Interview by Linda Mahal
As part of Stonecoast’s offerings at our January 2021 Virtual MFA Residency, alums are invited to sign up for a special workshop, “The Rehearsal Experience,” with Stonecoast MFA faculty member and playwright Tom Coash and guest playwright-director Jeni Mahoney.
Writers from across all genres will develop their own ten-minute plays (prepared in advance) through an intensive, rehearsal-based process, working closely with Tom, Jeni, and a troupe of professional actors, to bring their manuscripts to life. Writers will have one-on-one sessions with their directors, rehearsals with actors/directors, discussion of scripts with workshop members, and opportunities to observe other rehearsals. All levels of scriptwriting experience welcome.
Participants will also have access to the residency's wide range of inspirational programming, including seminars, graduating student presentations, and faculty and guest readings.
Dates: January 7th (one-hour introduction meeting) - January 10th
Time: 1:00 pm - 4:00 pm
Cost: $1100 or $880 early bird discount for those who sign up before 12/11
Participants will have access to the entire residency (January 7th - January 17th). A deposit will be required.
Email Tom Coash for additional information.
Email Lindsey Vazquez for questions and registration and to enroll. Space is limited!
Tom and Jeni shared the following insights into the theatre as a creative medium and how bringing playwright, director, and actors together into a single room transforms writers and the scripts they create:
How did you first start to write plays, and what got you hooked on the genre?
Ha! I took a chance to try something new. Playwriting was the only creative writing class left that I could take my last quarter as an undergraduate. I thought, why not? So, I took the course, had a great instructor, wrote a short play that got produced, acted in it, and never looked back. It was such a blast. I got to go to rehearsals and work with some incredible people instead of just sitting at my desk all the time. I really loved the collaboration. I was hooked!
You are well-known for being able to write credibly about characters whose experiences are quite different from your own, such as the two young women in your play VEILS. What are your secrets for learning about and representing characters and situations that are unfamiliar to you?
No secrets! I swear! I was really passionate about the topic and the characters of VEILS. I was also living in Egypt when I started working on the play, which helped a lot. I was in a position there where I could write about these topics because I was a foreigner. I could get away with addressing topics that Egyptian writers had to be very, very careful about addressing. I felt that it was incumbent upon me to write what they weren't allowed to and bring these topics to light.
You always hear that axiom "write what you know," and there is some validity to that, but I also think that you should write what you want to know. To write about any characters, especially those of another country or culture, one must have passion, compassion, respect, ask a lot of questions, really listen to the answers, and do LOTS of research. You've got to make sure you get it right.
How does engaging with actors and a director improve your approach to revision and thus the final script?
Hugely valuable! Just hearing your writing out loud is incredibly helpful. You immediately get a sense of what works, what rings true, what's repetitive, what's slow, etc. Talented actors bring the characters to actual life, adding in multiple layers, human subtlety, physicality, attitude, emotion. Directors are also really amazing in that they study your script in-depth before they even get to the rehearsal room, ask you a million questions about every aspect that somehow you never considered, then help the actors find your story. A good director brings their experience and artistic eye into the room with the goal of putting up the best possible production of the playwright's vision. Rehearsals are all about examining, questioning, exploring different points of view, and rewriting! It's so great to be able to hear and discuss a scene, see it on its feet, go home, rewrite, and then come back the next day with a new draft of the scene to try again. And it's not just the actors and directors, but also the designers who are all doing their best to put your vision on the stage. You have a whole team helping to make your script better. Collaboration is incredibly valuable in the rewriting process.
What can writers in other genres—fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry—gain by taking this playwriting workshop?
Everything I said in answer to the previous question...and wait, there's more! We will be focusing the workshop on character development, structure, physicality, and dialogue. Writing a script will give writers from the other genres a very new way to look at these key ingredients. Almost every student taking our previous workshops has said something to the effect that working with professional actors and hearing/seeing them perform their words was a huge revelation. The whole point of theater is to bring writing to life. I also think that writing in another genre can really take the pressure off, let you have fun and try new things.
What does writing for the theater, or the theater itself, offer to writers and audiences during this time of multi-layered crisis and catastrophe?
2020 has been a dark, dark year for theater with, in fact, EVERY theater in the world going dark for most of the year and for some time to come. Almost everyone I know in the theater is out of work. I personally had all of my scheduled play productions cancelled or postponed. Many theaters will close their doors for good. And yet . . . and YET . . . theater and theater people are nothing if not nimble, resourceful, inventive, flexible, and used to working for next to nothing. It really took only about a month or so and productions started showing up online, on Zoom, on people's porches, in parks, in drive-thru car washes no less! We are living in a moment that screams out to be written about and seen onstage or on screen. New types of plays and playwriting have burst out all over. We will certainly come out of this with a new way of doing and thinking about theater. We are living in crazy times that are dangerous and in your face, changing so fast that it's impossible to keep up. Theater is nothing if not immediate, imminent, and eminently changeable. Every performance is alive and different. So, in my humble opinion, it's the perfect medium for what we are all going through.
What do you love most about working with playwrights and actors in the developmental stages of a script?
There is a reason people who write plays are called playwrights, rather than playwriters, and I suspect my love for play development has something to do with that distinction. There is something thrilling about the process of crafting a playwright’s vision into a live, visceral experience. This is, after all, how plays are meant to be experienced, in time and space, with living, breathing actors embodying the actions, emotions and aspirations of characters who have been conjured to flesh and blood life simply by words on page – what could be more exciting than that?
What are your goals as a director for the first live reading and discussion of a draft manuscript with the playwright and actors?
First and foremost, I want the playwright to hear their play, which sounds simple enough but can actually be very tricky. My first discussion is always with the playwright. I need to understand her intentions as best I can. Going into the reading, I want the actors to do their best to make sense of the characters and their choices, but I don’t want them to “fix” the play by skillfully smoothing over things that need attention. Reading this, one might assume I actually know where the line between fulfilling the play and fixing the play lives, but I don’t. I have some ideas. But there are always surprises. Readings often reveal unexpected connections, glitches, surprises, and gaps. They also tend to reveal places where the playwright’s intentions rise to the surface, as well as places where they seem to be hidden, buried, or inconsistent. Discussing the play at this point can be challenging. I try to focus on what audience members saw and heard; this is far more helpful than their ideas about how to “fix” things. My hope is that the playwright will come away from the experience with better, more productive questions than they went in with.
What are the most common problems of a script that you’ve seen solved through a collaborative process that includes the playwright, actors, and director?
The goal of the development process is to reveal script problems, rather than solve them. That being said, there are some common playwriting problems I’ve seen solved through the development process. The first two issues that come to mind are: (1) unnecessary exposition (i.e., characters telling each other things they both already know in order to convey them to the audience) and (2) dialogue in which characters describe their emotions with such clarity and self-awareness that it ends up making it impossible for them, or the audience, to actually feel said emotions.
I don’t consider these to be script problems because it’s not about the script, it’s about craft in a larger sense. Actors are quite amazing, and one really has to spend some time in the room with them to understand how they approach their work and how to best give them the tools they need. The great trick of playwriting is to figure out how to write characters who exist and behave firmly in the present, while at the same time embodying the backstory and carrying forward the emotional foundation on which the present moment is based. Sure, it sounds complicated, but it’s actually how we experience people.
What qualities do the most compelling plays share? How can aspiring playwrights infuse their works with these qualities?
I think most compelling plays are either windows that become mirrors, or mirrors that become windows. Compelling plays asks me to look both inward and outward, they bring me face to face with myself and with others. Compelling plays don’t let us become too comfortable for too long.
Tom Coash is a Louisville, KY, playwright, director, and teacher. Prior to Louisville, he spent three years in Bermuda and four years teaching playwriting at The American University in Cairo, Egypt. Coash has won numerous playwriting awards, including the American Theatre Critics Association's M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, the Clauder Competition for New England Playwrights, an Edgerton Foundation National New Play Award, the Hammerstein Award, The Kennedy Center’s Lorraine Hansberry Award, and a Jerome Playwriting Fellowship. His plays have been produced around the world, including at theaters such as the Park Theatre (London), Portland Stage, Barrington Stage, New Jersey Rep, the InterAct Theatre, Abingdon Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, West Coast Ensemble, and many more. Five of his plays have been or are in the process of being produced as podcasts.
Jeni Mahoney is a playwright, director, dramturg, and play development professional. Her plays have been presented at the National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Center, InterAct Theater (Philadelphia), Greenwich Playhouse (London), Denver's Old Vic (And Toto Too Theater Company), L.A. Theater Center, MidWest New Play Festival (Chicago), Lark Theater's Playwrights Week, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, NYU's hotINK Festival, among others. Jeni has been Producing Artistic Director at Seven Devils Play Foundry and at Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, which she founded, for the past twenty years and where she has supported the development of over 200 plays. She was one of IndieTheater’s 2014 People of the Year. She serves on the board of trustees of the National Theater Conference. The world premiere of her play “Fata Morgana” was the recipient of an NEA ArtWorks Grant. She lives in Merrimack, New Hampshire.
Email email@example.com for questions and registration and to enroll.
Two scriptwriting seminars that will be offered at the January 2021 Residency:
"To Be or Not To Be" - The Art of Writing Compelling Monologues
Monologues are booming in popularity, particularly in this time of pandemic and Zoom performances. Going it alone can be both a joy and a challenge. Monologue writing skills, such as character development, convincing dialogue, and strong motives, are also valuable to those writing in other genres. Well-written monologues are ideal crossover pieces, working not only on the stage and screen but also on the page as fiction, flash fiction, poetry, CNF, and much more. So come try giving your characters a solo moment to shine!
Staying on Script – An Introduction to Scriptwriting
Tom Coash, Jeni Mahoney, and Elizabeth Searle
Have you wanted to adapt your work to stage or screen, start your own podcast, create a video game, create copy for a high-powered ad agency, win an Oscar? What do all these ambitions have in common? Scriptwriting. In our increasingly media-driven world, scripted material has made its way into every corner of modern life. In this seminar we’ll explore the ever-expanding array of possibilities available to scriptwriters, and the foundational skills and techniques of scriptwriting, including: character development, compelling dialogue, powerful goals, and engaging conflict. All genres welcome, no scriptwriting experience necessary!