Teaching Play Development at NYU Steinhardt

Last evening I started teaching a three-week graduate intensive called Theatre Practices: Problems in Play Production, the Development of New Plays at NYU Steinhardt’s Program in Educational Theatre.  As a bit of a disclaimer, I inherited the title of the course, so I want to be clear that I don’t necessarily think that play development automatically equals a play production “problem.”  I’m not sure how the title came about, as the course was written before my time at NYU, but I do thoroughly enjoy teaching the course.

Part of my excitement for teaching stems from my own experiences as a playwright, director, and dramaturg.  However, one of the unique things about the course is that it runs in concert with a three-week play development laboratory housed in NYU Steinhardt’s Program in Educational Theatre called New Plays for Young Audiences (Twitter: @NPYA).  Three playwrights each get one week of development time for their new plays with a director, a dramaturg, and a cast of actors.  The week culminates in three staged readings of the script for public audiences, and these audiences are asked to feed back through surveys and/or a post-reading discussion.  The series has operated since 1998 and has produced a number of TYA plays that have gone on to professional productions and publication.  I am not an expert in Theatre for Young Audiences, however, the opportunity to observe this laboratory with my students provides excellent jumping off points for discussions about what it means to “develop” a new play.

The graduate students have the change to observe one 90-minute rehearsal period each week, and their main written project for the course is to track one of the roles in the process (playwright, actor, or director) through the three different development weeks.  The final paper summarizes their findings and also explores the implications of the experience for their own future work as theatre artists.  Additionally students research other play development opportunities throughout the US and present on their findings through in-class presentations.  Students also read five plays from the TYA canon and work through various steps in a play analysis process.  We read the draft of the new play at the top of each week (individually and aloud in class), and we receive copies of all of the changes that occur on a day-to-day basis.  As a result, students can track how a given play develops over the course of the week, both on the page and through their own observations of the rehearsal process.

We begin the course by reading Outrageous Fortune by Todd London with Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss.  Their study of new play development in the US is both insightful and depressing, but it provides an important reality check for us as we start our exploration.  The discussion of the text in class last evening already raised great questions for us to consider.  I’m excited to see what this group of graduate students may think when we complete the course and what innovations they may have to offer to the field in the future.