Hwang Offers Advice to Young Playwrights

February 10, 2011

David Henry Hwang
Photo by Laura J. Cole

Lights shine down on David Henry Hwang, center stage. With one leg curled under him and his arms wrapped around his body, he discusses how certain scenes could be played out and solicits and offers feedback from the intimate audience.

A typical day for Hwang? Sort of. He is workshopping a new script—but it’s not his. This one was penned by Jonathan Keebler (Class of 2011), one of four undergraduate students who was given the opportunity to work with the Tony-Award-winning playwright.

While on campus in February, Hwang provided aspiring playwrights Keebler, Erik Keevan (Class of 2011), Michael Hall (Class of 2013HH) and Breanna Banales (Class of 2011) with valuable insights to their scripts. Professor of English Bill Boles and Professor of Theatre Arts Jennifer Cavenaugh, who coordinated the workshops, discussed how Hwang provided the students with concrete ways to strengthen their writing, as well as constructive criticism to encourage it.

Brianna Banales (Class of 2011), David Henry Hwang, Michael Hall, Professor Bill Boles and Jonathan Keebler (Class of 2011)

Brianna Banales (Class of 2011), David Henry Hwang, Michael Hall, Professor Bill Boles and Jonathan Keebler (Class of 2011)

“To have a playwright of his talent and magnitude work individually with our students was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Cavenaugh. “He had a lot of praise and also gave very helpful critiques ranging from plot structure to character development. He was a natural teacher and really worked with the students to help them see the possibilities in their scripts.”

For playwrights, workshops and feedback are par for the course. “Playwriting is such a public form,” said Hwang. “As you re-write, you usually re-write through workshops, so you get to hear the work. Then, you go into previews, and you’re re-writing with the reactions of the audience in mind.”

And while playwrights need to know how to listen to and incorporate feedback, Hwang argues that they must also learn how to filter criticism. As an example, he cited his first major workshop at the annual O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. “At that point, I was 21,” he said. “I figured all these theatre professionals were well-meaning and knew better than I did.” He initially made edits based on everyone’s suggestions, but he ultimately decided it was best to throw out a majority of their advice. As a result, Hwang began to learn to trust his own instincts as a writer.

The workshops, while providing ways to strengthen certain areas, also reinforced that the students should trust themselves. “They learned that some of their instincts about their writing and how it can improve are correct,” said Boles. “[Banales] made that clear in her session with him. He nailed precisely her own concerns and gave her suggestions about how to make changes.”

Due to his experience as a professional playwright, Hwang was able to ask tough questions, which in turn helped Keebler analyze his own play. “Most of the changes were things I was considering, but I still needed some guidance,” said Keebler. “He helped me work through things such as the pace of the main characters’ development, the characterization of one of the girls and the structure of the top of act two.”

This process lies at the heart of Winter With the Writers, which is responsible for bringing Hwang to campus. The program spotlights contemporary writers who, in addition to performing readings and on-stage interviews, offer responses to students’ work in master classes. In addition to participating in Winter With the Writers, Hwang worked with the four playwrights as part of his position as the Irving Bacheller Professor of Creative Writing. The Chair, which is awarded annually to a renowned author, allows the recipient to teach a one-credit course. “The idea [behind the Chair],” said Director of Winter With the Writers Carol Frost, “is to broaden our students’ access to authors of merit.”

“Working with David Henry Hwang was a dream come true,” said Keebler. “When you write a play, everyone has an opinion and is eager to share them with you. While most people can tell you what is wrong with a play, few can offer you sound advice on how to fix it. Hwang was able to phrase certain criticisms about my piece that I’ve received before but in a way that was constructive. I can now go home and incorporate them more easily.”

By Laura J. Cole

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