Monday, July 2, 2007

Lovely Summer Retreat with Christopher Shinn at EST Lexington Art Center

Got back from the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s weekend retreat with Christopher Shinn yesterday. It was a wonderful workshop, and I wish you had all been there! I am so glad I went. I was dragging my hills because I didn’t like the sound of “bring bug spray”—but I felt so rejuvenated afterway I am glad I went. The Lexington Art Center where EST holds it is exceptionally pretty, with lots of beautiful hilly overlooks, lolling grass lawns, and picturesque turn-of-the-century buildings.

Faithful blog readers will remember that I was afraid of the turn-of-the-century buildings and where we would be housed—but it turns out that most of use were put up in the Staff House in perfectly cute little rooms with real beds. It was a bit cold, but I didn’t suffer and actually slept a lot better than I do in the city. We had our classes in the Barn Theater, which is a barn that has been converted into a 99 seat performance space. The view from the barn porch was particularly enchanting. I did my writing assignment there, looking out on the hills and a field of tall grasses.

There were only seven other attendees and four staff members. I thought the small class size was great—we all really got to know one another well and it was a good group, our personalities meshed well. We met with Chris on Friday night (after most everyone drove up together in the van). I was surprised to find Ken Urban attending! He and I attended the Pataphysics workshop with Paula Vogel together last year, and I was in the premiere of his play New Jersey Trilogy at Rude Guerilla a few years ago where I also met him. We are running into one another at workshops all over the place now, and I will definitely see him in September when he has a show opening in New York.

Our first session was from 7 to 10 (or so) on Friday night. We introduced ourselves talked about favorite and least favorite plays. Then we went around the circle and talked about why we wanted to attend the class. Then Chris talked about his process and how he writes, which was candid and fascinating. Then we wrote 4 page scenes that night and the next morning. Each person got about an hour of discussion on their scenes then on Saturday, where Chris talked about his revision process which centers on analyzing the character conflict and looking for internal conflict. Interspersed with the scene discussions there was more general writing talk. My scene was sort of crap, so that hour of the day was sort of a wash for me, but it was interesting hearing my classmates scenes. Their scenes were more narrative, mine was ‘poetic dreamscape’ or something similarly eye-rollingly obnoxious and didn’t work well under this type of analysis. I always write stupid class exercises. But I get the concept and how you do the analysis and might apply it in the future.

I thought we really got a chance to see Chris’ brilliance in this part of the class. His ability to look at four pages of dialogue and analyze the complex human dynamics underlying the action was lightening fast and startlingly insightful. I couldn’t imagine spending an hour discussing four page scenes before we did it, but several of the scenes could have been discussed for much longer. And it was nice to have a long time to explore each person’s writing. I thought several of the scenes could be turned into full length or one act plays.

Then the last day was devoted to practical questions, which was nice. We spend about 2 hours talking about business. That was all very interesting and we had such great people in the room, it was a group discussion most of the time. Talked about rights of the director, behavior of the playwright in rehearsals, common issues that come up, benefit analysis MFA vs no-MFA, etc. All very interesting and, again, more candid than I was expecting.

Then we had lunch and drove back to the city, chatting all the while in the van. Promises all around to stay in touch. I felt very energized afterward so I am glad I went.

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