Scenes from a Classroom: Kenneth Lonergan Coaches Playwriting MFAs in the Creative Process

 

Scene: A classroom at The New School. STUDENTS at desks. Enter KENNETH LONERGAN, playwright, a bespectacled man in his late 40s. STUDENTS lean in as LONERGAN moves to the desk at the front of the classroom and faces the audience.

It’s not a scene from a play, but a scene from How a Play Works, a New School for Drama workshop led this semester by Kenneth Lonergan, award-winning playwright of This Is Our Youth. Offered to second-year MFA candidates, the class gives students the opportunity to work with one of contemporary drama’s most celebrated authors.

A central part of the MFA curriculum, How a Play Works prepares students for their third-year thesis by assigning them to complete a new play during the semester. For many, the class represents the first time they have ever worked closely with such a renowned playwright.

Daniel Pearle, a second-year MFA student, describes the experience as an invitation to writers to return to their creative roots. “After we’ve gotten formal training in craft and structure, it’s great to return to the initial impulse to write, which is to capture life truthfully as you see it,” Pearle said, noting that “Lonergan’s class reminded us that characters’ idiosyncratic behavior is inherently entertaining.”

For Lonergan, the class has also been a first. “It’s the first time I’ve taught a class through from start to finish,, he says. This is the most intense, real full-semester teaching experience I’ve had.”

Lonergan, whose work also include the films You Can Count on Me and Gangs of New York, brings a scene-specific approach to his teaching. “I focus on letting students think small,” he says. “That means making sure dialogue rings true by examining each line’s diction and emphasizing writing that speaks to the essential truths of each character.”

Lonergan is not the only stage luminary to appear in the class. Reaching out to favorite actors he knows and has worked with, the playwright gave his students the chance to hear their writing performed by professionals. Lonergan’s guest readers included Josh Hamilton, Tate Donovan, Betty Gilpin, and Lonergan’s wife, J. Smith-Cameron.

According to Pearle, “the classroom performances have been invaluable. You just don’t know what you have until you’ve heard it read by professional actors.”

Lonergan is the latest in a series of prominent figures who have taught at The New School for Drama. Recent practitioner-professors include actor John Turturro, playwright John Patrick Shanley, and current artist-in-residence Joe Mantello. The method of learning from those with experience has proven results: The New School’s playwriting MFAs have been featured at theaters and festivals and been honored in competitions across the country, including the Sam French Short Play Festival, the Alliance Theater’s Kenedra Competition, the ID America Festival, Old Vic, and New Voices.

As the semester enters its last act, Lonergan is already reflecting fondly on his experience at The New School. “The students are all really good, they’re all really different, and they’re all really supportive of each other,” he says. “They rise to the challenge, and then they go beyond.”