Collaborating with the Playwright’s Program: A Second-Year Actor Reflects

By: Nick Choksi, Second-Year Drama Student

I explained it many times to various family members and friends. I’d say just that, “We’re doing the playwrights project, where we do three new plays by our three second year playwrights” and they’d either smile and nod and ask me again a week later or say “What the!?” or burp and turn away but I saw you, and I can smell it! I forget sometimes that the playwright’s program at school isn’t as wide a currency in the “real world” as the acting program. It’s a very unassuming program, it seems. It’s the party guest that sits near the punch table as everyone dances and sweats, the one that everyone talks about as they gyrate, because someone heard a rumor that they own the building, that they invented that dance move, that they spiked the punch and made this party awesome.

So the program kind of goes like this: It’s called the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program. Gezundheit! It is essentially a yearlong fellowship in which a select number of playwrights (around 5) with varying degrees of experience under their belt (some are produced, published, fresh from undergrad, but most have had some experience in the industry) get to work with Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman, who head the program. They have class every Wednesday, in which they read and discuss from pieces they are all working on. Even Chris and Marsha will bring in materials to read. I was fortunate enough to get to help read a new piece of Chris’s in class two weeks ago, a crazy new piece about a one night stand that ends in marriage, the threat of terror, porn and butterflies. But they work on pieces in class and twice a month-ish we will have an all-division play-lab, in which students from all four years of the acting program, and occasionally alums as the script calls for, will read a new play by one of our playwrights, followed by a discussion with the author, led by Marsha or Chris, all in the interest of developing the piece. At the end of the yearlong fellowship (for which the playwright receives a stipend – I wish the actors did), some are invited to return for a second year as a Playwright-in-Residence. Part of the second year for the playwright is the playwright’s project in the winter, in which a guest director comes to direct the second year actors in a production of a new play of theirs. Sometimes this play will be one that made an appearance in some form at a play-lab that year before, or sometimes it’s a brand new piece that was hot off the printer just after the deadline in December. These plays end up making it into the real world in various forms after their initial production at school, on and off Broadway and even sometimes on the big screen.

Does that all make sense? That was a long paragraph with a lot of parentheticals.

Refresher. Aaah.

It’s a pretty fantastic program. It’s a thrill to work with all of them. This series of new plays we just finished was incredible. It’s an incredible thing to have the writer in the room as you rehearse a play. It’s always been my favorite way to work. Not that there’s anything wrong with Shakespeare or Chekhov, but it’s a completely different process, creating a role versus interpreting a role. The text becomes more of a discussion than a tome, as we all discover together what the play wants to be.

I worked on a tremendous play by Liz Meriwether called “Who is P.T. Butterhouse?”. It’s a crazy, brilliant, fascinating play. The first time I read it I put it down and said “Wha?” and flushed and left it in the bathroom, then I read it again and said “Oh. Wow, this is kind of incredible. I’m thirsty.” I was thirsty, that had nothing to do with the play. But I came to the first rehearsal with such a love for the play, just hoping I wouldn’t mess it up. Over the course of the four weeks the text kept changing as we discovered things, as Liz discovered things. Sometimes she’s bury herself in her cardigan and say “What the —- did I write?” Sometime we’d have a question that would lead to a discussion that would end up in a rewrite. Sometimes we’d get into a discussion with the director and Liz would say “Well, this part’s all capital letters so could you try shouting it” and everything would make sense. A week before the play opened we had a discussion that resulted in a major discovery about the identity of one of the central characters, which resulted (for me) in the hitherto undiscovered through line of that wacky play. By the end of the process we had all created something together, because Liz was there to be the ambassador and custodian for her wonderful play and we all got to mess around in it to see what we could find. It’s tremendously rewarding in a very different way than doing Chekhov or Shakespeare, especially since the majority of the projects we’ll work on when we graduate will probably be new works.

I’ve also been lucky enough to get to take part in a few readings over my year and three quarters at school. There was a particularly exciting project at the end of last year, a “Tag Play” which was essentially a parlor game for all the playwrights. It started with a scene written by Christopher Durang, and then the script essentially became a digital game of tag. He emailed it to one of the first year playwrights who wrote until they saw fit then passed it along. The next playwright would continue on, taking the story and characters wherever they wanted, sometimes in an attempt to tie things together, sometimes just to screw up whoever came next, and on it went through the five first years, the two second years and the one third year, and ended with Marsha Norman who had to tie it all together (penicillin was difficult to invent, I’m sure, but Marsha’s job was probably harder). Incidentally, the portion written by Chris, the beginning, is being developed into a new play commissioned by The Public Theater. The porno-butterflies one. Crazy.

Since I’ve been at the school, since Jim Houghton has been the head of the Drama Division, the playwrights program has become more and more integrated into the division, not something separate but something parallel. Apparently this wasn’t always so. Geoff Murphy, a third year, says that in his first year he didn’t even recognize the first year playwrights, let alone their names. Now the first year playwrights are “orientated” right along with the first year actors, and the all-school play-labs have made them as regular a fixture as any other student of the division.

I can’t imagine it any other way. These guys and gals are pretty great, to understate properly. The three second-year are already having pilots made, films, getting runs on and off Broadway and across the country, and the first years all have sizable accomplishments under their belts and have turned in some stunning work to the play-labs, and the alums of the program include heavy-hitters like David Auburn and Adam Rapp. We’re so lucky as actors to have our fingers on the pulse of what is and will be new in the theater community when we get out of this crazy place. It’s tremendously rewarding and informative to be there to observe and facilitate their development as artists.

Which is why it’s so surprising that the playwrights program doesn’t get as much press in the workaday world as the acting program. Even I was surprised upon my arrival at school, sitting in the big circle going around introducing ourselves to each other, as Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman introduced themselves like they were normal people, not staples of the American Theater and we all took an audible breath and asked each other with our eyes “Where do we go to school!?”