Playwriting

Drama Teachers: How do you give student writers feedback?

Written by Lindsay Price

Episode 173: Drama Teachers: How do you give student writers feedback?

Nick Pappas wears many hats. He is a playwright, a director, he teaches and he’s a dramaturg. This conversation took place at the International Thespian Festival where for the past five years he’s worked with student playwrights. How do you give student playwrights feedback? Listen in to find out.

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk, the Drama teacher resource company.

I am Lindsay Price.

Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!

So, we’ve got a new year – hello, 2017 – and a new shiny intro. Huh, what do you think?

We here at Theatrefolk Global Headquarters are focusing our efforts all on you. Yes, you. I am, I’m talking to you. Yes; no, not them. You.

This is Episode 173 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode173.

Today, we’re talking playwriting, specifically student playwriting.

How many of you – raise your hands, I know – you want to include playwriting but there’s something about it and it’s something specifically that is very trepidatious and worrisome when it gets to feedback, right? How do we give good feedback to student writers that doesn’t cause them to put their play in a drawer and never open that drawer for twenty-five years?

Today, we’re talking to Nick Pappas. He’s a guy who wears many hats. He’s a playwright and a director. He teaches. He’s a dramaturg and he is Theatrefolk’s play submission reader. So, he hits on all sides of the table when it comes to plays. But, as I said, we’re talking specifically about student feedback and giving feedback and how do you give that good feedback. How do you get that good feedback?

Well, let’s get to it and find out.

LINDSAY: All right. I am here with Nick Pappas.

Hello, Nick!

NICK: Hello!

LINDSAY: Nick and I are at the International Thespian Festival right now which will be long over by the time this comes up, but we are going to talk about something which is – universal is not exactly the word I’m looking for – timeless is the word I’m looking for.

NICK: There you go.

LINDSAY: There you go. It doesn’t quite matter but we’re in a really unique situation right now, wouldn’t you say?

NICK: Yes.

LINDSAY: Nick and I are both working as dramaturgs as part of a program called Playworks in which four student playwrights are chosen. Do you know how many plays are sent in to Playworks?

NICK: I think it goes from a process of I heard they get about 70 plays and then the 70 are reduced down to, like, ten or twelve.

LINDSAY: And then, they choose the four.

NICK: Yeah.

LINDSAY: And those four playwrights from – it’s just the States – all of the states, they get brought to Lincoln, Nebraska for the International Thespian Festival and they get a director and a dramaturg and actors and we put up their plays.

NICK: Yeah, in four days of rehearsal?

LINDSAY: We had three this year.

NICK: Oh, that’s true.

LINDSAY: Because auditions on Tuesday, Wednesday – oh, my gosh – we had Tuesday rehearsal, Wednesday rehearsal, Thursday rehearsal, and then…

NICK: Up on Friday.

LINDSAY: There’s a little bit today and then you guys go up tomorrow.

NICK: Correct.

LINDSAY: And so, we’re going to talk about what it’s like to talk to a student playwright because a lot of you, I know, include playwriting units in your program. How to talk to students, how to give them feedback so that they continue writing and they don’t curl up into a ball and never write again which is not what we want.

I wanted to start with you, Nick. That’s my preamble.

NICK: All right.

LINDSAY: You wear a lot of hats.

NICK: Yes.

LINDSAY: The three that I know are playwright and teacher and dramaturg.

NICK: Yes.

LINDSAY: What would you consider your biggest hat?

NICK: Oh, that’s a good question. Sometimes, I feel like it depends on almost time of day, if that makes any sense.

LINDSAY: “It’s 2:00. I feel like a writer.”

NICK: Hmm. I feel like I identify most, when I tell people what I do, I say writer. But, unfortunately, just the nature of a teaching schedule, I teach at a college. Teacher I think is where the bulk of my time actually ends up being.

LINDSAY: Right.

NICK: So, it’s that weird give-and-take. But, as a teacher, I’m also a dramaturg. I mean, that’s really what it comes down to. So, even saying “teacher” feels sort of false in that I’m really doing dramaturgical work with students.

LINDSAY: Interesting.

NICK: I teach playwriting, I teach script analysis, and those are the main two courses. In that sense, yeah, writer-dramaturg maybe?

LINDSAY: Writer-dramaturg-teacher.

NICK: Also, director.

LINDSAY: See! And then, I was going to say, “Are there any other hats that are important to you?”

NICK: Yeah, director is a real important one. I love to direct. I love to do that and I think that’s part of the dramaturgical spirit where I’d like to find a text and I like to climb inside and just really struggle with what it means and how to present it and I like working with actors. Actor is a hat that I used to wear that I sometimes put back on.

There’s the day I knew I didn’t need to be an actor anymore or didn’t want to be an actor anymore. I was auditioning for a commercial in San Francisco for a famous chip company. I don’t know if I should say the name.

LINDSAY: Probably not. Famous chip.

NICK: Yeah, famous tortilla chip company, maybe narrow it down.

LINDSAY: Rhymes with…

NICK: Mojitos.

LINDSAY: Rhymes with mojitos.

NICK: And I did this audition and this guy says to me, “Hey!” The director is like, “Hey! This is great! Are you willing to run on a treadmill in your underwear while getting slapped by a fish and/or a pickle?” I went, “Yeah! That sounds awesome! I would love to do that! That’s great! Yeah, just let me know!” I walked out of the room and I was like, “What the ____ am I thinking? Why was I so excited about that and do I have any dignity?” The answer is I don’t know why I was so excited about that and, no, I don’t have dignity. But, luckily…

LINDSAY: You didn’t get it so you didn’t have to make that decision in the moment.

NICK: That’s why I didn’t have to make that choice at all, yeah. But, I mean, I feel like that was a long, narrowing path.

LINDSAY: I was going to say that, because I started out as an actor and I knew the moment I didn’t want to be an actor anymore when I was in a play that I had written and I’m talking and my brain is listening to the audience respond to the play and not to me. I’m like, “I don’t need this anymore.”

NICK: Yeah, I can get my recognition in other places.

LINDSAY: Yes! And so, I know you write plays – wonderful plays which we will link to. When did writing kick in for you?

NICK: Writing kicked in… I’ve always been a person who absolutely loves really it all started with TV and film but mostly film. I remember being twelve in a theatre and my family saw Pulp Fiction which, first of all, I’m twelve.

LINDSAY: Twelve?

NICK: I did not have restrictions on movies at all. Like, the R-rating meant nothing to my parents which I actually really love.

LINDSAY: Well, you’re not scarred.

NICK: That’s what you think.

I remember watching Pulp Fiction and the Vincent Vega character – I mean, spoiler alert – is shot in one scene and then he shows up later and I remember my dad being like, “What’s going on?” and I was like, “Oh, see, we’ve gone back in time and what’s happened here…” Already at, like, twelve, I had this weird dramaturgical writer structure hat on, explaining what’s happening in this movie. But I remember being really excited about the dialogue and the way it sounded and how people talked in that movie. I knew that Quentin Tarantino was, like, writer-director, but I don’t think I understood exactly what writer meant at that point in time.

It’s always been in my bones – that thing, that writer thing. But the first time I ever actually tried to write, I was at a junior college and there was a sign that said, “Student-Written One-Acts” – you know, anyone can turn in a play. I was like, “Oh! That’s going to be real easy. That’s going to be real easy to do and it’s going to be awesome.” I wrote this awful show about dogs and cats fighting each other. I mean, I think I wrote it before that cats and dogs movie came out, to be clear. They ripped me off.

LINDSAY: Of course, they did.

NICK: They ripped me off. It was like the very adult, R-rated version of that show. It was terrible. Ever since then, I’ve had this weird, like, fascination with seeing if it ever gets easier, and it doesn’t. It gets harder. Sometimes, it gets easier.

LINDSAY: What a fabulous way of putting it because it’s like I think so many people just look at what we do and go, “Well, that’s really easy.”

NICK: Yeah.

LINDSAY: So many people.

NICK: Absolutely.

LINDSAY: That’s a really interesting thing to say and an interesting thing for everybody listening to hear that it really just gets harder. That’s really important for students to sometimes know – that that first draft which may have been easy – because there are those talented writers out there, you know – but, more often than not, in classrooms, it’s one maybe quasi-talented writer and forty struggling writers. So, I think it’s a good thing to know and to tell them it gets harder and that that’s an okay thing.

NICK: Yeah. Well, I think some of that hardness comes from, what I always explain to students is that, I think, as writers and what becomes difficult – and I do this all the time where I’m like, “I’m going to write this thing and I’m going to change the planet. I’m going to change the world and I’m going to win the Pulitzer and the Emmy and the Tony,” you know what I mean? We all have these things going on in our heads.

One of the things that I like to try to keep in mind and I try to tell students very, very flatly is like, “I’m sorry. You’re not going to change the world with your play or anything. Nobody is going to change the entire world. No text has changed the entire world – except for maybe religious texts, right?” Everyone seems a little disheartened but then I kind of pop into, “But, you can change one person’s world. You can change one person’s mood. One person is going to see this and they’re going to feel better. They’re going to laugh when they’ve had the worst day of their lives. That one life is going to change.” That’s doable.

I feel like that is something that any writer – no matter who you are at any level – can change a world. When you sort of take the pressure off of changing the entire planet and make it about just changing a moment for a person, for me, that’s where I’m like, “Oh, now I can do that!” Sometimes, I forget. I often have to remind myself of that very thing.

LINDSAY: So, where does, for you, the dramaturgy hat fit into you as a writer? Where did that come in for you?

NICK: Are you asking at what point in my career?

LINDSAY: Yeah. When did you start not only just being a writer but also having that piece to it?

NICK: Yeah, I think that really hit when I was in college. I was in an MFA program in San Francisco State and we were an interesting program in that most playwriting programs – it was for playwriting – most playwriting programs are attached to theatre departments. Our program was attached to the creative writing department. So, I was working with poets, novelists, creative non-fiction.

LINDSAY: Neat.

NICK: Yeah. At the time, it was a struggle in some ways, but now I look back and I realize how much my writing has improved and how different it makes my writing – to have been in cross-disciplines like that where you’re forced to take poetry classes which, an MFA poetry class, by the way, is just a bunch of people drinking wine, arguing over words. It’s beautiful; it’s fascinating; and I saw two people almost get into a fistfight over language poetry which was like a…

LINDSAY: Rock on!

NICK: That’s cool! But there was a real struggle for me because I’m a theatre person, obviously, at heart. The struggle became, if you wanted to be a playwright who was involved in the theatre department, you really had to make sure that you were putting yourself out there.

So, I kept signing up for theatre classes and one of the classes that I took was a dramaturgy class which was awesome. It was great. That was, like, half of the step – just signing up for dramaturgy classes and trying to learn this other art form that I think, even at that point, I don’t even know if I knew the word or knew what it meant.

LINDSAY: What does it mean to you? What do you think it means?

NICK: Well, I think there’s two kinds of dramaturgy. There is the dramaturge who really helps new play development; helps a writer create work; they are questioners; they are people who, in my opinion, what they do is they figure out what the playwright is trying to say through questions, through just dialogue between them back and forth. And then, they are also the mirror of the play where it’s like, “Oh, I see, you’re trying to write about this. This is what you’re saying to me, correct?” “Yes.” “Okay. Well, in the script, that is not coming across in this way, this way, this way.”

And then, there’s the other kind of dramaturg who is the historical…

LINDSAY: The researcher guy.

NICK: Yeah, the researcher. But I think either person at its core or at the core, they are advocates for the play, including and sometimes I feel you have to be an advocate for the play in such a way that you have to fight the writer in some ways to help them get the play that they want, that they keep talking about.

LINDSAY: I’m going to say that I’ll bet that this is where teachers struggle the most – when they are trying to give feedback and that that notion of fighting the young writer a little bit who has no background in writing only that they’ve written this thing and they got to the end and it’s perfect and what language do they use and what method do they use and what pathway do they use to get to the student to make their work the best that it can be.

NICK: Yeah, that’s a great question, if you know the answer…

LINDSAY: Yeah, let me know, right?

NICK: Yeah.

LINDSAY: Well, I think questions are key.

NICK: Yeah, I do, too.

One of the first things I always do whenever I’m working as a dramaturg – and this is student, this is professional, all over the board – one of the first things I say to them is I try to remind them that I’m there for them, “I’m there for the play, this is what I’m here for – to help you create what you want to create.” I really try to make it very clear that I am there to help them and no way do I want to write the play myself. I’ve got my own things that I’m working on. I don’t want to give suggestions or ideas necessarily.

It’s a good reminder that I’m on your side. I’m not quite against you – even though, earlier, I said “fighting against the playwright.” I don’t mean necessarily in odds.

LINDSAY: You mean, in like a very specifically, “Look, this is what I think your intention is, your script is not showing that,” and they’re fighting that the script maybe is saying that or they don’t want to change anything.

NICK: Exactly. That’s 100 percent right. On top of that – I mean, you talked about changes – the one thing I always say too is, you know, we live in a time of computers which is great because you can save a file.

LINDSAY: Yes!

NICK: I always try to make it very clear that, whatever we talked about, you don’t have to keep but all I ask is that you try. If you hate it, you can actually tell me to pound sand and I hate that idea and I hate what we’re talking about. Go away from that idea and you don’t have to accept it because there is no danger in that, if there is something that we talk about, oh, this is missing, try writing into this, and if they write into this and they love it, great. If they don’t, they can always go back to the previous draft and I’m a firm believer in that, if you write a scene that doesn’t end up working in the play or if you write characters that don’t work or whatever that is and you scrap it, it’s actually not a waste of time because you actually learned something about the play. Even if you’ve learned that this doesn’t work, you know forever that that doesn’t work and you have to go in a different direction. I think that is valuable, it’s vital, and it’s useful.

LINDSAY: I think that’s really valuable, particularly for today’s student, because they – more than I’ve ever seen – are terrified of failure.

NICK: Yeah.

LINDSAY: They’re terrified of something not working and that, in writing, so many things don’t work all the time.

NICK: Right? I tell that – and I know this with myself – your first draft is going to be bad. It’s going to suck and that’s all there is to it. But the point is that you’ve gotten a first draft and only after you’ve gotten the first, I always say, only after you finish the first draft can you actually start writing because, otherwise, it’s like this weird mishmash of ideas in your head that you sort of like vomit out onto a page to see what you even really have in the first place.

LINDSAY: Yeah, and that more than anything, the most important thing is to get to the end of the first draft – to not stop on page two because you think it sucks and you go, “You’re horrible and you shouldn’t be doing it and you fail.” Instead, you’ve got to keep. I think I find a lot when I teach playwriting workshops, I spend a lot of time with those kind of tools in terms of just you’ve got to keep writing. If that’s the only thing they ever learn in a playwriting class or a playwriting unit – to move forward when every instinct in your head is telling you the children of the world will die if you keep writing, you know?

NICK: Right!

LINDSAY: And you still write.

NICK: “Sorry, children, here we go!

LINDSAY: Keep going and that that is a success.

NICK: Absolutely. It’s exactly what – did I mention this before? That’s exactly the thing – that idea of promoting the idea of like, “You’re right! Your first draft sucks!” It’s supposed to. Every writer’s first draft is. Even the Tennessee Williams’ first drafts sucked; Arthur Miller’s first drafts were not good. Even the greats – Quentin Tarantino – his first drafts are terrible and they’re supposed to be.

I think that’s freeing and to let a student know that in some ways is both terrifying but it’s also freeing because I think it allows them too to not get married to an idea and to not want to hold onto something so tight which I think is something that student writers love.

LINDSAY: My play is done and it was perfect.

NICK: Exactly.

LINDSAY: Rounding this all in feedback, one that students need to know that the first draft must get done and it won’t be good and that is actually the best thing because you actually have something written down.

NICK: Absolutely.

LINDSAY: And that, when you’re thinking about giving feedback, I really liked how you said you want to question in terms of we’re not talking likes and dislikes. You don’t want to get into that.

NICK: Never.

LINDSAY: Questions are the great way to go. Being a mirror I think is a wonderful image. “This is what I think you’re saying. When I read this, this is what I think you’re saying.”

NICK: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s really important because, I mean, we all do – I’ve probably done it, like, nine times in this podcast already – where I think I’m saying one thing and the word vomit’s coming out and I’m like, “Wait, hold on, was my point even understood?” I think it’s just a normal thing. I know, as a writer, I love when someone says it back to me like, “So, I read it and this is what I’m seeing. This is what I think it’s about. Is that congruent with what you’re thinking?” I think that’s a really great thing for the writers – two things at that point to me, two things can happen. One is, yes, that is exactly what I’m seeing which is great. I guess there’s three things. Two is…

LINDSAY: And a fanatical devotion to the Pope.

NICK: Two is, no, I don’t see what it is and I need to change it to make sure it matches my vision. Three is, no, that’s not what I started with but, now that you’ve said that, I like that and I didn’t realize I was writing about that but now that I realize I’m writing about that, I want to follow that path. I think that’s a really great thing. I think it’s a gift for a lot of writers – that idea of, well, I think it’s the same thing, going back to the first draft being bad. Like, you don’t need to be married, even with an original spark because a spark is a spark and we don’t know where that fire is going to go.

LINDSAY: I think I’d like to say that ideas are really a dime a dozen. Ideas are nothing; execution is what really matters. It’s the idea is you’re merely a starting point and it’s the execution of what’s going on with the evolution – not the evolution – of working on the idea.

NICK: Yeah!

LINDSAY: Words! Who needs them, right? What do you do with it? That’s what is really important.

NICK: Yeah, it’s the execution. It’s interesting. When you even think of a copyright; you can’t copyright an idea, you can only copyright the execution of an idea.

LINDSAY: Yeah, there is a reason for that.

NICK: Exactly, and that’s because ideas are a dime a dozen. Right, absolutely.

LINDSAY: Awesome.

We have questions. What else do you do when you’re in your methodology of giving feedback to your students?

NICK: One of the things I love to do, I think sometimes we tend to focus on the negative which always ends up to me being a band-aid on a problem. Like, “Oh, this doesn’t work, can you fix this?”

LINDSAY: “Go write this better.”

NICK: Go write this better. It feels like, in some ways, it’s a band-aid because, oftentimes, when you give notes or when I give notes or when anyone does, they identify a problem – say, in the third act – and they’re like, “Oh, this isn’t working here in the third act. You need to fix this moment, yadda yadda,” right? You can fix it and fix it and fix it and it never quite feels exactly right. There are things that’ll feel better.

But, sometimes, it’s that stepping back and realizing that, “Oh, shoot! This problem in the third act is actually fixed with a single line in Act One because it wasn’t that moment itself. It was the setup of that moment.” I think it’s really important to step back and kind of think through that.

When we focus on the negative, we tend to miss the overall picture of things. It’s not exactly focusing on the positive either. It’s focusing on moments that are striking, exciting – those kinds of things that just sort of stick to your guts and won’t let you go, those images that feel really strong and beautiful, those moments, those single lines of dialogue where it’s like, “Yes, this is it! This is the place where you’re supposed to be for this particular show.”

I think writers are intuitive and they’re smart. If they’re hearing, “This works and this works and this work and this works and this works and this feels rights and this feels right and this is the thing that’s sticking with me and this is the thing that’s sticking with me,” I think two things happen. (1) They start identifying what that show is through the moments that are working and I think (2) if they’re not hearing that this moment over here – like, Moment C – is striking or exciting from anybody, I think there’s that natural thing of like, “Oh, well, I think I need to look at that. I need to see what’s working so I can understand what’s not working,” whereas, if you talk about what’s not working, the writer will never understand what is working.

LINDSAY: Right. You start with “these are the moments where what I think you’re trying to say really pop.”

NICK: Exactly.

LINDSAY: We have this. We have this. We have this. What about this?

NICK: Exactly.

LINDSAY: Is this doing the same thing?

NICK: Yeah, is this working on the same level?

LINDSAY: Yeah, so that they’re actually the ones who actually respond. I have been finding that this week with my playwright and that she’s very contemplative. It’s been really interesting to see her grow in that she’s starting to become contemplative of this is not at the same level that I want that this moment is and really realize – like, she really realized yesterday, she was like, “Page three is not the same as when things start going on page seven.” I’m like, “No, it’s not. You’re right.” That was the first conversation we had about it – just in terms of not emphasizing the negative.

NICK: Right.

LINDSAY: But just sort of doing that little bit work. Exactly as you were saying. We’re doing a lot of little bit work and you’re working with someone who is doing a lot of work.

NICK: Yes.

LINDSAY: And that’s interesting, too. Just in terms of student writers get really overwhelmed sometimes. How do you deal with that – when someone is maybe so overwhelmed they can’t make any changes or they are so overwhelmed because they’re making so many changes?

NICK: That’s a great question. I think some of it is based on individual. I know that is anti-advice, right?

LINDSAY: No, except for the fact that I’ll say that that is important too for classroom writing work. You cannot give the same feedback to everybody.

NICK: Because no two writers are the same.

LINDSAY: Because there are some, we have two completely different writers and I think that they needed two completely different approaches with feedback in order for them to move forward successfully.

NICK: Absolutely. Yes, yes, yes, and that’s true. That’s so true. I feel like even you and I would need different kinds of feedback as writers.

LINDSAY: Oh, absolutely.

NICK: You know, one of the things I try to do with feedback, well, it’s after the questioning, first, it’s almost like a con where I need to gain your trust.

LINDSAY: Oh, sure.

NICK: So, then I can start talking to you about other things. I think that’s where the questions come from. I think really establishing language and a common vocabulary is really important and I think stating the obvious becomes very important. What I always do, if I ask a question and there’s an answer that comes to me, I’ll rephrase the answer again as, like, my own. “Oh, you said this and what you mean by that is… Am I correct?” which builds up trust. From there, what it allows me to do is a couple of things and we’re talking about the overwhelming thing.

First of all, if you have trust, I think the overwhelming thing starts going away. Number two is I really try to give all notes in sections because I think, especially with the student writer, I’ll read a play and I’ll see there’s fifty things that identify that. Like, we have to look at this.

LINDSAY: Maybe three.

NICK: I give three or four.

LINDSAY: Yeah.

NICK: Which helps and just knowing that all we need to do is fix these three, I read it, “Great! These are wonderful moments but now that that’s opened up, let’s look at this. Now that that’s opened up, let’s look at this.” It might feel repetitive to them and they might be driven up the tree a little bit but, you know, anyone can fix three things.

LINDSAY: Yes, nobody can fix fifty.

NICK: Right.

LINDSAY: It doesn’t matter how good they are.

NICK: Yeah, and trying to do that in one draft is like, ugh, that’s impossible.

I try to identify. I also try to not make all three major things, like, we’ll be like, “Let’s work on a little character here. Let’s work on a little structure here. There’s a little work on a little dialogue here. Those are the three that I’m going to give you.”

The other thing that I tend to do as well that seems to help is I give, in a way, I call it the worst advice ever version where I’ll try to identify, if there’s an issue with let’s say the ending of a play, I’ll say, “You know, this isn’t quite working here. This moment is tough. It’s naughty. I don’t think it’s the thing that you’re kind of pushing at and I think the kind of thing that’ll help it is something like, well, this is the worst advice ever, so you shouldn’t go with this version but what if he bursts into the room and punches the guy and then grabs the safe and then runs away. That’s terrible but you get that feeling that I’m getting at.”

LINDSAY: So, it’s because you can’t write their play, you can’t give them a suggestion, but here’s a direction. It’s just giving them, “Oh, but I can do this instead!”

NICK: Absolutely. It’s the talking about the tone of the moment; it’s talking about the pace of the moment; and its talking bout the intention of the moment without actually giving a moment which is interesting. Well, the other thing too is I really try to promote the idea like there’s no such thing as a bad idea, especially when you’re working with multiple people, even if it’s just two people, because my terrible idea might spark a really good idea from you and your really good idea can really spark the greatest idea in the world for me and then back and forth and back and forth and you just keep getting better. It also I think gives them the freedom to sort of “pitch terrible ideas.”

LINDSAY: Pitch ideas.

NICK: Because I’m pitching terrible ideas.

LINDSAY: Yeah, you don’t go anywhere. If there’s no ideas, then nothing happens. Absolutely.

So, as we wrap up here – because we’re Chatty McChattersons.

NICK: This isn’t a four-hour podcast?

LINDSAY: It is not, man!

NICK: Oh, crap, I’m sorry!

LINDSAY: Can you imagine? An hour on hour three of our talk on feedback, nobody’s listening.

What advice would you give to teachers? Because, sometimes, the biggest issue that teachers have with giving feedback is their own insecurities about how they think of themselves as writers or not writers and having the fear that they’re going to give the wrong feedback or just really stop those students in their tracks. What advice would you give to teachers?

NICK: Well, that’s a tough one.

LINDSAY: I agree.

NICK: Yeah.

LINDSAY: Go for it.

NICK: That’s a tough question.

Well, I think one of the things is just to quite simply allow for time. That’s number one. Know that the process takes time, and that’s not only the writing process but the note-giving process. Unless I’m in a hurry, I try to read something two, three, maybe even four times before I even start to give notes because I feel like I truly need to understand it. I think the other thing too is making sure the student – and we’ve already kind of hit this but to reiterate – making sure the student understands that you are on their side, that you are trying to help them develop a play. You are not trying to develop a play with them. It gives them ownership in a way and you don’t have to be a good writer to be a good dramaturg. In fact, some really – I shouldn’t make a blanket statement like this but – I feel like dramaturgs and writers often do overlap.

LINDSAY: Not necessarily.

NICK: But a lot of times they don’t because I know some writers who are great who would make the worst dramaturgs in the world.

LINDSAY: It’s a skill set.

NICK: It is, and I think, in the feedback-giving process, it’s always about checking back in with the student, rephrasing what the student has said, and just again making sure that trust is there. I know I’ve said that, like, nineteen times but I feel like that is…

LINDSAY: You know what, you never can say this kind of stuff too many times because it is really – dangerous is not the right word but it’s dangerous because you can really damage. Do you know how many people I talk to who still remember twenty-five years later that teacher when I was in tenth grade ripped apart a piece of writing and I put it in a drawer and I never wrote again? How many people who just have been completely heartbroken by someone who was an English teacher who said that someone’s play was the worst because it had bad grammar?

NICK: Oh, god.

LINDSAY: That’s…

On the other side, some people who are just inspired to keep going just because somebody said, “I believe in you.”

NICK: Yeah. Well, I think that’s key and I think that’s the thing when I go back to like negative feedback is un-useful. I’ve always talked about the positives. I always talk about what’s exciting because, I mean, like, I’ve read some really, really, really terrible things in my day and even the worst plays I’ve read, I can find things that are interesting and exciting that kind of stick with me, that I’m like, “Oh, that moment there is really cool.” When we start focusing on that kind of stuff, it kind of cracks open the thing and don’t be mean.

LINDSAY: Like, be constructive. I really like your notion of, if you see fifty things wrong with something, pick three.

NICK: Yeah.

LINDSAY: And we’ll end it with the thing that everybody needs to end on these days which is assessment but, if you give a student, “Here are three things that I see that need to be changed,” if they change those three things, regardless of whether the play is a Pulitzer Prize winner, all they had to do was change three things, then they’ve improved and that’s something you can assess them on, right?

NICK: Yeah.

LINDSAY: And that’s something, if you don’t feel comfortable as a writer but you can identify these things, then you can identify if they’ve changed.

NICK: Absolutely.

LINDSAY: Everybody wins.

NICK: And I think, you know what, I think that what adds to that is it’s about potential. Talking about a play’s potential is I think a really important thing because we’re talking about it as a thing that’s in process, not a thing that is a product.

LINDSAY: Yes! Yeah, absolutely. What are we really talking about here? We’re not talking about writing the next Arthur Miller, the next Pulitzer Prize winner. We’re talking about a kid having self-expression – experimenting with self-expression – and that’s all process.

NICK: Yeah. And never shutting down an idea. By that, I mean, there’s going to be kids who are struggling and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read plays about suicide from kids, bullying, or sexuality – like, coming out and things like that – and not shutting that down. Encouraging that expression. I think, when you’re fifteen, sixteen, seventeen – 34 or whatever…

LINDSAY: 47.

NICK: Everything that you’re writing is about you in some way, shape, or form, and you’re struggling, contending with something. You’re in a fight against something and it can only be expressed before you’re trying to figure something out and I think that’s important – to let them figure it out.

LINDSAY: It’s the reason I believe every student should write a play.

NICK: I love that.

LINDSAY: Just once – because they will find something in them and it will come out and it’ll change a part of them.

I’ll end on I’ll always remember this girl – this must be twenty years ago now so she must be at least in her late thirties – was pregnant, she wrote a play about a character who was pregnant who decided not to have the baby, and she changed her mind. She was all up for teen mom. I’m going to do it and she wrote herself out of that mindset just by writing about a character and what would happen to that girl and just realizing and writing did that.

NICK: Wow!

LINDSAY: I know!

NICK: Well, it goes back to the idea of you’re not going to change the entire world but you can change one world even if that world is your own.

LINDSAY: Oh, we did that so well. We put a pin on that.

This has been great. Thank you so much, Nick!

NICK: Thank you so much.

LINDSAY: Thank you, Nick!

Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.

As I said at the beginning, we have a new intro, a new podcast title – The Drama Teacher Podcast. We have a new tagline for Theatrefolk – The Drama Teacher Resource Company. As you can see, it’s about you!

More than that, we want to feature you, dear drama teacher, dear drama educator, and what you do.

Are you doing one of our plays? Take a rehearsal picture and send it to us.

Are you working on a monologue in the classroom? Take a picture. Send it to us!

Are you a member of the Drama Teacher Academy and you’re using an exercise? Take a 30-second video. Send it to us!

We want to showcase you on Facebook. We want to brag about what you do.

Where do you send all this? tfolk@theatrefolk.com.

What is the Drama Teacher Academy, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked. Check on the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode173.

Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to The Drama Teacher Podcast on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”

And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.
Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

About the author

Lindsay Price

1 Comment

  • This podcast has been such an inspiration…I’ve got to give my students the chance to write more!!! Thank you, both!!

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