To bring top-notch talent to teach theatre at the University of Rochester
A program that covers the costs of bringing a playwright up from New York City and back each week
Playwrights love the ease of the commute and working with students who aren’t theatre majors; students love interacting with a working playwright
The initial budget allowed either just a seven-week course or seven weeks of teaching in person and seven weeks of teaching via Skype
Building a similar program for designers
Every Monday last fall, playwright Peggy Stafford stepped outside her home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, at 7:30 in the morning. A driver awaited, ready to whisk her to the airport. By 10 a.m., she’d be comfortably ensconced in her seat on a Delta plane heading north. A 45-minute flight and 5-minute cab ride left time to spare before she taught her 12:30 class at the University of Rochester, 300 miles from home. After office hours and some time to work on her own play, it was back to the airport, grading papers on the return flight, which got her home by 7:30, in time for dinner.
“It’s almost magical, starting my morning in Brooklyn and then suddenly being upstate in a classroom,” says Stafford (who wrote the plays Motel Cherry and 16 Words or Less). “It’s so seamless. It’s easier than my commute by car to the class I’m teaching at SUNY Purchase in Westchester.”
Stafford’s journey to Rochester actually began on one of those traffic-filled commutes to SUNY Purchase, when fellow playwright and teacher Andy Bragen asked her, “Would you ever want to be one of the ‘Playwrights in the Sky’?”
Stafford didn’t know what he was talking about. Then Bragen (The Two Tanyas) introduced her to Nigel Maister, who has imported a different playwright each semester to teach at his school for nearly 15 years. Hailing from South Africa, Maister came to the U.S. to get his MFA at Carnegie Mellon University and stayed. He has been an actor, a writer, and a director, but for the last 20 years he has also been a fixture at the University of Rochester, first as associate director of its international theatre program and, since 2002, as the program’s artistic director.
From the beginning, Maister had both grand plans and a reasonable amount of autonomy. “The theatre program is part of the English department but has its own budget,” he says. The school’s theatre classes have a strong emphasis on literature, but majors also learn through doing by putting on shows. However, he adds that it is a small department in a research school where many students taking his program’s courses come from other majors and enroll simply because they’re interested in exploring some theatre classes.
Maister knew that bringing in professionals to teach would be crucial for the program’s credibility. “Theatre is considered an extracurricular hobby,” he says. “There are students who come from high school with the ‘Ooh, let’s put on a play’ mentality, but I want theatre to command the same attention and respect as working in the sciences. It is a profession.”
Impressing that idea upon students who are merely dabbling in theatre classes while pursuing their “real education” is vital. “No school caters to these students on a serious level,” Maister says. While only some of the students who start out with a casual interest change their minds and go into theatre, the program is at the very least doing its job to “educate an audience—people who will really know what it takes to put on theatre. If we have a more informed audience, they may also become donors or patrons.”
Maister found professional actors and directors locally (he also directs plays every year) but knew that the place to go for a deep and wide pool of working playwrights was New York City. So he began importing them: His purposefully eclectic roster has included Anne Washburn, Zakiyyah Alexander, and Lisa D’Amour.
“I try to find a balance of people whose work I admire, like David Hancock and like Peggy, whose work I did not know well but who was recommended by Andy,” Maister says, adding that he also seeks racial and gender diversity. “And, of course, it depends on who can come.”
Maister hoped the lure would be a stress-free teaching opportunity, to “make some money and build their résumé.” That was certainly the case for Bragen: “I was just a year or two out of grad school and needed the money,” he says, “so it was a good job for me.” (Every few years Maister even secures funding to commission a play from one of these adjuncts; they write and workshop while teaching, and the school subsequently produces it, often allowing younger playwrights to create works with larger casts than normal. Bragen’s The Hairy Dutchman featured 13 actors.)
Bragen says the experience was also different than teaching at traditional theatre programs. “The students come in with all sorts of different experiences and are not caught up in their own little theatre vortex,” he says.
Stafford agrees that the outsider approach—her students are majoring in topics like science, journalism, and digital media—is “refreshing. They are more academic, but they are also really game and open and vulnerable,” she says, bringing different perspectives to their writing. Some do become highly devoted to theatre: One student just told her that instead of preparing for the LSATs she is now applying for a playwriting MFA.
Last year Jahnavi Iyer, a creative writing major, took introductory playwriting with Howard Solomon and advanced playwriting with Adam Kraar. She not only learned about writing but also relied on them for practical information, especially about New York theatre. “They have a lot of resources, and Adam helped me go to the Einhorn School of Performing Arts in New York last summer,” says Iyer, a senior, who adds that having outside instructors makes the program “feel less insular.”
Another senior, Ellen Swanson, had not taken a single English course while pursuing her brain and cognitive science degree, but decided “on a whim” to take Stafford’s class. “It was a great decision—I like what we read, and after having so many numbers in my face all day, it’s nice getting to write creatively,” she says. Swanson adds that the environment “is really comfortable and low-stakes, so we have the freedom to just go for it in our work and not judge ourselves.”
Despite Maister’s relative autonomy, it took a while before he could truly fulfill his vision. Originally, he had only enough money for a writer to come up for seven weeks—half a semester.
“Seven weeks was very quick,” Bragen says. “It felt like I was dropping in. Nigel was right to fight for more—you need time for the class to come together.”
Maister’s intermediary step was to have the playwright present for seven weeks and teaching via Skype for the other seven. Lucas Hnath (The Christians, Red Speedo), who worked under that model in spring 2014, says the arrangement made teaching manageable given his busy schedule. He says he even used the technology to show his students the rehearsal space and set being built for his show at Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky. “It provided some neat opportunities.” Still, Hnath cautions, “You can’t replace the presence in the room as a teacher, plus there was occasionally lag time and other technical difficulties.”
Maister viewed it as a good transition, enabling him to offer scheduling flexibility while showing the university the value of a 14-week course. He says the students were comfortable with the technology—they would be happy to take a class via Snapchat, he jokes—but the school frowned upon the reliance on Skype.
“If a student is paying $40,000 a year, they deserve a person on the grounds,” Maister says. That factor ultimately fueled their willingness to increase the travel budget so that guest instructors could teach in person for the full semester. (The flight is cheaper than the car service to and from Kennedy Airport, he says.) Maister now has playwrights for the full 14 weeks, with Skype still available if the playwright has an emergency or when there’s the inevitable Rochester blizzard.
“Fourteen weeks makes a huge difference,” Stafford says. “The students have time to workshop and revise their writing, and the class becomes more communal.”
Maister gives his playwrights “free rein,” which Stafford appreciated, since she says other schools typically have more formal and structured curriculum requirements. Her focus was on place, or as she puts it in her syllabus, “How geography and location can become a major player in the dramatic action of the play.” Readings included Annie Baker’s The Aliens, Jordan Harrison’s Fit for Feet, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, and Will Eno’s Middletown, in addition to works by Albee, Beckett, Shepard, and Williams.
Hnath taught “from the standpoint of the playwright as thinker—that the play is a tool to develop and test an idea.” He had students write an essay on a play, breaking down the dramaturgical ideas, and then apply those concepts to their own play. Aspiring playwrights in traditional programs had been “more resistant” to this approach, he says, but the Rochester students “were accustomed to academic rigor and research and were more comfortable with it.” (He has also realized that the exercise is a useful tool for himself as a writer.)
Inspired by his own success, Maister is expanding to a similar program with lighting designers, although at this point he has money for only seven weeks per semester. By hiring people early in their career, he is finding they are open to giving students work assisting them in New York after graduation.
Bragen says that Maister has the freedom to implement his own artistic vision at Rochester, and that part of what makes that vision unique is that Maister “views college as research and development for theatre.”
Maister acknowledges that the university’s science-driven approach has influenced him. “It would be unacceptable in science to just replicate the work of others; you have to show the seriousness of your intent,” he says. As head of a theatre department, he also feels that “if you are not using this position to advance the form, you are abdicating your responsibility. I have no patience for those theatre departments that are doing the same old same old.”
Stuart Miller is a New York City–based freelance writer.