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  • Playwrights Teach Playwriting: Revealing Essays by Contemporary Playwrights
  • Michael M. Chemers
Playwrights Teach Playwriting: Revealing Essays by Contemporary Playwrights. Edited by Joan Herrington and Crystal Brian. Hanover, NH: Smith and Kraus, 2006; pp. xxviii + 161. $19.95 paper.

Playwrights Teach Playwriting is a compilation of ten essays about playwriting pedagogy from some of the top names in American theatre: Christopher Durang, Maria Irene Fornes, Tina Howe, Mead Hunter, David Henry Hwang, Tony Kushner, Romulus Linney, Donald Marguiles, Marsha Norman, José Rivera, and Mac Wellman. In all, the book highlights the philosophies and techniques of playwriting instruction as practiced by these established writers, and creates fertile ground for further discussions and debate about these practices.

In their introduction, editors Joan Herrington and Crystal Brian assert that their impetus for writing the book stemmed from a comment by Paula Vogel who

publicly bemoaned the fact that the majority of playwriting books on the market were written by folks whose ideas for teaching someone else to write a play were unlikely to result in a new generation of playwrights whose work would reinvigorate the American stage. Her complaint with the literature and the accompanying dominant pedagogy was that it bred formulaic work, dowsing original voices before the sparks even flew.


The introduction goes on largely in this vein, arguing against the "dominant pedagogy" found in graduate playwriting programs at major universities, which values a "pedestrian approach to playwriting bred by a commercial commonplace" that has "invaded playwriting at all levels—academic and professional" and created a "malaise [that is] endemic and deadly to the future of theatre" (ix). Academics, the editors assert, are unable to encourage originality and inspiration because they are mired in the base mechanics of teaching "dramatic structure" in the service of mass production of soulless writing, leaving "a shelf full of nearly identical containers, the individual voices of the writers trapped inside" (xiii).

Instead, the editors argue, the "act of creative genius [that] has long mystified the mere mortal" (vii) must be carefully nurtured, and playwriting instruction ought to be about "harnessing inspiration" (xi). This assertion is backed up by a series of quotes from some of the ensuing essays. For instance, they note, Fornes says she opens her playwriting classes with a half-hour of yoga (x) and openly rejects the Aristotelian form, which the editors call the "old-school model" of playwriting that creates "dangerous 'blueprints' that may temper the individual impulse" (xi). Similarly, Howe recommends drawing "the oceans and continents of your play" with crayons (133) to nurture that impulse.

But several of the volume's contributors, as it turns out, are actually very much at odds with the philosophy expressed in the introduction. Indeed, more than half of the authors actually celebrate more traditional modes of instruction, ones that place value on a wide knowledge base, a deep understanding of dramatic structure, and a political awareness higher than self-affirmative "impulse-driven" playwriting exercises. Rivera, for example, explains that playwriting is "the manifestation of an attitude and a worldview" (51) and advocates a rigorous process of inquiry to clarify that view and express it in writing. Linney, in his essay "Basic Training," which is largely about traditional mechanics, disparages classes in which students do "exercises" writing about their dreams and emotions, noting that "a great deal of bad theatre comes out of exercise classes. People start to think that's playwriting" (54). Mac Wellman, who models his teaching techniques on those of Socrates, asserts that "really great art causes you to think about who you are and what you are" (91) and teaches very clear ideas about the differences between good and bad plays (94). Dramaturg Mead Hunter's essay outlines the immense difficulties facing new playwrights in America and illustrates the utility of academic playwriting programs that provide practical professional contacts and experiences. His essay should be considered mandatory reading for any playwriting student or teacher.

The most significant and useful piece in the volume is Tony Kushner's "A Conversation." Kushner argues that the best training for a playwright is to plunge into the great works of the Greeks, Romans, Elizabethans, Romantics, Realists, and the radical twentieth-century writers, to...


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