Friday, June 28, 2013

Power Up Your Playwriting with Playwright/Teacher Kara Lee Corthron

"The wisest teachers in any discipline are the ones that possess the humility to know that they don’t have all the answers." 
- Kara Lee Corthron

What is your approach to teaching playwriting?

I approach all of my teaching jobs with enthusiasm. It’s my hope that my lively energy will be contagious and through working and sharing with one another, we always remember that the word playwriting begins with the word “play.” I want to guide a room wherein students feel comfortable experimenting and playing.

I’m not a big fan of dogma (I’ll get into this a little more later). My classes function like seminars: when we talk, we talk as a group, but most of the time, write. I have TONS of writing exercises I love to give and I’m always finding and creating more. My job is to encourage writing routines and get students writing to their strengths—while developing new ones. I provide guidance and techniques from my own experiences, but ultimately they will decide what works best for them. Along the way, their craft will get a workout.

What do you see are the biggest obstacles to writers in your classes and how do you encourage them to overcome them?

Time is a big one. A lot of my students have full-time jobs in addition to playwriting and finding ample time to write in such situations can be incredibly tough.  I know because I’ve been there. For this particular obstacle, there really is no easy fix. I encourage them to “steal” time whenever they can. This might mean writing on your lunch break, jotting down notes and ideas during your commute, or—and I confess, I’ve never been good at this, but I know plenty of people who are—setting your alarm an hour or two earlier than you normally would and writing then. What sucks about all of this is the obvious: it’s exhausting and you may constantly feel like your flow is being interrupted. But what’s great is that it will help you build iron discipline and you will get to know your writing habits and needs so well that when you have a more extended time to write (and I highly recommend taking retreat “vacations” when you can), you’ll be unstoppable.

Rewriting is also something that I’ve noticed a lot of students struggling to execute effectively. Understandably because it’s freakin’ hard. I often suggest considering your reasons for the rewrite process. Are you preparing for production? In the midst of a workshop? Doing your assigned homework (i.e., rewriting because a teacher told you to)? The less invested you are personally in the immediate next steps of your play’s progress, the less you’ll rewrite effectively and I bet you’ll hate doing it all the more. Try to keep the big picture in mind. Though it’s becoming more and more of a long shot these days, try to imagine your script is heading for production soon.

To add more stakes (if you need to), imagine your next draft is due in one week. Make a list of your rewriting priorities if your draft is due to be read 1) in front of your class, 2) in your writers group, 3) by Pam MacKinnon, or 4) perhaps someone has recommended your script be adapted into a film so what if your next reader is Robert DeNiro? Look at these lists. Do they differ? If they do, why? There’s no reason in the world you shouldn’t aim to write at the top of your game. Giving yourself such stakes just might keep you from half-assing the work and it might also rekindle your excitement for the script. Rekindling your love for your play, your subject, your characters—whatever it is that drew you to write this thing in the first place—is crucial to rewriting to the best of your ability and will make it feel more like fun and less like a chore.

Kara Lee Corthron teaching at the Seven Devils Playwriting Conference
What teachers have influenced/helped you and how?

All of my teachers have in different ways. (In fact, I think I’ve only had one playwriting teacher who wasn’t great for me, but I won’t mention her name here because she might be wonderful for others.) From Maria Irene Fornes I learned to trust my imagination and that’s it OK to show off sometimes. From Donna DiNovelli I realized how much fun exploring the musicality of language can be. From Lenora Champagne I learned it was time to call myself a “playwright.” And from Chris Durang and Marsha Norman I learned how to write plays—plural.

At Juilliard I began to understand the foundational elements of playmaking and I also gained tools that have helped me cultivate a career. I could go on and on and on. Outside of my literal teachers, I have a nice little list of “secret” teachers—artists that I look up to though I’ve never worked with them. John Guare, Naomi Wallace, and Adrienne Kennedy to name a few. There are MANY more! And I learn from my brilliant dramatist compatriots that are generous enough to offer me insights into my work. Our field is full of ready-and-willing mentors. If you’re open to giving as well as receiving, you’ll find them. They might even find you.

What do you love about teaching?

Not to get all ooey-gooey, but what I love most are the students. I learn so much from them. The best situations are the classes where I know I’m giving my best and the students are giving theirs right back to me. When we’re in the zone like that, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s a joy. And the best students bring out the best in me. I could easily add some of their names to my gargantuan list of teachers in the previous question because they teach me a helluva a lot.

I also love the creative aspects of teaching. I often think of structuring a class the way I’d structure a story: what is a good beginning? What drives the class? What is the best way to end it? And each class is different. I enjoy challenging myself to get better all the time as a teacher. It’s sort of like I’m constantly rewriting and revising my teaching methods the more I do it. It is all a process.

You are teaching a class coming up. What is its focus? What will writers get out of it?

Power Playwriting is devoted to getting plays in shape and igniting ideas that may have become stagnate. There’s a point in the summer, after the July 4th festivities, when most of us get a bit sluggish. During these dog days, it’s so easy to put off writing, blast the AC, and watch some Netflix. I get it. I’ve done it. The goal of this class is to create a nurturing and rigorous “get your play off its ass” working environment. If writers attend all of the classes and faithfully do the work, I will do everything in my power (Ah! I used the word “power” again!) to give them the feedback, the exercises, the techniques, and the confidence to take their plays to the next level. Will students leave with a full rewrite? A fully-completed new draft? It is wildly possible, but I don’t like to quantify development in those terms. What I offer is essentially a six-week playwriting workout. If everyone brings their passion to the work, the results will be evident.

What are some ways that you are different from other teachers out there?

I was recently a guest at a theatre festival. While there, I taught a workshop, mentored a few lovely playwrights, but mainly I served as a new play panelist: I watched a large number of readings of brand new plays then offered some feedback, along with a few colleagues, during a panel discussion in front of the audience after each reading. Most of these colleagues, including the wonderful coordinator of the conference, were super. But a few, who are notable playwriting teachers, repeatedly did something that I do not like. They began several sentences with the phrase: “All playwrights should.” I am not a fan of “All playwrights should.” This kind of thinking is a little bit pedantic, a little bit condescending, and a little bit – well? – stupid. Is there advice out there that could potentially benefit ALL dramatists? Probably. But beyond the simplest of guidance (i.e., behave professionally, know your audience, watch out for carpal tunnel), the “shoulds” begin to dissolve quickly. Our art form is just too diverse to sustain them. It’s sort of like saying “All pastry chefs should practice broiling lamb chops.” Not really.

 There are as many ways to teach playwriting as there are approaches of creating within it. To suggest that there is one way of doing anything is problematic to me. I have many strong opinions, for sure, but I know that they’re mine and not everyone will share them. The wisest teachers in any discipline are the ones that possess the humility to know that they don’t have all the answers. I’ll never forget attending a master class once with Hal Prince. (If you don’t know who Hal Prince is, please stop reading and Google him right this minute.) In this class, a few composer/librettist teams shared work—scenes and songs—from new musicals they were in the process of creating and Mr. Prince came in to offer his thoughts on the work. I won’t get into how cool and avuncular he was (that’s for another interview), but he gave one of the teams a note that he felt strongly about. He could see that they didn’t quite agree with him and he said: “I could be wrong.” It was kind, without a hint of defensiveness. He meant what he said. If Hal Prince could be wrong, couldn’t we all?

Anything else?

I think I’ve said plenty! Thank you so much, Micheline for these fantastic questions! Oh and if you want to know any more about me or my work, stop by my site.

Discount-aliciousness for theaterspeakers?

The full cost of the course is $385, but theaterspeakers can have my past student discount of $350!

Power Playwriting will be Tuesday evenings from 6:30-9:30 on July 23rd, 30th, August 6th, 13th, 20th, and 27th at the Theaterlab. For questions or to reserve a spot contact Kara Lee Corthron at and mention Theaterspeak!

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