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 hasseemed like the explosion," admits Daniel Goldfarb, a veteran of both NYU and Juilliard. Goldfarb's Adam Baum and the Jew Moviewas produced by the Blue Light Theatre Company last fall, and his Dulce de Lechewas recently workshopped at Primary Stages, just around the time his Modern Orthodoxwas 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 Meerstransfer from Manhattan Theatre Club to a commercial Off-Broadway run; Jessica Goldberg had Refugeand The Hologram Theoryopen at Playwrights Horizons and the Blue Light, respectively; Kira Obolensky's Lobster Alicewas mounted at Playwrights Horizons; and David Auburn's Proofbegan rehearsals at MTC. As for NYU, Neil Labute's bashwas a hit at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, quickly followed by Bryan Golubuff's Shysterat Naked Angels and Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Galleryat 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 informedopinion, but it's not the word from Mount Olympus."

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."

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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