Scholarly Advice

By Laura J. Cole ’04 ’08MLS

David Henry Hwang. Photo by Laura J. Cole

“Workshops are ways to open my eyes to all aspects of a piece.
They reveal flaws I never noticed and strengths I never thought to exploit. My work would be
less than sufficient
without them.”
—Jonathan Keebler ’11

Lights shone down on playwright David Henry Hwang, seated center stage, as he discussed a script and how certain scenes might be played out. With one leg curled under him and arms crossed casually, he made suggestions for incorporating changes to the work while soliciting feedback from his intimate audience.

A typical day for Hwang? Sort of. He was workshopping a new script—but this one wasn’t his. It was penned by Jonathan Keebler ’11, one of four undergraduate students who had the opportunity to work with the Tony Award-winning playwright during his visit to Rollins in February.

In a series of workshops held at the Fred Stone Theatre, Hwang provided Keebler and fellow aspiring playwrights Erik Keevan ’12, Michael Hall ’13HH, and Brianna Banales ’11 valuable insights about scripts they had written.

“To have a playwright of his talent and magnitude work individually with our students was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Winifred M. Warden Professor of Theatre Arts and Dance Jennifer Cavenaugh, who coordinated the workshops with Professor of English Bill Boles. “He offered 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.”

Hwang’s goal was to educate and inspire the students by using the workshop venue to offer ideas for strengthening their writing. “Playwriting is such a public form,” Hwang said. “As you rewrite, you usually rewrite through workshops so you get to hear the work. Then, you go into previews and you’re rewriting with the reactions of the audience in mind.”

Equally important to being open to constructive criticism, he explained, is learning to filter that criticism and trust your own instincts. He recalled his first experience at a major workshop, at age 21, at the annual O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. “I figured all these theater professionals were well meaning and knew better than I did.” Hwang explained that he initially made edits based on everyone’s suggestions, but ultimately he decided it was best to throw out a majority of their advice and trust his own instincts as a writer.

Broadening students’ access to noted authors like Hwang is at the heart of the annual Winter With the Writers program, which brought Hwang and four other noted authors to campus this year. The program spotlights contemporary writers who, in addition to performing public readings and on-stage interviews, offer responses to students’ work in master classes. Hwang also worked with the four student playwrights as Irving Bacheller Professor of Creative Writing, a position awarded annually to a renowned author which allows the recipient to teach a one-credit course.

“Working with David Henry Hwang was a dream come true,” said Keebler, who appreciated that Hwang was able to ask tough questions, which in turn helped him analyze his own play. “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 was able to go home and incorporate them more easily.”

Editor’s Note: Michael Hall died unexpectedly at his home in Winter Park on March 30. His obituary stated, “Michael considered his recent invitation to participate in a workshop with renowned playwright David Henry Hwang to be one of the highlights of his life,” which also included an off-Broadway performance in A Chorus Line and lead dancer in Fiddler on the Roof. Contributions in memory of Michael Hall can be made to Rollins College Winter With the Writers, Rollins College Lockbox, PO Box 864168, Orlando, FL 32886-4168.