The Production Line

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

Machado would probably also side against the guru approach; he routinely hires adjunct professors (this year Pugliese and Kelly Stuart) who possess writing and teaching styles markedly different from his own. Otherwise, his program— which accepted eight students this year—is as different from NYU and Juilliard as can be. "I found it frustrating the way playwriting was being taught in general," says Machado, "which was, 'Go home, write a scene, and we'll critique it.' " That was basically the Columbia format before he took over in 1997. "I didn't like the way a judgment is put on the writing before they get a chance to experiment."

Influenced by his own tutelage under Maria Irene Fornes, Machado puts his first-year students through a series of Stanislavsky-flavored writing exercises. Student Rogelio Martinez described one, in which he was to remember a room he wasn't allowed to enter as a child; he then had to place the character he was currently creating in front of that door and let him open it.

"I think playwrights tend to exist in the mind and we overthink things," says Heather Hill, another Columbia grad. "[Machado's] exercises are about getting both your mind and body together, to make you a complete person."

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."

Though varied in character, NYU, Juilliard, and Columbia do have some commonalities. Each provides students with access to the universities' acting programs and stress the importance of having playwrights hear their words spoken by skilled performers. And all three, to varying degrees, act as a practical conduit to the theater community.

"We have 50, 60 producing entities in and outside New York that have been taking our students for a long time," boasts Dickerman. "We want our graduates to have a certain amount of professional polish. So, we set up jobs for them in the real world, working in a literary manager's office, working as a production assistant, working in the development office of a film producer."

At Juilliard, the school year ends with a "Playwrights Night," in which the writers present 20 to 30 minutes of their work before an audience of invited agents, literary managers, and other industry professionals. "It's like the debutante ball, our coming-out party," jokes Goldfarb—and many of the belles find nonprofit partners. Though casual observers may think that Juilliard has a set of hot-line phones marked "MTC," "Playwrights Horizons," and "Blue Light," few affiliated with the program believe there is any direct connection between a Juilliard certificate and professional favor.

"I don't think Juilliard gives you a free ticket to the front of the line," argues Lindsay- Abaire. "No way is that true." Yet others eagerly embrace the idea of a grad-school fast track. "It's become a given that you need to go," says Jerome Hairston, a Columbia student. "After college, you automatically start thinking of graduate programs. Those are the steps of being a professional playwright. If somebody wants to find a writer at all, that's where they have to go."

Machado, too, tries to give his graduates a leg up by making calls and connections for them. But he worries that this vocational aspect is overshadowing the central reason dramatists go to school: to become better writers. "I think the rest of [the programs] are much more product oriented—meaning, 'Get an Agent. Be Famous.' Which is sort of leading people down the garden path, because playwriting doesn't work that way. It's 'Be' and then maybe somebody will notice you. To present it in any other way is dishonest."

Lonergan doesn't believe that theaters are plucking students hot off the commencement dais, but neither does he discount the networking web the schools engender. "In order to get your work done, you have to know people," he says. And attending one of these programs is "a really good way to get to know people. I don't think anyone in the theater world reads a play and decides it's better or worse based on one of these programs. But to get people to read your plays, you have to know who they are and they have to know you. And having gone to one of these schools is the only way to do that, unless you're just super sociable."

Finally, there's the opinion that this theatrical flowering is simply the result of good young playwrights connecting with accomplished teachers and together producing valuable new work.

"It just speaks to the talent that's out there," contends Martinez. "Playwrights are taking their time. They're going into these graduate programs and being mentored by really good writers. These writers really do take care of their students. There's an investment put into these students that's wonderful to see." More likely than not, the dividends will grace New York stages for some time to come.

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