Thursday, February 09, 2006


A couple days ago, a student in my Modern Drama class stopped me in the hall:

STUDENT: Do you teach a play analysis class?
ME: Yes.
STUDENT: Do you teach a playwriting class?
ME: No, that is taught in the Literature Dept.
STUDENT: I write plays -- which do you think it would be better for me to take: a play analysis class, or a playwriting class?
ME: Well, I would say a playwriting class would be better, since a play analysis class sometimes can feel constraining to somebody who is trying to create, as opposed to analyze.
STUDENT: Hmmm. I've already written a play, so I already know how to write plays, but maybe that is what I should do. I saw a production of "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," and I was very influenced. I want to grow up to be David Mamet. I try to make my plays as offensive as possible. I take people I know and alter their personalities so that they are as ugly as possible. I HATE my characters!

I excused myself: I was late for a meeting, and couldn't stay to talk. But as I walked away, I was mortified: she's written a play, so she "knows how to do that." And she is trying to make her plays "as offensive as possible," filled with characters she hates. And the question that keeps going through my mind: how does this happen? How do these attitudes develop in kids so young?


Freeman said...

Take heart. She was just trying to sound edgy.

Lar Van Trier hates his characters too, if its any consolation.

parabasis said...


THese attitudes only really seriously develop in the young. Most artists grow out of it. She's being a provocative teenager, just let it go.

That would be my advice. I felt similarly outrageous as a teenager. We grow out of it.

And as for the first point... of course she doesn't necessarily know how to write a play having written only one. She'll learn that too, and kick herself, or she won't and she won't live up to her potential.

This little post has actually provoked me to ask you several questions.. and I don't mean the rhetorically, I honestly want to know what you think:
1) Do you think you can teach someone to be a playwright?
2) Do you think academicizing theater has been, on the whole, good?

Alison Croggon said...

I'm with Matt and Isaac here - my son used to tell me at seven, with perfect confidence, that he knew how to drive a car, because he had seen people do it. Also he could build bridges. If she has any brains at all, she'll grow out of it.

Justin Kownacki said...

Everyone thinks they can do anything if they've tried it once and not died.

As for hating one's characters, I have a feeling the prevalence of the anti-hero (Hello, Mamet and Tarantino) has confused new writers into thinking that uncomfortable characters are the only compelling characters, and that what makes them compelling in successful examples is the depth of their putridity, rather than the depth of their humanity. Someone's missing the boat when it comes to What Makes a Story Tick...

I say: let them write their fascist plays. It's a learning experience, or it's a dead end for the talentless. That choice is theirs to make over the course of a lifetime.

Devilvet said...

Not to be demeaning, but when you talk about kids and there attitudes all I can think is ...yes and a duck goes quack.

I'm surprised that you're so taken aback by statements like the one you mention here, seeing that you are surrounded by kids all the time.

Scott Walters said...

Folks -- I think you're missing my point. Believe me, I have encountered the attitudes expressed by this student over and over, and I can remember when I was young and shared some of them myself. My question is: how do young people develop the anti-audience attitude so early in their lives?

A side question that I didn't ask, but might now is: as a teacher, am I doing this student and others like her a favor if I simply smile inwardly and think "Ah, youth!" (Which is what I did.) Or would I, instead, be doing her a greater favor if I pointed out that theatre is one of the most difficult art forms ever, and if she wants to actually learn how to write for it, she should become a bit more humble about her efforts and perhaps spend some time learning about how it works.

Put differently, why do those of us who have spent a large portion of our lives doing theatre, thinking about theatre, and writing about theatre not insist, to every person who thinks because they did a play in high school that they know how it should be done, that they know very little? Isn't this one of the points Uta Hagen makes when she says something about the fact that nobody feels worthy to give advice to a violinist about how to hold his bow, but everybody seems to be willing to tell an actor how to say a line?

I sometimes think we are too gentle with students in the arts. We encourage, and we compliment, and maybe we push a little -- but we don't ingrain the idea that doing theatre is difficult and important work that deserves respect, even fear. (And when I say we, I include myself in that -- despite what might be perceived as crankiness by readers of my blog, I think if you asked my students they would describe me as kind and supportive.)

George Hunka said...

Did my last post not make it up?

Anyway, what I said, in brief, was that this is what comes of teaching writing as self-expression rather than self-exploration, which is a more meditative process. Violinists-in-training wouldn't think to take the Carnegie Hall recital stage after one or two or even ten years of training. But playwrights assume that their fledgling efforts are worthy of the approbation of a large off-Broadway audience.

If I had been you, Scott, I would have urged your student to take the play analysis class; I'm not convinced that studying the past history of the form would be any more constraining than it would have been inspiring, especially since I agree with you that knowledge of the history and aesthetics of the craft is essential to the knowledge of a dramatist.

Anonymous said...

At least the kid takes a stand. Let's not pound that out of her. Whether it amounts to anything remains to be seen but most of these kids want to become as generic and inoffensive as possible so they can be on television. An Angry Young Man or Woman at this point would do the theatre good - provided there's some talent in there someplace.