Those two little words can spark anxiety in any former school child who didn’t have quite enough time to fill in their test’s Scantron circles. (Are those still a thing? Have computers taken over yet?)
But this time, instead of a test administrator, the speaker was playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, and the place was New York’s Soho Rep, where individuals of all ages and backgrounds were taking a free writers workshop in which pencils were still in full effect.
Drury is one of seven playwrights who participated in the downtown company’s Write With Us, which hosted free writing workshops from Feb. 3—7. They were open to anyone—from MFA students to retirees to high schoolers—interested in taking classes from playwrights who’ve had production at Soho Rep.
“We really wanted to fling open the doors of the theatre and demystify the creative process,” explains artistic director Sarah Benson, who conceived of the event with the theatre’s director of new work, Raphael Martin. “It felt to me like a minifestival,” Martin add. “Some days we did three workshops, and the fact that you have so many people coming in and out of the building and so many different tones in the workshops, it felt like this joyous overflow of energy and creativity.”
The theatre’s space on Walker Street was specially configured for the event. Set up in a thrust configuration, the space held a long table in the center, where students could find notepads and pencils; the intermittent hum of an automatic pencil sharpener recalled a childhood classroom. Edison bulbs hung from the ceiling, giving off a warm and inviting light. Benson says she wanted the space to “get far away from anything like a lecture format.”
Martin and Benson invited the participating writers—which also included Annie Baker, Greg Moss, and Daniel Alexander Jones—to format their three-hour workshop however they wanted. César Alvarez had attendees write lyrics, to which he would compose a melody and start to craft a song, while Anne Washburn conducted her entire workshop in the dark and had students bring flashlights. “It was this very sort of sonic experience,” says Benson, who attended all of the writer’s workshops.
The workshops I attended were structured in similar fashions. Both Drury and Lucas Hnath took their students through what Hnath called “a series of fairly relentless writing tasks.” But in the end both classes provided glimpses into the playwrights’ own processes.
Drury asked everyone to come in with “an incident or idea to work with,” preferably something they had not written about before. First, she had everyone write the idea in a few sentences, then write it as if they were explaining it to a 12-year-old, and finally, make a list of words associated with the idea. From those exercises, Drury asked everyone to circle nine words chosen from all three pieces of writing and arrange them in the “right order”–i.e. any order–and put them at the top of nine pages in the aforementioned notebooks.
These words served as the prompts, so to speak, for the mildly anxiety-inducing timed writing exercises that ended with “Pencils down,” followed by the much-needed directive, “Stretch out your hands.” Drury, who teaches at Fordham University in New York City, gathered the writing assignments from her own teaching work and from her colleagues and teachers Mac Wellman, Erik Ehn, and Lisa D’Amour.
“I tried to combine them all in a way that may have been overwhelming—definitely a little bit on purpose to try to focus people’s energy toward one concept,” explains Drury, adding that she often starts writing a play with a large brainstorm. Drury’s play We Are Proud to Present a Presentation…, about a troupe of actors staging a play about genocide in Namibia, had its New York premiere at Soho Rep.
“The first draft of anything I write is so completely different than where it’s actually going to be heading,” Drury says. “I wish I could write in a more direct way—it would save me a lot of time! But the only way that I know how to write is try to think about every single idea that I could ever want to have and then cut away to find what is the most valuable one.”
Hnath also drew from his own process during his workshop, which he called “Writing Plays About Famous People.” Many of Hnath’s plays have centered on public figures—Isaac Newton in Isaac’s Eye, Walt Disney in A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, and Hillary Clinton in the forthcoming Hillary and Clinton, which will play at Victory Gardens in Chicago April 1–May 1.
Hnath began by having attendees list famous people, eventually landing on one to focus on for the remaining time. The class eventually became an exercise in using experiences from our own lives, likening them to a celebrity who fascinates us, then transposing those events onto the structure of an existing play.
I ended up writing a sketch for a play, modeled after Bekah Brunstetter’s Be a Good Little Widow, about Julia Roberts’s relationship with her brother Eric, inspired by my relationship with one of my brothers. For his Disney play, Hnath revealed that he shaped the action based on King Lear, and he suggested that this process, though based around celebrities, could be used for plays with invented characters as well.
“Any time I sit down to write, I never have any expectation of anything being any good,” Hnath said during the workshop, showing the attendees some of the notes on his iPad for future plays. “No process is the total solution. Any process that you engage in to write is deeply flawed.”
The attendees at the workshops were a range of ages and races and came with different levels of theatre experience; Martin and Benson made a very concerted outreach to the community to diversify the participants. Soho Rep does not have subscribers, and Martin wanted to make sure the program brought new people to the theatre.
“I really worked hard on trying to find those people who weren’t those typical MFA-ensconced writers,” says Martin. He worked closely with New York Theatre Workshop’s Mind the Gap program, which pairs high schoolers with septua- and octogenarians to interview each other and then write plays about the other.
Due to the high demand, Soho Rep added additional sessions, having some writers teach two classes, and Martin says many people got in off the wait lists. The workshops were capped at 60 people and all were free. (The playwrights received an honorarium.) “We wanted it to be an all-access thing,” Benson adds. “For many of the groups we worked with, price would be a barrier.”
Catherine Steindler brought groups of her students from Columbia University. As an advising dean at the school’s First in Family program, Steindler works with individuals who are first-generation college students. She has brought some of them to shows at Soho Rep and enjoyed the experience of bringing them to the writing workshops as well.
“These aren’t theatre kids,” she says, adding that only one of her students who attended the workshops was actually in a playwriting class. “This gives us an opportunity to show students, whatever your academic interest is, theatre can be a part of your life.”
For Jane Lam, Write With Us was the first experience at Soho Rep for her and her students at the High School for Dual Language and Asian History on Grand Street. Lam says she doesn’t see a lot of theatre but does enjoy it when she goes. She teaches a creative writing class at the school and is about to start a playwriting segment, during which she plans to use some of the exercises she learned at Write With Us.
“It’s just really exciting to see theatrical material coming out of a lot of different voices,” says Drury, who adds that theatrical writing is a good form for people who are new to writing, as it’s just a way of thinking about conversation.
This year marks the second time Soho Rep has hosted Write With Us; the last time was two years ago, and then the teachers were individuals who had been a part of the theatre’s Writer/Director Lab. Benson says that she definitely wants to revisit the idea again, and Martin says that in the future, they’ll try to streamline the sign-up process and maybe include even more workshops.
“The kind of theatre we’re making is unconventional and doesn’t subscribe to a lot of the contemporary paradigms, like logical realism,” Benson says. “It’s actually amazing to have people in the room who don’t have all of that baggage, who come in just ready to respond as people and as artists.”
For his part, Martin hopes people who participated in the workshops will come back to see a show: “I love to think of Write With Us as a gateway drug to the mainstage work at Soho Rep.”