UW Today

July 13, 2011

Summer playwriting class: Anythings possible, in four weeks

News and Information

Excerpts from the playwriting class members’ scripts will be presented at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, July 19, in 205 Hutchinson. The reading is free and open to the public.

They may not be actors, but playwriting class members are not above hamming. From left are instructor Scott Hafso, Tara Mathisen, Scot Forsythe, Brandon Nevins, Noefel Al-Ansari, Marcus Lewis, Anna Cain and Thomas Dang. Missing from the photo are Miski Ali and Leah Wener-Fligner.

They may not be actors, but playwriting class members are not above hamming. From left are instructor Scott Hafso, Tara Mathisen, Scot Forsythe, Brandon Nevins, Noefel Al-Ansari, Marcus Lewis, Anna Cain and Thomas Dang. Missing from the photo are Miski Ali and Leah Wener-Fligner.Mary Levin

It might be one of those ads you see on your web browser: “Become a playwright in four weeks!” But this is for real — a for-credit course in the UW School of Drama. And though the students wont necessarily become playwrights after this summer “A” term class, they each come out of it with a one-act play, a portion of which receives a professional reading.

Its called Beginning Playwriting, taught by Lecturer Scott Hafso, and nine students — only two of whom are drama majors — are taking it this summer. Most walked in with no experience.

“Its summer, and I think a lot of students think of that as a time to try something they havent done before,” Hafso said.

That was true for Tara Mathisen, an English major who said she didnt know much about theater but that she had a vivid imagination and wanted to “explore writing in a new area.”

Brandon Nevins is one of the drama majors, but said he was a complete beginner when it came to writing. An aspiring actor, he said, “I wondered what it might be like to write a play, and what Ive learned is that its more difficult than I thought. But Ive had fun too.”

“The very first thing I say to the class is that they need to begin with this statement: ‘I want to tell you a story,” Hafso said. “Thats the impulse from which everything else has to come. The playwright tells a story that an audience comes to see acted out.”

With only four weeks to create a one-act play, things move pretty fast from there. After a brief introduction to the vocabulary theyll be using in class, Hafso has the students writing on the first day. “Write in first-person, something about regret,” hell tell them. An early homework assignment is to write a two-to-three-page scene with some specifications. He might ask, for example, that they have two characters dealing with getting out of something.

Student Anna Cain makes a point about a script the class is discussing, while instructor Scott Hafso, left, and fellow student Thomas Dang listen.

Student Anna Cain makes a point about a script the class is discussing, while instructor Scott Hafso, left, and fellow student Thomas Dang listen.E Oneil/U of Washington

By the second week, students have to have a plot in mind for their final project — the one-act play. By then theyll have had a chance to check out the readings Hafso provides — three chapters from a textbook on playwriting and three representative scripts. The first, The Browning Version, is a “well-made-play,” which Hafso defines as “traditionally, a modest story in a fixed setting that unfolds in real time.” The second, The Long Christmas Dinner, explodes time and covers in short order and without a scene change the life spans of several generations, while the third, Three More Sleepless Nights, uses cryptic dialogue and bizarre action to convey the relationships of three couples.

“I want them to read plays with very different styles so theyll know that many different types of stories can engage an audience,” Hafso said. “If Ive done my job, at the end of the class there will be nine different, vibrant little stories being told.”

Sitting in on the class, one can indeed hear some very different plots, as students spend a lot of the class time reading aloud scenes from each others plays, with different individuals playing the parts. In this class, for example, theres a play about a superhero, another about an intrigue involving twins and a third about an unhappy teenager who talks like Hamlet.

Hafso said its important that scenes be read aloud in class so that the writers can hear what their characters sound like. He also has the students do exercises such as pretending to be one of their characters at a “party” in class.

After the readings, fellow students are encouraged to give feedback to the writers. “Mainly we raise questions with the playwrights — questions that will help them understand whether theyve succeeded or not,” Hafso said. “Its very tough at first because they so want to get in there and write each others plays. But then they begin to understand and to back away from that. Our goal is to help each person write the best play that he or she can write.”

By the end, in fact, Hafso wants the class to become a “writing community” cheering each other on.

Of course, there are challenges in getting todays electronically oriented students to understand how to write a play that will be performed live on stage. Some think more in terms of film, like Noefel Al-Ansari, the other drama major, who is interested in screenwriting. “In a film I can make scene one in 1895 and scene two in 2045,” Al-Ansari said. “But for a play, Ive got to think how long its going to take to do the scene change and all that. Its frustrating.”

But for many students the challenge is more basic than that: Theyve seen little or no theater, Hafso said. “They dont have models of how to capture the fancy and the attention of a live audience. What they really dont understand is that anything is possible on stage.  If my best friend in the play is a talking bird, I put a hat on an actor and hes a bird. No CGI, no nothing. And because the audience knows thats not a king, were not in a castle, she didnt really die, the forest isnt really burning, theyll accept anything. And thats the great liberating convention of theater, which many of these students dont quite get.”

Hopefully they get it by the end of the term, when a five- to seven-minute segment of each play will be read by experienced actors. Hafso turns to faculty, graduate students, alums and others to be readers so the newly-minted playwrights can hear what their dialogue sounds like in the hands of professionals. This year the reading will be at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, July 19, in 205 Hutchinson. It is free and open to the public.

Hafso, who is a playwright himself, loves teaching the class. Writing plays, he said, is a calling. “And if I work with students who feel the call or at least learn that they do have something to say — thats an extraordinary privilege. Its an honor for me to guide this part of their journey.”