The Salon and Cornish College of the Arts are bringing international playwright and professor Andrea Stolowitz to Seattle November 8-10 for a weekend playwriting masterclass. The Salon’s Director for Education Programs, Margaret O’Donnell interviewed Andrea to learn what drives her writing and teaching.
Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): Why do you write? What themes/ideas draw you?
Andrea Stolowitz (AS): I write in order to tease apart the complexities of human relationships, political situations, history, love, death and other conundrums. I write about topics that I myself have not yet solved. Writing is a way for me to work on real-life problems by setting characters and situations in motion.
MOD: What have you learned/observed/delighted in/mourned over in teaching playwriting?
AS: I love to help students experience free writing. I feel free writing is to playwrights as improv is to actors. I mourn the act of “over thinking” and cerebral writing and try to banish that from generative work. I myself love outlines and structure and find that to be easy, but getting into the unconscious realm of writing takes a leap of faith and many strict techniques. I would like to banish the concept of perfection from the writing process.
MOD: What do you see as the value of an MFA in playwriting that can’t often be found in another way?
AS: Essentially I see an MFA as a way of finding life-long collaborators and to be able to work with colleagues who are available to you at all hours. An MFA grants you freedom from day jobs that otherwise interfere with the 24-7 creative process. An MFA is a terrific educational opportunity if well-chosen in terms of program and what it offers the student and what the student wants to learn. I loved my MFA at UCSD and received a wonderful three year training program mostly for free. Low-Residency MFA programs are a flexible alternative that fit with many life/work situations. For them, the value of the MFA is the training you receive.
MOD: Your best advice to new playwrights?
AS: Keep finding ways to learn about the craft. Be open and adventurous and seek out mentors!
MOD: How do you balance teaching/writing/productions/promoting your work? Is it a struggle or a good balance?
AS: It is a struggle. I have always centered my entire life around creative work and then everything trickles down from there. I teach playwriting because I love to engage with students about the craft of writing AND because it is a time flexible job which allows me to pursue professional opportunities as they come up. But in general, finding a way to generate work, promote work, earn a living, care for my family, and have a life/work balance is a daily struggle.
MOD: You live part of the time in Berlin. Why did you make that choice, and what influence have you seen on your work?
AS: I find living in another country gives you much insight into your own country. I relish the break from all things American. These days I am in Berlin less and less as I live in Portland and find much career work in New York. This all leaves less time for Berlin though I do go back there for several weeks each year and was just featured in the German Magazine Theatre Heute.
MOD: Why do you teach?
AS: I love exploring the art form with students and questioning how and why theatricality functions. I enjoy inspiring others in their creative pursuits. I have been blessed with great mentors and strive to be one myself.
MOD: What can be taught? What can’t?
AS: That’s an interesting question. Structure can be taught. Generative techniques can be taught. What works and doesn’t in theatre can be explored. Writing is a lonely and singular pursuit that each writer conquers individually. Mentors and teachers can bring you only so far. As José Rivera once said, mentors and teachers are the “gas” that can make the car drive, but the individual, they are the car. “Gas” doesn’t know how to drive…The artists is the owner and operator of their car and they can take the “gas" and explore the open road.
MOD: What theatre work have you seen in the last year that you’ve loved?
AS: I loved “The Ferryman” on Broadway because of its expansive storytelling. Last year in Berlin I saw a terrific production of Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons”. It was sparse and beautiful and full of aching and longing.
MOD: What are you working on now? What are you planning for the next few years?
AS: I am working on a new commissioned play for Artists’ Repertory Theatre in Portland called “Recent Unsettling Events”. I am working on the libretto of an opera about the mothers of kidnapped journalists. I am working on a devised theater piece with Hand2Mouth Theatre which takes its inspiration from Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town”. And as always I am letting new inspiration arrive!