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Friday, February 25, 2011

learning and doing

Five years ago we began a writing project at DTA. The past two years, the project has been a close circle and the emphasis has shifted away from time spent producing work, to time spent writing and editing. Week after week, for the past five months, we’ve gotten together. Writers will share what they’ve written and then we go around the circle, letting them know what we respond to, where we’re confused, asking them questions, enjoying the camraderie and support of this small group.

The Writers Project is not an academic exercise. No one learns how to write a play; they write plays anyway. In any case, I wouldn’t be able to teach them how to write a play because I’ve never learned. To teach them, I would have to go back and familiarize myself with all the terms used in a playwriting class, take some lessons on structure, conflict, building character, begin to articulate my own thinking in those terms..... and I might do that someday, but in the meantime, these writers are here and they’re ready to write.

I backed into playwriting – rather similarly to how I backed into directing, designing, choreographing, writing lyrics – all intimidated me but necessity arrived. Fifteen years ago, either I wrote a play or I would have to turn away a fantastic group of 16 girls and find a lot more boys instead. That rubbed me the wrong way, so my first play was born, painfully, created for an all-female cast. Afterwards, it would often seem that each year I would think of the kind of material I wanted to work on with the company ... then be unable to find it.. and, reluctantly, would haul myself back to my computer to write it. I don’t think it was until I had a dozen plays under my belt that I could manage to refer to myself as a playwright. I still have the feeling of being a fraud when I say it now. And I would also say that it’s taken me fifteen years to actually want to sit down and write. Nothing would have happened before if it hadn’t been all those deadlines, the weekly dread of going into a rehearsal where the cast was waiting for the next scene and letting them down. Deadlines and necessity shaped me as a writer.

Learning by doing is a nice phrase. It hardly suggests the terror that can be involved. The chutzpah needed. To start doing something when you don’t know how – to try to figure out how to get better at it while you’re in the middle of doing it – to know that your efforts are going to be publicly scrutinized and evaluated at the end – people have nightmares about this stuff. Yet it’s the practice of being creative. And somehow your infatuation with the idea of writing a whole play, creating a piece of music, of seeing an idea all the way through to its completion... that infatuation or love or ambition or foolishness has to be strong enough to override your natural self-protective instincts. You don’t know how to do something and you do it anyway.

Downtown Art is basically founded on that principle. I direct, write, design and I’ve never had any training in doing those things. Mike composes and plays gorgeous music; he’s never had a class in either. Our company does things they’ve never done before, and we coach them to the best of our ability out of everything we’ve learned from walking down the same path. Our hope is that their own individual voice – their inner GPS – will hang in there and get stronger, smarter, through the process of doing. Then, one day, when they actually are taught how to write a play they will have the sense to pick and choose from the teaching on offer – to select anything that helps them move forward as original creators, and reject anything that muffles or mutes their own unique sensibility.

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