The Production Line

It's Boom Time at the Columbia, Juilliard, and NYU Playwriting Programs

Young playwrights who complain that Off-Broadway is a closed shop (and they do complain, often and loudly) are obviously not alums of the city's three preeminent playwriting programs: Columbia, Juilliard, and NYU. Had they attended one of those august institutions, they'd as likely as not be experiencing a very different New York—a city of polished professional productions, of name stage actors in your first or second play, of success before 30.

"This year has seemed like the explosion," admits Daniel Goldfarb, a veteran of both NYU and Juilliard. Goldfarb's Adam Baum and the Jew Movie was produced by the Blue Light Theatre Company last fall, and his Dulce de Leche was recently workshopped at Primary Stages, just around the time his Modern Orthodox was announced for South Coast Repertory's upcoming season.

For Goldfarb, it's not lonely at the top, but crowded with former classmates. Since the beginning of the current season alone, Juilliard alum David Lindsay-Abaire saw his Fuddy Meers transfer from Manhattan Theatre Club to a commercial Off-Broadway run; Jessica Goldberg had Refuge and The Hologram Theory open at Playwrights Horizons and the Blue Light, respectively; Kira Obolensky's Lobster Alice was mounted at Playwrights Horizons; and David Auburn's Proof began rehearsals at MTC. As for NYU, Neil Labute's bash was a hit at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, quickly followed by Bryan Golubuff's Shyster at Naked Angels and Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery at the Promenade. Next fall, Repertorio Español will present Columbia grad Jorge González's Vieques.

Columbia’s Eduardo Machado: "I found it frustrating the way playwriting was being taught."
Photo by Michael Sofronski
Columbia’s Eduardo Machado: "I found it frustrating the way playwriting was being taught."

The programs' dominance extends into the development field. In this year's Cherry Lane Alternative Mentor Project, where young scribes are schooled by established writers such as Wendy Wasserstein, four out of the five playwrights selected were from either NYU or Columbia, while the Public Theater's spring reading series features two Columbia alums. Regionally, the Humana Festival has, in recent years, routinely spotlighted Juilliard and Columbia graduates.

Why the boom? Some, like Lindsay-Abaire, consider it just so much luck. Others aren't so sure. "I don't think it's a coincidence," says Mark Dickerman, head of the NYU program, which accepts 20 students a year. "We know well what we're doing. The program is constantly evolving and refining, the students get better and better, and the reputation of the place is building." There are, perhaps, more mundane reasons. After 21 years in the playwright-teaching business, some of NYU's seedlings were bound to bloom. And with the creation of the Juilliard program in 1993 and Eduardo Machado's revamp of Columbia three years ago, the number of produced playwrights has increased markedly.

NYU can claim the title of Grand Old Man among this triumvirate. Indeed, the school days of three of its current stars—Lonergan, Labute, and Frank Pugliese—date back to the mid '80s. Dickerman keeps an eye out for the Lonergans of the world, talented young people who don't fit into the typical high school or college mold. Applicants submit creative material—not just plays, but fiction and poetry. And the school makes allowances for poor grades. "Sometimes that's because they're artists," Dickerman laughs.

Goldberg is one such case. "I didn't have good enough grades to apply to the regular school, but I knew my writing was good, so I applied there because I thought I would be able to get in." Once accepted, she was enveloped in a conservatory atmosphere of writing classes, text analysis, production courses, play festivals, and screenwriting. "If you're going to train a modern dramatist," asserts Dickerman, "you train them with the essentials of playwriting and screenwriting, whether they're playwrights or screenwriters." This two-pronged approach is singular to NYU (though Machado has begun to throw in a little screenwriting toward the end of Columbia's three-year setup).

Goldfarb collected his master's at NYU, then went on to Juilliard for further schooling. He found both extremely rewarding, but says of the Lila Acheson Wallace-funded Juilliard, "There's something very special about being in a program where they're paying your way. That does a lot to you." Most Juilliard grads also comment on the sense of confidence they drew from the egalitarian manner of the program's codirectors, Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman. "They were incredibly empowering in how we felt about ourselves," says Lindsay-Abaire. "There was never a moment of 'If you become a writer.' It was always, 'Since you are a writer.' " Or, as Norman put it, "We're all writers together. [Chris and I are] the senior members."

Juilliard inarguably has a golden glow around it these days. Only six years old and having issued less than a couple dozen certificates (they accept no more than four writers a year), the school's ability to send people on to viable careers as playwrights is just short of jaw-dropping. The program is casual in the extreme: a playwright lab every other week and a weekly, three-hour meeting in which new material is read.

Dual stewardship would seem a problematic gambit, but Durang and Norman point to it as a central strength of the program. "I think the guru approach to the theater is not the way to go," says Norman, "because the decision of what's right and what's wrong, that responsibility belongs to the writer, not the guru." Echoes Durang, "I like the fact that there are two people there. It gives you the sense that this is all just opinion. It's informed opinion, but it's not the word from Mount Olympus."

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