Taking a theatre class is very similar to how I imagine group therapy. Almost every class I’ve ever taken as a theatre major has begun with a little spiel about how we’re now in an “open environment,” how we’re trying new things and we all need to be sensitive to how vulnerable we’re becoming. In a sense, I think this is part of what attracted me to theatre in the first place. But after a while, the constant affirmations and love vibrations stop being constructive and start to be a little constrictive.
Similar words, entirely dissimilar environments. I’m taking Rewriting America: American Playwrights and Cultural Identity with the incomparable Idris Goodwin. I’m three days in and it’s phenomenal; we read plays, discuss them, write our own material, say the word “fuck” all the time, and generally enjoy ourselves immensely. The only problem, though, is this: in a class where there’s as much workshopping as seminar, classmates (essentially colleagues in a setting like this) shouldn’t be afraid to talk to each other like equals, with criticism right alongside the compliments.
Take last night, for example. We met at 7 p.m. in the WES room near the pool table in Worner to read and discuss some of the “choreopoems” we had written as the previous day’s assignment. For brevity’s sake, think of a choreopoem as a slam poem with a little more movement and staging. Idris had selected some of the poems that he appreciated for unique form, for great content, for wit, etc. etc., and the respective writer of each poem would go to the front to read their work. We heard a piece done with seven people looking at one script; a piece about a family’s secret word; a piece about the conspicuous lack of a “Middle Eastern” box on the SAT ethnography section; even a piece about a high school rap freestyle club. What all of these pieces had in common, though, was that after the applause ended, all the audience had to offer were what Idris called “headlights:” the best parts of each poem and what we appreciated about them.
Now don’t get me wrong here. I am all for the morale-boosting, the safe environments, and the public love, but even though we were only two and a half days into the class, it was still frustrating to continually hear the good parts of poems that were innately good anyway, and not offers of feedback that would turn them from good to great. Constructive criticism in this class comes in code; it’s padded with “Now, I don’t want to be prescriptive, but…” No matter how much we talk about each others’ work, if we feel limited to positive feedback, we’ll plateau.
Keep in mind, of course, that this is my only complaint. This class is incredibly fun and cathartic, and I’ve written more fiction in the last three days than I did all last year. I’m extremely psyched to see what other work comes out of this class and where we go as playwrights while we study the great ones of our time. Who knows? One of us might just be the next David Henry Hwang. Updates to come.