Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Annnd Scene: Wrapping Up the Playwriting Class
Several times throughout this school year, I've filled readers in on what's been going on in my Beginning Playwriting classroom, an 11th grade level class I introduced this year at my school. You can read about those updates here and here. At the end of March, we finished up the test run of this class with a final production, and I thought you'd like to read a bit about that experience as well as my final (for now) thoughts about why Playwriting belongs in the classroom. Call this my 11 o'clock number!
The Playwriting class culminated in one of those incredibly awesome, end-of-Mr. Holland's Opus-esque experiences. After almost a semester of writing, the class had individually completed 10-Minute Plays as a final project. (Out of a class of about 30 students, I received 25 plays, a superb response for this group.) My teaching artist (a professional theatre director and playwright) and I sat down with the plays and mercilessly pushed ourselves to read all of them. Some were... eh. Some were bad, almost always because the writer scrawled down words without thought or care (including one in which the main character seemingly changed not just name, but also gender). A few were good. And, in the end, we thought seven were both well-written and producible, given the narrow constraints of what we could do. (Kid who wrote the awesome flying car play? I will get back to you once I break into Hollywood.)
From there, the teaching artist took the plays to his small cast of professional actors, who were game to try to interpret these idiosyncratic plays. Thanks to a Field Trip Grant I won from Target (if you are a teacher, you must apply for these grants! Check Target.com next fall!), he was able to pay them for a day of rehearsal and the day of the show. Since we are performing arts school, we decided to ask one of our advanced students to be our fourth actor. While this plan was spur-of-the-moment, it turned out to be an immensely rewarding experience for the young woman selected.
On the appointed day, I and my colleagues bundled the 11th grade onto the "cheese buses" as they are (un)affectionately known, and journeyed to Manhattan's Upper West Side, where our school's producing partner, Vital Theatre Company, hosted the show. Let me say, plainly, that as a playwright in the semi-beginning of a writing career myself, I have attended many, many one-act play festivals, and, like medical appointments, these are not experiences that grow more enjoyable the more frequently they occur. Nor were my students' plays, as momentous in achievement and growth as they may be, the kind of work that holds my attention at a profound level. (If you think this makes me a bad person, then... well, yes. I am.) Thus, my favorite part of the entire event was due to the brilliant decision (sadly, not mine) to announce each student playwright's name before his or her play. This created a frisson of excitement in the theatre as they responded visibly to hearing each name. One girl actually squealed. Another boy hit his friend so hard in the arm, the friend mouthed "Owww!" at me. It was really cool.
Reflecting on the experience after, a friend mentioned to me that it was a shame that the class had ended up being so product-oriented. I've heard this complaint before, as, I'm sure most writing and/or arts teachers have. The drive to completion, we fear, sometimes runs over those small but important lessons about self-expression and creative ferment. What's more, we worry that an experience that might not have ended in a successful product but that would have helped the growth of the creator might have gotten lost. Those experimental times when we play with words (but don't quite nail down a poem) or sketch out some steps (but it doesn't gel into a dance) are valuable, all creative artists know.
At first, heady with the relief that the show was over, and willing to be conciliatory towards any expressed idea except that of "Hey, let's do another show next week!," I agreed with my friend. However, when I contemplated it later, I found myself more sanguine. Yes, "Playwriting I" had turned out to be product-oriented; inarguably, the students who found the class most rewarding and educational were those seven whose "product" was performed. Still, all the students had benefited from the show — it was a time of celebration; a reason to talk to one's classmates; a time to respond as a theatre-goer and friends; and a time to be challenged by what the seven selected playwrights had achieved. I noted one other great lesson: Before we went on the trip, a few students asked me why their plays had not been chosen. After the trip, no one had that question, because the answer was self-evident.
Beyond these specifics, it seems to me that all writing-based classes are product-driven. We can all, presumably, write amazing books, poems, short stories, and essays in our imaginations. The actual product — the writing on the paper, the typing on the computer screen — is the realization of what we intended. Without a product, there's no way for me, as the teacher, to evaluate, suggest, cajole, console or otherwise get at student in order to improve (or, rarely, just praise) the work. Does everything need to come together into a clear short story, novel, or play? No... but it's not so awful if it does, either, especially at an age (I'm looking at you, Adolescence) in which that extra push towards creating an end product is most likely needed to get the car started at all.
Also, I learned how much, out of all the genres, the product of playwriting (a reading or production), is needed to complete the process. The writer needs the actors, director, and designers to fulfill her work's completion. Having almost neglected this aspect of playwriting, I was so glad my students were able to experience their final product after all. Many of my students remarked on how different their words sounded coming out of the actors' mouths than what they had heard in their head. That's the collaborative nature of theatre's final product.
Yes, their final product. I worked at a fine and performing arts camp whose slogan was "It's the journey, not the product." A noble goal, especially when working with young artists, aged 6 and up. No one wants to make a first-grader cry because they're not at Winslow Homer's level. But the experience of watching my students watch their work makes me change the slogan slightly — in my classroom, "It's the journey and the product."
Get Your Play On.
I wish I could claim some great motivation that drove me to want to teach playwriting, beyond the statement, "My new principal asked me to teach Playwriting." But, no. And, though I tried to hide it, I entered into the process of doing so with great trepidation. Not because of the kids or the subject matter, but because I have made the realization, over my many years of teaching, that sometimes those who can do, shouldn't teach. I doubted I was the right person to translate the art to my students.
Well, I underestimated myself. And my students. Perhaps because of my concern, I was more adept than I thought I was going to be, and my students were more instinctual than I thought that they would be. Granted, some of their instinct comes from two previous years of excellent training in the history and creation of theatre, via the great theatre teachers at our school, but I do think that there are aspects of playwriting that attune it toward teenagers. I'd like to list a few of these aspects here, in a blatant attempt to convince you to incorporate playwriting into your classroom.
- Playwriting is mostly dialogue. While I insisted on stage directions for all plays (no Beckettian "blank stage" in my classroom!), the bulk of plays is people talking to each other. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that your students talk to people and listen to people talk to other people. (Some of the most devastating portrayals of married couples come from their sons and daughters precisely capturing their dialogue in play form!) While dialogue at a more advanced level can be devastatingly hard to pull off, for the beginning playwright, it seems almost...well... easy.
- Playwriting provides limitations. We adults sometimes get waaay too concerned that what we're asking kids to write is to "regimented" and "formal." While I am sympathetic, I note that books titled, "My Random and Completely Haphazard Thoughts Jotted Down Throughout the Day Without Care As To Spelling And Such" do not generally sell well, whereas tightly constructed, formally written books do. I also find that my students are happier and more confident when being given instructions like, "Write a poem that has 10 lines and is about an animal" than when being told "Write something!" Playwriting is great because it provides limitations. You're doing the beginning playwright a favor when you say, "It can't take place in a car, or on a cell phone. It has to take place in person between the people involved in one scene and one setting."
- Playwriting allows you to take it up a notch. Because playwrights eliminate about 75% of what makes fiction fiction (again, dialogue is king in this genre), it's easier to look at a play and say "This needs more" and then give it more. Writing a dialogue between a boy and girl, and it's getting a bit dull? Have one be secretly in love with the other. Or the girl needs to tell the boy she's pregnant. Or the boy needs to tell the girl he's gay. Or they each want to take someone else to the Prom. Or neither wants to be the first to ask the other to the Prom. Those are all complications my students came up with after I asked them to take a basic dialogue scene up a notch.
- Playwriting lets you be someone else. Believe me, I know. In my plays, I've been a pastor, an angel, a woman living in the 1800s, and Horatio (Hamlet's best friend). I hope I'm not shocking you when I mention I'm not any of those in real life. (Well, except for an angel...) For student playwrights, this is a wonderful aspect about this type of writing, allowing them to get closer to whoever they're writing about than any other technique I've tried. I think it has something to do with needing to put words in peoples' mouths. Whatever the reason, only in playwriting have I seen students work so hard to master the vocabulary, accent, and style of speech their characters should have. They didn't want the characters to sound too similar. We had many conversations about how teenagers speak differently than adults, or how 21st-century people speak differently than 19th-century folks.
- Playwriting allows humor. It seems so simple and yet is so often overlooked. Teenagers, like most reasonable people, like to laugh. Plays are often funny. Thus, writing a play is a chance for a student to write something funny. Every single class clown loved writing plays because it was an opportunity for him to get good grades (and the thanks of a grateful, laughing classroom) doing something he loved to do. Not many other opportunities for that in the school day.
- Finally, playwriting validates the teenage existence. I find that literature about/for teenagers often is kind of lame, at least if it's classroom-appropriate. I'm sorry, I want my students to read what they like, but I am not teaching those Gossip Girl books. In addition, teenage literature that's canonical is often tinged with nostalgia. As I've pointed out in this column previously, nostalgia is extremely difficult for most teenage students to understand at a gut level. Here, again, playwriting comes to the rescue, because teenagers often feel comfortable writing what they know — i.e., their teenage lives. I love to read plays that really capture what it's like to be a teenager today. We had three of them in the final presentations: one about a girl telling her best friend that she dated her new boyfriend previously; one about a teenage pregnancy; and one about a teenage rapper who turns down a record contract on his mom's advice. All were dramatic but realistic enough to be comprehensible. Most students chose one of those three plays as their favorite. It makes sense. When was the last time they'd seen someone who looked or talked like them on stage? There's a reason why we love John Hughes films.
I hope language arts teachers will consider adding a few basic playwriting techniques to their classrooms. I know that few will want to embrace a full-on class (although more power to you, if you do, and may I suggest you ban cell phone conversation on stage from the get-go... learn from my mistakes). But who knows? You might uncover the next Arthur Miller! Or, alternately, your students might grow a little bit more in their appreciation of Arthur Miller! It's worth a shot. We had a great time in this class this year, and I'm already looking forward to next year. For a teacher with 50 days of classes to go, that's not a bad recommendation.