In the Beginning, the Word

NWSA faculty member Roberto Prestigiacomo, a playwright and a director, joins Lima in teaching writing at both college and high school levels. Although he has never written screenplays, he agrees that "it is important to offer alternatives to play writing. With a wider range of possibilities we can get more students interested in the program." Yet he is quick to add, "Play writing is at the core of what we do. Here students will learn how to write for the theater."

The professors approach their own play writing and the teaching of that writing differently. For example, Lima contends that "you cannot get started until you know what your character wants. That's the foundation, the basic bedrock of a play. When I get [the students] to discover what their characters concretely and specifically want, then the story begins."

Prestigiacomo, on the other hand, says, "I start from a line or two and then little by little I discover the actions of my characters. I always tell [the students] I can help them write a play from two lines. You don't have to know how it's going to end up."

Mary Manning deems the influence of both professors vital to her awakening as a writer. A sophomore, she came to NWSA to study acting, but writing is something she always wanted to do. "I was very scared and tentative at first," she remembers. "I didn't know what I wanted to write about. I was feeling around in the dark." But taking classes with Lima and Prestigiacomo helped to demystify the act of putting ideas and feelings into words.

"Lima gives us simple, very specific tools that we can use to bring honesty, emotions, truthfulness, and elements of ourselves to our writing," she states. Prestigiacomo, she continues, "who is also a director, creates a bridge from the script to the stage. He helps us understand what makes the writing work in terms of production values."

Prestigiacomo describes it this way: "A student has my opinions, my ideas, my suggestions. And they have Rafael's ideas, opinions, suggestions. Then the student is free to choose. Once the playwright makes a conscious choice, she becomes responsible for her own work. And that is what a playwright has to learn first, that it's her play and she's the last person who makes the decisions about it."

In its second official year, the college play-writing program is still small, with only five students. Yet the works in progress have already proven diverse: Manning's drama deals with a mother-daughter conflict; Raquel Almazan's play grapples with high-class call girls and their past. Willa-Sue Suskind, an older student who has returned to school, is writing about the changes in a marriage after her husband's open-heart surgery. Amos Mendez's hip-hop musical features a gang member who falls in love. And Tiffany Heller has just finished a one-woman show about artist Camille Claudel, mistress of Rodin.

Almazan characterizes the classroom atmosphere fostered by the teachers as a mixture of "passion and patience." In this ideal community, student writers learn to trust themselves and push beyond whatever limits have been curtailing their imaginations. But the classroom is only a launching pad. The ultimate test for a dramatist is how well a script plays when produced. One of the advantages of the writing program for New World students is seeing their work leap fairly quickly from page to stage. Heller, for example, will present her piece in December at the New Playwrights' Festival. Almazan will hear her work read to the public by professional actors at 3rd Street Black Box in Miami: A run-through of her script Three-Bit Hood inaugurates the theater's bimonthly Wednesday night play-reading series on November 13 at 8:00. And when a writer sees the work live, as most playwrights will tell you, she truly begins to learn her craft.

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