussed above. I feel this program offers students a faculty second to none in professional achievement, diversity, and vision for the future of the American theatre.

What kinds of challenges have you faced? How do you intend to approach them in future?
One major need is finding more money for student support and scholarships, a concern shared by everyone in the program, including the Dean. Along with others, I am seeking new sources of funding to address this issue. Second, I would love more collaboration between different concentrations in the theatre program, as well as departments within the School of the Arts. The School of Film, for instance, has recently started to offer some screenwriting and TV writing classes to playwriting students. Furthermore, MFA students have traditionally spent their third year working with their mentors, but without a class focused specifically on their thesis plays and professional development, which we are offering for the first time this spring.

What's missing, in your opinion, from the current education/training programs available?
It has been a priority of mine to offer more musical theatre classes to playwrights. Last semester, Deb Brevoort taught lyric writing, and Michael John LaChiusa is joining the faculty this term. I hope to further expand training in musical theatre, which has been a vital component of American theatre and continues to thrive today. I also hope to add courses on theatre education, as well as opportunities for students to teach, another means by which they can seek to support themselves after they graduate.

Who do you feel is the ideal candidate? Who are you trying to bring into the Columbia family?
We seek talented writers who wish to deepen their artistic voices, playwrights who are hard-working, entrepreneurial, practical, and nimble in their desire to create and sustain lives in the theatre.

What do you hope your graduates/trainees do, once they complete the program?
We hope our graduates will enjoy rich lives in the theatre, and generate bodies of meaningful work. We understand that in order to do their work, playwrights must have means to survive. Therefore, the program seeks to provide tools they will need to support themselves and broaden their professional activities, including courses in musical theatre, screenwriting, and television writing.

Success stories?
To name a couple: Robert O'Hara, who received the Helen Hayes Award for his play, Antebellum, in 2010. He also received an OBIE for his direction of In The Continuum, at Primary Stages. His play Etiquette of Vigilance was presented at Steppenwolf theatre's First Look festival, in 2010.

And Kia Corthron, whose works have appeared at The Humana Festival (Moot the Messenger, Slide Glide the Slippery Slope, and The Open Road Anthology). An alumna of New Dramatists, Kia was the recipient of a McKnight National Residency, awarded by TCG/ NEA, and a Writers Guild award for her work on The Wire, among others.

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Thoughts from the curator

David Dudley looks at the different models of theatre education around the country through interviews, with the hopes that a new student will have an easier time finding the model that works for them.

Education Series

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