Kenyon Playwrights Institute

Photo credit: Charlotte Higgins

Photo credit: Charlotte Higgins

In June, I had the opportunity to visit Gambier, Ohio, where I spent a week at the Kenyon Institute. I was really excited and nervous for the opportunity to be a student again. I knew my students would get some perverse pleasure from the idea that I had homework and deadlines and all the things they face. 

Despite the intense schedule and homework, I was reminded by how privileged we are when we have the opportunity to be a student, especially when we get to learn from great teachers. So, I really wanted to soak up everything. 

On a personal note, I haven't been able to travel for a couple of years due to health issues. So, this was a big deal for me. I had a lot of apprehension about whether or not I'd be able to fully participate, what the accommodations would be like, and probably the biggest issue -- would I be able to eat the food with all my food sensitivities.

I decided to go anyway and do as much or as little as my body would allow. Off I went to Ohio with two suitcases -- one for food and and one for clothes. I definitely packed more food than clothes! But I wanted to make sure I had what I needed. 

Thankfully, I was able to participate in all of the classes and workshops! The accommodations and the campus were really gorgeous. I found the people who organized and made the conference happen to be extremely helpful and kind. So, I absolutely enjoyed the conference and was able to do, for the first time in a long couple of years, what I wanted to do. YAY! 

The conference was organized around Aristotle's elements of tragedy. Each morning, 9AM-noon, I went with my small, 10-person cohort to a different classroom with a new teacher who covered one of the elements. The neat thing about this model was that every student got to study with every teacher, among them were Wendy MacLeod, Ben Viccellio (both professors at Kenyon College and really phenomenal teachers and playwrights), Suzanne Bell (Royal Exchange Theatre), Abigail Katz (the Atlantic), and Howard Shalwitz (Woolly Mammoth). 

Then, after lunch, we had two-hour master classes with the playwrights who were there with their commissioned plays -- Heidi Schreck, Gregory S. Moss, and Charlene James. These sessions were independent of the morning sessions. But I found them to be a strong addition to the classroom sessions. I'll write more about these later.

The evenings consisted of cold readings and workshops of our work and rehearsed readings of the commissioned plays.

If the schedule seems intense, that's because it was! The "free-time" was really for homework. But I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. 

The first night at the welcome dinner Wendy MacLeod described the conference using two words -- "freedom" and "rigor". Rigorous was right! But I came away with a handful of new monologues and scenes that I think will grow into new plays in the future. And I had a lot of thoughts about how I want to revise my current play. More than that, I came away with a desire to apply the "toolbox" of what I learned on all my plays! 

The conference far exceeded my expectations. After the first two days, I had already learned enough to feel like the conference had been worth my time. I highly recommend the Kenyon Playwrights Institute to anyone who wants to learn more, meet other playwrights, make some connections with passionate theatre artists who are working in amazing theatres. 

I think it's good for a wide-range of people, too. There were some folks who were fairly new to playwriting and people who have been writing plays for some time. Even though I have degrees in dramatic writing and I've studied Aristotle, it was a great refresher in some of the foundations of the craft, and I found it enlightening to hear these things from these particular people. Things about craft that I already know (and teach) were clicking for me in new ways. 

In prep for the conference, we were asked to read David Lindsey-Abaire's Good People and Caryl Churchill's Far Away. I'd read Good People before, but the focus on this one play for the week was terrific. I came away with a deep respect for the play and the skill demonstrated in it. 

Two of my favorite sessions (and I loved them all) were by Ben and Wendy. Ben's class on Plot included a focus on the 8-sequence structure, which had been beaten into my psyche at film school (and rightly so).

He applied the 8-sequence structure to The Wizard of Oz, Oedipus Rex, and Good People, and that blew my mind. I knew it fit most films. But it always seemed too formulaic for theatre. Wrong! If it applies to a Greek play and a contemporary realistic play, maybe there's something to this.

He recommended using it as a tool for revision -- a way of analyzing after the fact if your play has a solid plot -- rather than a formula for painting your script by number (so to speak).

Wendy's class was on Diction and Character. She used the first scene of Good People to look at beats and tactics, the arc of the scene, character motivation, etc. And I really loved her teaching style, which was intentional and focused but also laid-back and organic. 

I highly recommend reading or re-reading Good People and doing an in-depth analysis of its plot, character motivation/arc, beats, themes, etc. Do this with as many plays as you can.

I say this to my students all the time, but I don't think they believe me. Doing a deep analysis of plays I admire is one of the best ways I've learned this craft. Reading a play is great, but try reading it multiple times and typing an analysis that you can save and revisit. I really do this. 

One of my other favorite sessions was Thought with Suzanne Bell. She had so much information, had seen and read everything, and had a clear passion for theatre.

I was seated at her table at the welcome dinner. I had no idea who she was, but I think her first sentence to me was: "What do you want out of this experience?" I said something like, "I want to be challenged and learn more." She said that she would take it as a personal challenge to accommodate the kick in the pants I was looking for. Haha. I was like, "Oh, shoot, what have I done?!" Then, she asked what plays I liked, and we talked for the rest of dinner about Sarah Ruhl, Naomi Wallace, Caryl Churchill, and so many others. Lovely. 

She gave us a 60-page PDF of stuff that I haven't read all the way through yet. She also used a ton of quotes that were really inspiring. Here's one that I loved:

“Writing for theatre is at its best an act of transgression — we should encourage playwrights to step over the line, redraw the line, erase the line, even multiply the lines so that we sit up, step forward, strike out.”
— Naomi Wallace

Suzanne's class focused on Caryl Churchill's play Far Away. Churchill is brilliant. I knew that already. But I came away gushing (and a little angry and jealous) about how much she does with so few words. I admire and have so much to learn from her work.

The next quote provided that challenge or kick in the pants I was looking for on Day 1:

“It is a mistake to ever write a play without giving our whole life to it.”
— David Hare

Oh snap! Ya know?! So, yeah... Suzanne's class was amazing. The classes on Rhythm and Spectacle were really great, too. I won't go into depth about these today because this blog entry is getting out of hand! I'm sure I'll continue to share things I've learned over time. 

Me, Charlene James, and others from our group, writing a manifesto writing session with Suzanne Bell

Me, Charlene James, and others from our group, writing a manifesto writing session with Suzanne Bell

I will share one thing I loved about Howard's class on Spectacle. He encouraged us not to be afraid to imagine things for the stage that we don't know how to pull off. I loved hearing this because my plays all pose some kind of staging challenge. My current play is set on (and at one point beneath) a glacier! I think staging difficulties scare off a lot of theaters, but he convinced me that there are theatre artists out there who embrace these challenges. 

Since Kenyon, I've been writing and revising with renewed focus and energy. Go there, if you can! They do offer some scholarships, so don't let the tuition scare you off.