Leaders in Chicago theatre teaching University’s young performance artistsBy Josh Schonwald
Earlier this month, nine students in the College completed a Herculean accomplishment: They wrote full-length plays—50 to 75 pages in length—in just 10 weeks.
Several of the plays will hit the stage during University Theatre’s New Work Week at the end of Spring Quarter. A few of them could turn into A.B. thesis projects, while others will be used as applications to some of the country’s elite playwriting programs.
Augie Praley, a fourth-year who wrote a play about a man attempting to complete a piece of art that can and never will be finished, credits the class “Advanced Playwriting” with giving him an invaluable “tool kit.” The kit provides exercises for plowing through writer’s block, techniques for rewriting, ways of looking at the text from the audience’s perspective and even strategies for staying happy. “You develop a ceremony for celebrating the completion of the first draft,” said Praley.
Praley, who is applying to Yale University’s playwriting program, and others in “Advanced Playwriting and The Theory of Time” were the first students to receive the tutelage of the Theatre and Performance Studies’ newest addition, award-winning playwright Bonnie Metzgar.
The arrival of Metzgar, formerly the director of Brown University’s graduate program in playwriting and now the artistic director of Chicago’s About Face Theatre, is well timed, said Heidi Coleman, Director of the University’s Theatre and Performance Studies Program. Interest in playwriting in the College has surged in recent years, said Coleman, who notes that it’s common to get more than 50 applicants for 10 slots in a writing class.
For the past eight years, Theatre and Performance Studies has been adding term lecturers by accomplished professionals and leaders within the Chicago theatre community to nurture student playwrights.
Students in the College can now take theater classes from some of the city’s most innovative writers and directors, such as David New, associate director of the Steppenwolf Theatre, Sean Graney, the award-winning director of the Hypocrites Theatre, and Greg Allen, founding director of the Neo-Futurists.
Coleman hopes that Metzgar, with her unique skill set, can help take the playwriting program to the next level.
“The talent pool of undergraduate artists at the University of Chicago is impressive, and they seem hungry for imaginative curriculum that challenges them to create performance works for the 21st century,” said Metzgar.
More than an experienced educator, Metzgar is a gifted playwright who is nationally regarded for creating innovative, theatrical works at such theatres as the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in New York and the Curious Theatre in Denver, Colo. She also co-created the acclaimed 365 Festival (365 Days, 365 Plays), written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.
Perhaps even more important, said Coleman, is that Metzgar’s approach to theatre and playwriting is intellectually well-matched to the University.
Chicago’s approach to theatre, Coleman said, is rigorously focused on interdisciplinarity, combining coursework both in theory and practice.
Students in the Theatre and Performance Studies program strive to explore questions of expression and communication of values through the study of performance. It’s a symbiotic relationship, where intellectual discourse leads to theatrical experimentation. This well-matched fit, said Coleman, comes from Metzgar’s intellectually rigorous, socially engaging and experimental work.
Equally important, Metzgar brings an interdisciplinary approach, raising questions of performance and its relationship to the text. “She doesn’t just replicate form,” said Coleman, “she thoroughly wrestles with the text and experiments. That’s a major goal of the program here. We like to think of ourselves as an experimental lab.”
Metzgar left Brown University this summer after she was named artistic director of About Face Theatre, the nationally known Chicago theatre that explores gender and sexual identity in its productions.