TBA Online: News & Features: November 2014

Write Here, Write Now: Playwriting Programs Around the Bay

Monday, December 8, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Lisa Drostova


The Bay Area is an incubator for new plays—there are several organizations that train playwrights in specific tools or approaches and give them a place to get their work heard and workshopped. Notable are PlayGround, Playwrights Foundation and the Playwrights' Center of San Francisco, as well as several less formal groups that host living room readings and keep playwrights on track with their projects. And festivals such as San Francisco Olympians, Bay One Acts and 24-Hour PlayFest and anthology show producers like Left Coast Theatre Company kick-start playwrights and actors alike to write work they might not otherwise attempt.

But if you want to study playwriting at the academic level, what are your options? How do you build a base for all these exciting explorations? Several Bay Area colleges and universities offer playwriting classes, including some schools that might surprise you.


Tricia Brooks in Terry Boero's The M. Documents, part of The Original One-Acts at San Francisco State University, 2012. Photo: Rachel Golden


Besides location and cost, the key question is, how serious are you about playwriting? Are you considering a writing program where playwriting is one of several options and you can touch on many other forms as well, or are you hoping to drill down? The second question follows logically: how serious is the school about playwriting? Are there classes available just to undergrads, just to graduate students, or both? What kind of support does the student playwright get from the school? While a poem, novel, or essay can stand by itself, a play is best understood through being heard and seen; does the program help that happen, or does responsibility fall to the student to find space and assemble volunteer readers?

At some schools, if you want to graduate a playwright, you'll be doing so with a degree in English or creative writing. In others, it will be part of a theatre major or minor. You might take just one class in playwriting, or have several to choose from; you might hear your work read by your English department classmates or see it fully staged by actors and designers from the theatre department. In addition to Shakespeare and Milton, perhaps your work will be informed by coursework in British literature, the African American experience, queer studies, Indonesian dance, manga, detective fiction, or the history and design of games.

Several schools with creative writing programs seem open to having their students write plays, but only occasionally offer classes in it. USF has a creative writing MFA and had Mark Jackson teach a playwriting class once, but it's a very young program and "if students don't sign up, the class doesn't happen," according to someone in the department there; the implication was that student desire might be the key to changing things at USF. Cal State East Bay has a few options in writing for solo performance through the theatre department, but no playwriting right now through either the English or theatre departments. This is unfortunate, because the theatre program is extensive and could conceivably offer good support in the form of actors and directors to work with the student playwright.

Some schools are more consistent, offering just one or two classes but doing it regularly. City College of San Francisco has a Playwright's Performance Workshop in its English Department that, according to the course catalog, "is specifically designed to teach the elements of playwriting using all the components of live theatre: directors, writers and actors. Playwrights work with actors and directors to create, write and revise scenes and scripts based on workshop performances." And California College of the Arts offers a playwriting seminar in its writing MFA program; when Ben Yalom taught it a while back, he would bring in actors to read the students' work, which is how this author met student playwrights who are now very active with the Playwright's Center of San Francisco and various area theatre companies. So even in settings that don't appear to be playwright breeding grounds, students who thought they would focus on novels or poetry might catch the playwriting bug through one contact.

Annie Dauber, Mari Amend and Doria Charlson's

M2: From Terminus to Terminus, a piece they

wrote as seniors in Stanford University's Theatre

and Performance Studies department in 2013.

Photo: Stefanie Okuda

Dominican University in San Rafael has a BA and a minor in English with a Creative Writing emphasis through the Literature and Languages program in the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; there is one playwriting class that comes up every few semesters. The Humanities MA has several creative writing courses, which include the possibility of writing drama or for the screen. Dominican doesn't have a theatre department, but there's a newly formed Drama Club, and Professor Robert Bradford's Page to Stage class produces a few fully staged short works at semester's end that may include student-written pieces. Also, Fringe of Marin was begun by the late Dr. Annette Lust, a Dominican professor, to stage works by Dominican students. The festival now accepts scripts from all over the Bay Area, but is still sponsored by Dominican's English department and takes place on campus twice a year.

Down the peninsula, Notre Dame de Namur University has a theatre program; interestingly, while you can't concentrate in it, playwriting is offered through both the English and theatre departments, with different end results. In the English department offering, you focus on short scenes and then read and block with other students in class. The theatre department version focuses on short-format work, with the option of longer-form; that class aims to prepare students for the Ten-Minute Play Festival at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. "Students will have the opportunity to perform projects in class and workshops with possible presentations in student-directed projects and entering their projects at the festival." The theatre department's playwriting class is offered in both upper and lower divisions. The English department also offers a class in screenwriting.

St. Mary's College has a serious theatre program, but playwriting is taught out of its English department. It's possible to major in English with a concentration in the dramatic and film arts; Carol Lashof, who is very active in the new works community, teaches the playwriting class.

The UC system varies by campus, but in each case where playwriting is offered, it's through the theatre department, not English or writing, and more institutional attention is given to playwriting than at the schools mentioned so far. UC Berkeley TDPS (Theater, Dance and Performance Studies) has Philip Kan Gotanda teaching playwriting, which can also be part of a minor in creative writing. Meanwhile, UC Santa Cruz has playwriting classes that can be repeated for credit, and the Chautauqua Festival, which is, according to the website, "an entirely student-produced showcase of student plays and films, that takes place annually in the spring quarter. It is a fantastic laboratory for students to gain practical training in their desired area of focus, to have the opportunity to explore new facets of theater, and to experiment with theatrical forms and themes in a setting not bound by tradition or profit."

And then there are the heavy hitters. San Francisco State, San Jose State and Stanford all offer plenty of possibilities at the undergrad level, and it is possible to focus on playwriting at the graduate level.

San Jose State's MFA program requires that candidates declare a primary and secondary genre from the following four: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, scriptwriting. Screenwriting is taught in conjunction with the Department of Television, Radio, Film and Theatre Arts (TRFT).

San Francisco State has a BA, an MA and an MFA, all offered through the Creative Writing program. It also boasts rock-star faculty: Michelle Carter, Roy Conboy, Anne Galjour and Brian Thorstenson. The lineup of playwriting classes is tasty, with offerings like Adapting for the Stage, Architectonics of the Play, and Playwriting from a Queer Perspective. Other classes in the department reflect a wide range of voices, cultures and thought. There are several options for getting your work read or staged, although (much as in the real world of theatre) you're going to be doing a lot of the work to make it happen.

Production options include the Greenhouse, a three-unit course open to grad students that presents three workshop productions and a festival of 10-minute plays by graduate playwrights in a Mission District black box theatre. The Theatre department sponsors a One Act Festival open to undergrad and grad student playwrights in alternate fall semesters and the annual One Act Fringe, which lets actors and design students fully stage 10- to 30-minute plays by undergraduates and grad students. The theatre department course Brown Bag Theatre puts up an hour-long production nearly every week of the semester, with students involved in all capacities, on and off stage. There's a student theatre group called the Player's Club that produces a student-directed show in the spring, as well as whatever else tickles its fancy. You can also reserve a space in the Creative Arts Building and mount your own production.

Finally, Stanford has a robust Theater and Performance Studies department (TAPS) with more than 100 offerings and several performance spaces, including two black boxes. For writing alone, the trainee playwright can choose classes in playwriting; narrative design; script analysis from the scriptwriter's POV; playwriting and solo performance; a Josh Kornbluth–taught course on the ethics of storytelling; dramaturgy; devising and writing for performance. That's all available at the undergrad level. There's no master's track, but the PhD program, ranked second in the nation by the U.S. National Research Council, has funding that will make any theatre artist salivate; it's a full ride for five years, including health insurance and travel and living stipends so the student can devote her full attention to completing "a program with a rigorous study of critical theory, textual history, elements of production (directing, acting, choreography, writing and design) and embodied research."

From the tiny to the sprawling, Bay Area schools offer the opportunity to learn playwriting within various useful frameworks, whether it's stagecraft, critical theory or the literature of different cultures. You can study the craft in-depth with working artists, and there are opportunities within and without the academy to refine your work with the help of actors and thoughtful audiences and make useful connections that could eventually get your plays staged and seen—and out of that drawer.

Lisa Drostova is the public engagement manager for Ragged Wing Ensemble and is an associate artist with foolsFury.