Higher Education: How I Re-Discovered My Passion for Theater By Writing a Syllabus

Barbara Jwanouskos gleans inspiration from the most unlikely of places.

Over winter break as I was killing time, I had to chuckle about an article I saw that talked about the tumblr, lolmythesis, where graduate students around the world can sum up years of research and work in one hilarious sentence. I joked around with my dad that mine probably would have been “No one is interested in theater anymore, but I paid $$$$$ to learn how to write for it anyway.”

Syllabus for writing a new play.

Syllabus for writing a new play.

Perhaps it’s a little cynical. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the ideas of “what’s next” or “did I make a complete lapse in all reasonable judgment”. Sure, maybe, but then you have moments where you remember why you decided to pursue something or what sparked your passion for it.

I want to share something I’m proud that I wrote. It’s not a play – it’s actually a syllabus for Advanced Playwriting, a course I’m teaching this semester. Last year, I taught Introduction to Screenwriting, which was a wonderful experience. My syllabus, however, was very dry and jam-packed with information that was really not expressive of who I am as a teacher, artist and person. So, when I set out to write this syllabus, I tried to look at it as if I were writing a play.

Here’s what I said:

What this course is:
A play is basically a blueprint for a production
and in this course
you’re going to learn how to capture an idea for a play
how to develop, pull apart, and destroy that idea,
how to actually finish a script,
and how to talk about new work.

What we’ll be exploring is
How to make a create the blueprint for
an theatrical experience that is

engaging,
transformative,
weird,
and uncomfortable.

How can we tap into ourselves
and explore how we view the world
then translate
what’s in our brains
down onto the page

so that it makes some sort of sense
when people read the words we have selected
out loud
but more so
when they perform the instructions
we have given them
for the presentation of a live experience?

How do we give the audience what it needs?

This audience is ready to see your play.

This audience is ready to see your play.

I realized that in having to define what I was going to teach in my syllabus, I actually had to define what I thought a play was and what “good theater” was. What is playwriting? Why do we do it?

My personal relationship with theater is kind of grafted together a couple things that folks have said to me over the years:

It’s an experience (not necessarily a narrative). I found this so interesting when someone had mentioned it, because it made it easier to account for all the plays that have affected me that do not have a clear linear or non-linear arc.

It’s related to ritual. So much theater is born out of religious and spiritual rituals and ceremonies of the past. I haven’t quite worked out my thought-process on this, but there seems to be something key in the idea that a play is an experience that we need to give the audience by re-creating an event or a series of events.

It happens in space and time. Not that you can’t suggest multiple locations within a play, but a play is all about the current present moment and it is happening live in front of your eyes.

A play is play! A play is pretend, and we forget that sometimes when doing serious work. We forget the reasons why we inhabit different bodies and characters to perform a play, but I think a play is also something that should give us tremendous satisfaction in some way. I don’t mean that we need to be purely entertained. I think even searing dramas give us a way to delve into a thoughts, issues, and circumstances that are hard to talk about. Being able to do that is such a relief. Not because we are “done” with whatever the play’s subject matter is, but perhaps we feel like we are at least in conversation with it and trying to understand what it means.

Play time!

Play time!

Getting back to these core ideas gave me the answer to all my cynicism regarding writing for theater and being in a graduate program for a degree that – financially speaking, at least – may be essentially useless. I write because there is something I find valuable in what I’ve seen that I’d like to share with others. I write to explore beautiful, yet complicated grey areas of relationships. I write to challenge what I know more than to challenge others on what they know. Through that, absolutely do I find passion and enjoyment.

Why do you do theater? How would you define a play? Share with us your thoughts!

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2 comments on “Higher Education: How I Re-Discovered My Passion for Theater By Writing a Syllabus

  1. Richard A. Steele says:

    I do theater because I have to—I must do it, I possess, and want, no other option for self-expression and bringing my creativity to real life. I have tried other art forms, and with them (save for poetry and singing) I cannot make as satisfactory a connection with my inner self that acting accomplishes. Like poetry, and even more so than verse, the stage allows me to say what others cannot or will not, to point out that from which we all prefer to hide, and celebrate the victories of the human condition. Because of that connection, acting heals me, and like so many of us, I have much healing ahead of me.

    • bjwany says:

      Thanks, Richard! I think there’s some real truth in what you say about “bringing creativity to real life”. That’s something about performing or presenting that feels like it gets at what theater is about. Perhaps it’s in enacting and witnessing the event — seeing someone go through complex emotions or experiences on stage that remind us of who we are in the world and how we relate to those around us.

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