Friday, November 29, 2013

Our ever evolving entertainment industry

Last night my wife and I watched an interesting documentary called Side by Side about what the digital age has been doing to the film industry since its appearance on the scene a few decades back.  The film was released last year and is produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves.  It takes an in-depth look at the evolution of digital photography, editing, and distribution and leaves you with a keener sense of how the film industry is in the process of going through this major sea change as both an art form and a business.

And it got me thinking...

Years ago I wrote a book (actually a rewritten version of my doctoral dissertation) on what happened to the entertainment industry almost exactly one hundred years ago when another revolutionary invention made its way into the mainstream.  The book is called Broadway and Hollywood: A History of Economic Interaction (published by Arno Press way back in 1974 and long out of print although used copies are still available for purchase).  The book documents what happened to the national entertainment business when feature films first hit the scene in the early 1910s and then follows the repercussions up through and including a second shock wave when television took the country by storm in the 1950s and 1960s.

With all of us in the midst of our current digital upheaval, sometimes it's informative to take a look at what's happened in the past when technological advances sent shock waves through the industry and changed the way the world consumed its entertainment.  Way back in the last century the changes were profound and they vastly influenced the kinds of stories being written and produced.

At the dawn of the Twentieth Century the theatre ruled the entertainment business.  Hundreds of stage productions were touring the country every week through circuits of interconnected theatre chains.  The theatre was the entertainment industry.  But then in 1912 the first feature or multi-reel film was screened with enormous success in New York City and within a handful of years feature films completely took over supplying the lowest common denominator fare for the national audience with its insatiable appetite for entertaining stories.

As a result, the theatre turned in on itself and began producing far more sophisticated plays for a far more sophisticated New York City audience.  Suddenly playwrights were liberated and the towering talents of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and many others gave birth to modern American dramatic literature.  The Dramatist Guild was formed and playwrights organized to protect themselves and their work from the much more powerful and well heeled Hollywood studios that were constantly on the prowl for new material and were trying to make the theatre into a script mill for their west coast film factories.

And then a second revolution hit in the 1950s as television began taking the country by storm and this time the film business had to make a major adjustment as to the kinds of movies people were still willing to go out of their homes and into theatres to experience.  Hence the advent of much more sophisticated and daring films in the 1960s.  And look what's been happening to television over the last two decades as cable networks have been increasingly taking over...

Of course, none of these movements happened overnight, but it's clear by looking to our past that the ongoing technological advances in the industry have played a huge role in the kinds of stories being produced in each medium as audiences have become increasingly specialized and fragmented.

And today we're in the middle of yet another sea change.  The digital age is having and will continue to have a profound influence not only on how work is produced, but also on the kinds of stories being put out there.

But, in the end, it's all just part of the ongoing evolution of the entertainment industry.

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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I'm the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art  (applications currently being accepted for our June 2014 residency).                   

Friday, November 22, 2013

Interesting articles on script writing

I came across this article in Variety on "first time" scriptwriters that I think you'll find interesting.  It goes through many screenwriters' experiences with writing their first produced screenplay.  What I find most informative is the variety of approaches and how all these writers have come to screenwriting from different places.  And it shows how the writing process is truly an individual thing--something that every writer ultimately has to figure out for him or herself.

And today Variety ran this article on screenwriters working on projects with star actors.  As you'll see this can be a risky business.  Some good tips on what to avoid among other things.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I'm the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art  (applications currently being accepted for our January 2014 residency).                   

Friday, November 15, 2013

The successful script writer's secret weapon

So now it's the middle of November.  All last summer you mulled over this promising new idea for a play or screenplay and since the week after Labor Day you've been working on turning that idea into an actual draft.

How you doing?  Got that draft in hand?  Are you excited by the progress you've made?  As Woody Allen has been known to say, "the hardest thing about writing is getting from nothing to a first draft" and I can't think of a writer I know who would disagree with that statement.  But it's the getting there that often proves the killer.  After all the preliminary story structure and exploratory character work is done, it's the sitting down and actually writing the damn thing that so often remains elusive and can seem forever out of reach.

In the end, the secret to arriving at that completed draft is simple.  It's called discipline.

This sometimes scary concept comes naturally to some and is a constant struggle for others.  But it's worth stating the obvious:  one way or another all successful playwrights and screenwriters have found a way to sit themselves down on a regular basis and turn out pages day after day, week after week, and year after year.

It may be painful, even agonizing, to order your body into your writing room and force your mind and fingers to crank up yet again, but this is the only way scripts get written.  You've got to produce actual pages.  Lots of them.  One at a time.  Steadily.  Stubbornly.  With determination.  Sometimes with gritted teeth.  Sometimes with great pleasure.  Page after page after after day after day....  There's no other way.

This takes a serious commitment to the task at hand--setting up a regular, consistent work schedule and sticking to it; writing every day of the work week if possible, even if you can only snatch an hour or two per session.  You already know what your limits are per day.  I can go about four hours tops.  Usually after three I start to fade.  Some writers I know can go for six or more.  Some even eight or ten.  I don't know how they do it, but more power to them.  So whatever works for you, fit it into your life and keep plugging away on a daily basis.

The late and very successful playwright Wendy Wasserstein, once admitted to me that she has a struggle with discipline.  She put it this way: "I think I'm innately a very undisciplined writer.  I'll be distracted by anything, basically.  I take phone calls, I speak too many places.  But finally when I think this is too much, I can't do this any more, I must write, I'll then set aside time and say, "Wendy, every day for X amount of hours you'll be in a room writing, no telephone, you must do this or otherwise you're going to go mad."  So that's what happens.... it really takes discipline."
And playwright Terrence McNally explained: "I have to sit at my desk to work.  I'd love to pretend that while I'm driving or while I'm shopping I'm working.  I'm not.  I'm shopping, I'm driving.  I have to sit there and look at that screen.  And not talk on the phone.  You have to be really grown up and put the answering machine on monitor and turn the volume down.  And when friends say 'I have tickets for...' say 'No.' ....Once you start a play it's an enormous emotional, physical, spiritual commitment.  It's a big thing to write a play."

And playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley:  "At a certain point I had a job, so I had to get up at five o'clock every morning and write for three hours, and then I would go to work.  That went on for a year, and during that year I learned the discipline of being a writer.  Because there's nothing else going on at five o'clock in the morning...My only rule was that I had to be sitting at that typewriter.  I didn't care if I wrote anything or, if I did, what it was.  Just so long as I was sitting at the typewriter, then I was writing.  So I created a space and habit in my life with that."

One of my biggest ongoing disappointments as a teacher of playwriting and screenwriting is recognizing genuine talent in someone and then discovering that the commitment isn't there.  Without that writer discipline, even a towering gift lies dormant.

So soldier up and finish that draft.  

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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I'm the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art  (applications currently being accepted for our January 2014 residency).                   

Monday, November 11, 2013

Career sustainability for the script writer

Except for a handful of playwrights and screenwriters in this country, so-called "professional" script writers are faced with an ongoing sustainability issue in their careers.

At the top of the list of goals for any writer for the stage or screen is to get his or her work produced. This, without question, is (or should be) the prime motivator for tackling time and again the task of writing one viable and producible script after another.  Needless to say, this is an arduous and long term undertaking involving total commitment and a persistent never-say-die attitude as works are released into the world and forced to face the gauntlet of the gatekeepers.  And the most legitimate (albeit oftentimes resentful) measure of "success" in the script writing arena is having those works land well received professional productions on a consistent basis.

Friday, November 1, 2013

An MFA script writing program that works

As many of you know, I am (among other things) the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  The program was launched this past June with our first 10-day residency in Peterborough, NH with an entering class of exceptionally talented students from NYC, Los Angeles, and Canada.

What I find most gratifying about the program is the wonderful (and I might even say amazing) progress our student writers are making on their projects this semester.  At our June residency we discussed at length multiple story ideas for feature-length projects pitched by each student.  Much give-and-take and idea sharing ensued and determinations were made as to which project each student would concentrate on as his or her major writing focus for the semester.  The residency also included intensive course work, all of which in one way or another was geared to laying out the tools needed for strong story development. Then, at the end of the residency, each student was assigned a mentor for the semester--a faculty member who had been working closely with the student at the residency.

As the adviser for all the student writers, I've seen the exciting progress that's being made. It's clear at this point in the semester that all students will have a strong working draft of a feature-length screenplay completed by early December.  Then, at the next residency that runs January 3-12, the scripts will be tested and given voice with actors.  And another major project for the second semester will be analyzed and discussed with our faculty of established professional writers who will also be working with the students on expanded exercises and additional course work.

I'm delighted the way that the low-residency approach to the MFA works so well for writers--coming together with fellow scribes for intensive work for a short period and then going off into their own life to write with the guidance of a mentor.  And I urge anyone reading this post to take a look at our website, and if you've been thinking about getting an MFA in playwriting and /or screenwriting to consider joining us.  The application deadline for our January residency is November 28th.  I can guarantee you'll be embarking on an exciting journey.

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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I'm the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art (applications currently being accepted for our January 2014 residency).                 

Friday, October 25, 2013

The experimental evolution of a script

My independent film company Either/Or Films recently produced a low-budget feature here in New Hampshire called Only Daughter.  A more accurate description might be "micro-budget," seeing the film was made for $20,000, almost all of it raised on IndieGoGo.   The film is currently making the rounds of several film festivals and last weekend won the Best Screenplay and Best Actor awards at the Orlando Film Festival and Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actress awards on "New Hampshire Night" at the New Hampshire Film Festival in Portsmouth.

What's interesting about the project from the writer's POV is that, although the actual screenplay was written (and the film directed) by my producing partner, Aaron Wiederspahn, it was developed by him and the principle actors over a period of several weeks.  This group got together on a regular basis and worked with the story idea and improvised possible scenes, trying various approaches to the developing material.  Then after this extensive group exploration, Aaron went off and wrote the actual script that was shot.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Your script and the art of carrot dangling

For more years than I care to remember, I have worked with playwrights and screenwriters on developing techniques that will help them create lively, compelling dialogue.  In many ways a writer's ear for good dialogue is simply there or not--an aspect of his or her raw talent that can't be taught or learned.  But there a few principles of good dialogue writing that I continue to put forth.  And there's one that seems to especially resonate with writers struggling to get better at their craft.  I call it the Art of Carrot Dangling.

Some years ago I asked my artist daughter to come up with a sketch that could help illustrate what I mean by such a term.  This is what she came up with:

Silly as this diagram might look, I think it holds a basic truth about the mechanics of how a script (both dialogue and descriptions of action) should function with an audience once it's brought to life in performance on the stage or screen.  You, the writer, are the driver of a horse-drawn wagon full of vegetables (the "goods" of the script) who's expertly manipulating a carrrot (the script in performance) tied to a long pole in front of the horse's nose (the audience)--the purpose of which is to keep the wagon moving to a stable down the road (your destination) so the horse can be fed the whole wagonload of vegetables (the story's ideas and content; what you ultimately want to communicate).

Monday, October 14, 2013

A successful scriptwriting workshop

This past summer I flew out to Santa Fe for the week-long Glen West Workshop run by Image Journal, a literary and arts quarterly currently in its 25th year. Over two hundred writers and other artists gathered to share their work and creative ideas in a glorious setting high on the New Mexico plateau.  Although the elevation of 7,000 feet set me back for a couple of days (my meager 2,000 feet in New England didn't give me a running chance not to be affected), it was the script writing workshop that I was invited to run that truly kept me going.  I thought it'd be interesting to share why it was so productive.

My approach to the workshop was to have all nine of my participating writers arrive the first day of the class with two or three story ideas--ideas that as of yet were not really developed beyond a simple description of a couple of sentences or a short paragraph.  That was it.  No writing samples to share or finished scripts to dissect or discuss and analyze.  Just a couple of simply stated story ideas that each student had a strong hunch might be something they'd like to develop into a play or screenplay.

We spent the first few days going around the room breaking down each idea into the basic structural components that in one way or another have to be present in any good script:
     --a single central character
     --his or her dominant want and need
     --the other principle characters that have to be in the story
     --the major conflict that the central character is facing that sets up his or her primary dilemma
     --how that conflict manifests itself in action
     --how the conflict is ultimately resolved
     --how the central character is changed by the end of the tale
     --and stating what the premise of the story might be (the statement it is ultimately making)

Friday, October 4, 2013

When a script doesn't do its job

The other night some friends and I watched writer/director Rahmin Bahrani's 2012 film At Any Price, an official selection at the Toronto, Venice, and Telluride film festivals and starring Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron.  The story centers on a farmer in the Midwest who is involved in somewhat shady dealings wtth GMO seed sales and the big companies supplying them.  It's also a father/son story with the boy not wanting to follow in his father's footsteps as a farmer and instead become a race car driver.  As stories go, there are many twists and turns, but the movie ultimately doesn't work.

So why is this worth writing about?  Because it is an excellent example of what not to do with a screenplay.  And as Edward Albee, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, once told me, sometimes you can learn a lot by studying why a project doesn't lift off.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Motor of Your Script

Raise the hood of any play or screenplay and you should see its motor staring back at you.  And without a doubt, in the vast majority of cases, that motor is the script's central character and his or her main want and/or need that somehow has to be satisfied.  This is what drives the story from the beginning to the end of the journey, what pushes it forward and gives it ongoing momentum.  

Just this week I've been struck again with how critical this basic tenet of good script writing is.  I've been reading a client's screenplay that is filled with wonderful moments and lovable characters. Clever and witty humor abounds.  But the story never fully springs to life and gets me entirely engaged in the first act because the writer has not clearly defined the main external want and dominating internal need of the central character.  I found myself not being able to focus on the story and get swept up in it's unfolding early on because the motor was not yet firing on all pistons.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Where Script Writing Begins...

I've been struck again recently with the degree to which playwrights and screenwriters I work with often tend to be unaware of, downplay, or largely ignore the importance of pre-writing work before going to draft.  Talented as they are, a number of my script consulting clients and students in the MFA program I run are not adequately familiar with the pre-writing tools available to them and that are, in my opinion, essential for thorough character exploration and for laying the structural groundwork for any good script.

There are a number of basic principles that need to be embraced as you plunge into a new project, all of which point to the importance of undertaking extensive pre-writing work:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Finding out more about our MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, the New Hampshire Institute of Art is offering a new 2-year low-residence MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen run by yours truly.

Launched with great success this past June with a stellar faculty of established professional writers and students from NYC, Los Angeles, and Canada, this is a unique hands-on graduate program designed to guide a small number of talented student writers through an intensive process-oriented approach to the writing of plays and screenplays.  See my recent post below for a rundown on our first residency.

The next residency is this coming January 3-12 and we're actively seeking to add a small number of new student writers to our "family" when we reconvene as a group.  The application deadline for new students interested in joining us is the end of November.

Held in the historic and culturally alive New England village of Peterborough, New Hampshire, each of the five ten-day residences over the two-year program are designed as script laboratories utilizing a collected ensemble of theatre and film professionals to test and give voice to student work and offer intensive courses and workshops in various aspects of the craft and profession.

Between residencies students work on writing projects throughout each of the four semesters under the supervision of established writer/mentors drawn from the professional theatre and film worlds.

If you're in New England or happen to be in the area in the coming weeks, you can find out more at one of the following upcoming information/open house sessions:

Saturday, September 14th, 10-11:30 am--Sharon Arts Center Gallery, 30 Grove Street, Peterborough, NH

Tuesday, October 15th, 6-7:30 pm--Panopticon Gallery, Hotel Commonwealth, 502c Commonwealth Ave., Boston

Tuesday, October 22nd, 6-7:30 pm--Sharon Arts Center Gallery, 30 Grove Street, Peterborough, NH

Saturday, October 26th, 10-11:30 am--Amherst Street Gallery, 77 Amherst Street, Manchester, NH

To register for one of these info sessions:

Call:  603-836-2522

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Launching a New MFA Program in Writing for Stage and Screen

The last ten days of June were a special adventure for me and a talented group of writers.  In the beautiful and culturally alive village of Peterborough, New Hampshire we launched a new low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  I’m happy to report that the launch was a big success.

With a small number of students hailing from New York City, Los Angeles, and Canada and a faculty of established working professional writers, we gathered together to explore the process of developing stories for the stage and screen.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sharing Your Script For The First Time: Part 2

Continuing our discussion...

Once you've located your initial readers and they've agreed to the task, expect to wait a while before hearing from them.  For most people, reading a first draft of a friend's play is a big order.  They'll take this very seriously and wait until they can clear a morning or afternoon or evening for the task--something that, for almost all of us, takes time to pull off.

Once they've read your play, set up separate, one-on-one sessions with each of them.  The last thing you want is for them to hear each other's reactions as they're attempting to tell you their own.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Sharing Your Script For The First Time, Part 1

I can’t stress enough how important the very first sharing of your work is.  You’re about to cross a line in the life of your project that you can’t ever cross back over.   Outside input will now enter your creative process for the first time.  And it’s going to have an impact, positive or negative or both.  It’s going to reshape how you think about your script.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The rewriting process: scanning your script

Here’s another simple little exercise that you might add to your arsenal:  

Before releasing your new play or screenplay to anyone for the first time and after you think you've made all necessary revisions and the script really works for you from beginning to end, I suggest you take your rewriting process one step further.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Beginning the rewriting process: Keeping your script to yourself

As you enter the initial phase of rewriting your first draft, it's important that you resist the often times compelling urge to share your work with others.  That day will come soon enough.  Now more than ever as you proceed with this first examination of the draft, you still need to protect that private relationship between you and your script.  It's your impressions at this point that are the most important.  Your reactions.  Your ideas for changes.  I realize that the urge to share, to get the opinions of respected, trusted friends can be almost overpowering at this point.  You want to know how others respond, what they think, what they understand and don't understand.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The First Draft of Your Script: Getting Some Distance

A finished first draft is like a freshly baked pie.  When you first take it out of the oven you have to put it on the rack to cool.  If you try cutting a piece hot, it falls apart, the insides oozing out as you attempt putting the piece on a plate.  If you try tasting it, your tongue gets burned.
It's mysterious how this works, but distancing yourself from a finished first draft is absolutely essential.  The degree of objectivity gained with even a few days of cooling off helps enormously as you go back to appraise what you've come up with.
More often than not, when you finish writing that final page, that negative voice will have grown from a whisper to a shout.  However loud it may be, resist concluding that what you've written is terrible.  Realize these feelings are normal.  There’s also the outside chance the opposite may happen and you're so excited about what you've written you can barely contain yourself.  Or you may be somewhere in the middle, uncertain as to its merits.
Whatever your feelings are toward that stack of pages, however, the worst thing you can do is to immediately start reworking them.  You need, instead, to put your newborn draft away and totally forget about it for awhile.  Two weeks to a month will permit you to gain some distance, but some writers need much more time.  During this break try to engage yourself in some other all-consuming project, perhaps even starting work on another play.  Or, as Marsha Norman suggests, "You should just find wonderful things to read between the time you put the play away and the next time you pick it up.  You should fill your mind up with other language, other characters' concerns."
I also highly recommend that you still don't share your work with anyone else even though the urge to do so now that you have a completed draft is often compelling.  During this cooling off time you and your play are still incubating together.  It should still be a private process.  Getting input from others now could forever destroy that special, intimate, personal relationship you've been nurturing.  So fight off the impulse to share your play quite yet.  You'll be happy you did when you come back to it.
Usually what happens when you return to your draft after such a distancing period is that it'll surprise you.  If you hated it when you put it away, now it'll most likely read  better than you thought it would.  If you loved it, now it'll probably be obvious that it needs more work.  The point here is that your ability to judge its merits can only really be trusted if you've allowed yourself to gain some objectivity and the only way you can achieve that is to put it on the rack and let it cool off for a while.  I've never encountered an exception to this.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Film Festival Magic

Last weekend I attended a new film festival in the heart of New England called the Monadnock International Film Festival named after the famous mountain that looms over the region.   Put together by a group of dedicated folks who simply decided they wanted to celebrate the artform, this three-day inaugural event was nothing less than a blowout success.
Held in Keene, New Hampshire, it became quickly apparent that this seemingly modest attempt at pulling off a new film festival was turning into something much more.  Public support was amazing.  Every screening was standing room only.  So were the panel discussions.  As were all the downtown after parties.  Ticket and pass-holder lines for closing night went around the corner from the main venue and stretched on for over a hundred yards back into a parking lot. I was amazed (as were many others) at the overflow crowds for every item on the program.  Throughout the festival, there was a special and highly charged energy that was clearly felt by everyone attending. 
The culminating screening on Saturday night was the pre-television release of Ken Burn’s powerful documentary The Central Park Five to be broadcast nation-wide on PBS next week on Tuesday, April 16th.   Burns, who with his daughter and son-in-law, wrote and directed the film, was there in person to receive a special award.  And along with two of the men whose story was being told in the film (Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam), Burns took part in a stimulating Q and A with a packed house of over 900 people who to a person stayed for over an hour after the final credits rolled to discuss the film. 

As I sat in the last row of the old restored Colonial Theatre in downtown Keene that night, I was struck yet again at the power of film when it is screened for a flesh and blood live audience.  And how this was proven again and again with every screening I attended during the festival.  I was reminded of the continued hunger that people obviously have to gather together as a special community for a brief time to experience a work of art.  Live theatre offers this special coming together, but so does cinema. 

With all the talk and speculation about how the digital age is rapidly eliminating the desire or need for people to see films in theatres, this festival was, in a sense, an answer back.  Or, maybe more accurately, a shout back, saying that the movie theatre experience still has life in it and that cinema is only fully realized when that community of audience is there experiencing as one the unfolding of a film’s story. 

So I send out my own shout to the Monadnock International Film Festival with a loud BRAVO!  And for reminding me and everyone else who was lucky enough to be a part of this event that there is still real magic to be found in going out to the movies.    

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Too Many MFA Programs in Playwriting and Screenwriting...?

Yesterday I came across a comment in a LinkedIn discussion that suggested that there are too many MFA programs out there turning out second-rate playwrights and screenwriters.  The thrust of this person's thinking was that as a result the market is being flooded with new mediocre scripts that are actually doing damage to the profession.  And inferring that most of those who graduate from these programs--in addition to sending out their inferior scripts to every theatre, production company, and literary agent in the country--are looking for teaching jobs that will allow them to turn out even more wannabe successful writers, creating a vicious cycle and further exasperating the problem as the years tick on.

Having taught scriptwriting for over three decades on both the undergrad and grad level, worked professionally in new play and screenplay development nearly as long, and had many of my own scripts developed and produced at writers' conferences and productions, I have to say the comment may have hit on something that's been bugging me for years.

To my mind, the only kind of MFA program in playwriting and/or screenwriting that is worth its salt is when working professionals are doing the teaching and the focus of the program is on the serious testing of student work with other working professional collaborators.  Student scripts need to be put through the ringer of a carefully structured lab environment where actors, directors, designers and other theatre and film artists are allowed to get their hands on student writing and see what works and what doesn't. An environment where the student writer engages directly with seasoned people who have been in the trenches for a long time--and still are--and who know how to give voice to material, spot strengths and weaknesses, and offer targeted suggestions for improvement in a way that may sometimes hurt, but is offered sincerely and can be trusted.

It's this kind of writing program on the graduate level that is sorely lacking (with a few notable exceptions) and the main reason there's a growing negative attitude in the professional world about the perceived treadmill of MFA programs turning out writers whose work has not been truly battle-tested and that, for the most part, forever remains gathering dust on the page.  So when I was approached with the prospect of designing yet another new MFA in playwriting and screenwriting, I jumped at the chance to put together a different kind of program that would be truly hands-on and have the capacity to turn out writers of plays and screenplays who know the ropes and whose work reflects a professionalism several notches above the norm.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Initial Test of Your New Script

One of the things I've observed in my career as a writer of plays and screenplays and as a producer of new scripts is the critical importance of that very first test of new material with other artist/collaborators.  In other words, there's a lot at stake when your new script is being given voice for the first time.  This phase in the life of a new screenplay or play is--for you, the writer--often a make or break moment.

When I founded the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey many years ago, my primary motivation was to help writers with this delicate first "release" of their new script to the wider world.  I knew that the actors assembled to give the work its first read had to be carefully chosen for each role and had to be very good at bringing words on the page to life with little or no rehearsal.  I knew that to do otherwise would risk the writer concluding that they'd lost their hearing, as playwright Wendy Wasserstein told me when she described her response to a first reading of a new play of hers.  Some of the actors were simply not right for the roles and she had trouble recognizing the play she'd just finished writing.

Or as playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley told me when he first released his wonderful play Danny and the Deep Blue Sea:  "I thought [it] was a dead loss on the basis of a reading.  I heard the reading and I said, 'Well, I guess I was wrong.  I thought it was good.'  Then I did another reading and I thought, 'Well, it's better.'  And then I got some good people and I thought, 'All right, now we're talking!'  So you have to be very careful not to write off a [script] on the basis of a bad reading."

Just realize that your initial launch with new material--allowing other artists to connect with it for the first time--is more significant than you may at first realize.  As eager as you may be to hear your script come to life for the first time, be careful to gather actors that are talented, are a good match for the character they're reading, and know what their character's function is in the play or screenplay.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Screenwriting and Playwriting Teachers Can Make the Difference

When I was asked to put together a new low-res MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen, the first question I asked myself was: who could I bring in to teach and mentor students?  And the answer was an immediate no-brainer, because one of the great blessings of my career has been the long list of talented professionals I've gotten to know and have worked with over the years.

To my mind, nothing is more important in a graduate degree program in scriptwriting than to gather a powerhouse group of dedicated working professionals who are in the thick of their careers--playwrights and screenwriters and other artists who are out there on the front lines getting their work consistently produced and applauded.

I've been fortunate to have made a lot of close and productive connections with these kind of artists. And so it was a pleasure to make contact with a select group of them and ask if they'd be interested in joining me in launching a new MFA. To a person, they all immediately and enthusiastically wanted to be a part of this adventure and suddenly, as Program Director, I knew I had a first-class and not-to-be-beat program in the making.

One of the great features of a low-residency program like this is that it's possible to attract working professional writers and other artists as teachers and mentors without requiring them to commit to a full-time faculty position.  In other words, these individuals can continue in their active careers as they also lend their expertise and experience to the program, both at the 10-day residencies and in semester-long mentoring that takes place between residencies.  These artists love teaching and helping emerging writers find their own voices, and so I wasn't really surprised when everyone I contacted said they'd love to be a part of the program.  In fact, to a person, these pros can't wait to start giving back and to share what they've learned in a hands-on and no-nonsense program like we've designed.  Naturally I'm excited because students in the program will be surrounded by a talented group of nurturing and challenging teacher/mentors dedicated to equipping each student with what they need to excel in their careers.

Hope you check out who they are!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Why a Low-Residency MFA?

Since announcing our new low-residency MFA program, several people have asked me what exactly is a low-residency degree program and what are its advantages.  Here's a short list of some of its attractions, at least regarding our program:

-- Anyone considering an MFA in playwriting and/or screenwriting has one looming decision to make from the get-go--namely can I afford both the cost and the time involved with going after the degree?  The low-residency MFA came into being as a credible alternative to the two- or three-year graduate programs requiring full-time residency by all students for the duration of the course of study.  Full-time programs require turning one's established life upside down as students have to move to within shouting distance of the institution offering the program, quit their job, and put life as they have come to know it on hold until they've earned the degree.  The low-res programs, in contrast, require students to attend one short intensive residency each semester of the program (ours is for ten days every June and January for four semesters) where a carefully worked out series of courses are taken in a workshop format under established working professionals and then throughout the following semester students work one-on-one with a faculty mentor from their own home workspace.  The student's life and livelihood is not significantly disrupted and a writing schedule can be determined that fits each student's particular set of circumstances.

--In our low-res program, another distinguishing feature is the focus on testing student work at each residency in a lab-like environment with an ensemble of working professionals (think Sundance Playwrights Lab or the O'Neill or New Harmony to name a few).  Having spent my career developing new scripts with actors, directors, and other artists, I know the absolute necessity of having a writer's work given voice and having the opportunity to feel and hear feedback to new material.  A student writer works all semester on projects knowing that at the next residency his or her scripts will be put through an exploratory development process.  I can't think of a better arrangement.

--With the line-up of faculty/mentors and other working artists that a professionally-oriented low-res program can attract, a natural benefit for students is getting connected to a vast network of people working actively in the field.  This, of course, is also true in the best of the full-time residency degree programs, but no more so than in the low-res programs.  In fact, in our low-res program, we've designed it so that students make direct contact with a large number of working professionals at each residency. This networking component will always be a major consideration for us, and an important measure of our success will be the degree to which we can help launch students into successful careers.

--Finally, when push comes to shove, the final determining factor for the majority of potential students considering an MFA program is cost.  The low-residency approach in most cases runs about half as much as full-time programs with the return on investment being about equal.  To me it's a no-brainer and why I jumped at the opportunity to put together this new program.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Announcing a New Low-Res MFA in Scriptwriting

Since my last post I've been busy with many projects, not the least of which is putting together a new low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen  that's being offered through the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  I've welcomed this opportunity as it's allowed me to design a graduate-level playwriting and screenwriting program that will be the most hands-on and practical program of its kind in the country. The focus is on learning and developing craft, of course, but what makes it unique is its lab-based approach to testing student work with an ensemble of theatre and film professionals at each residency, allowing for scripts to be given voice and to provide extensive and realistic feedback to our student writers. We've gathered a stellar faculty of proven pros and are launching the program this coming June 2013 in beautiful Peterborough, NH nestled in the heart of the famous Mt. Monadnock region of New England.. Please take a look and spread the word to any potential students you may know who might be looking for an MFA program that will give them a very special professional launch as well as their graduate degree.