In the Beginning, the Word

"It's time to take the hot seat, Mary," says Rafael Lima, leading a Thursday morning class in the play-writing program at New World School of the Arts (NWSA). Mary Manning's cheeks flush as she pushes her hair behind her ears. Clutching a thick loose-leaf notebook, she makes her way to a seat at the front of the room. "I'm so nervous," she confesses to the other students, who nod and murmur their sympathies.

Knowing just how vulnerable young writers feel, Lima, a playwright whose works have been produced around the world, reminds Manning that "this is a workshop. This is where we make mistakes." Yet he doesn't let her off the hook. When her scene between a mother and a daughter that she has been reading with fellow student Raquel Almazan falls flat, he asks, "Can we do a little improv?" Within moments Manning and Almazan are on their feet, exchanging spontaneous dialogue in order to tap the emotions that the writing has thus far avoided.

Such a theatrical approach is less likely to be found in a short-story, novel, or nonfiction writing class, since those genres are meant for private reading. But playwrights, who initially compose their work alone (as writers do), string together words that will be spoken out loud. Lima's improvisational method lifts the work, even in its early stages of development, off the page and into the world, where it has to be authentic to succeed in front of an audience.

NWSA's college-level play-writing program began in September 1995 with Dr. Richard Janaro at the helm; Lima assumed the directorship after Janaro retired this past June. Still very much in its nascent stages, the writing track has yet to be accredited as a degree program; the curriculum must first undergo a lengthy approval process required by the state university system in order to be certified. Eventually, however, Dean Jorge Guerra expects that students will be able to earn a B.F.A. in play writing -- the only degree of its kind in Miami.

The idea for a full-fledged play-writing program goes back to 1991, when Janaro was teaching it as an elective to New World high school students. "I told the dean, 'We really need some kind of payoff at the end of the year that the writing students can work for,'" Janaro recalls, and so the annual New Playwrights' Festival was born. Guerra elaborates: "We asked for submissions [of original plays for the festival] from the students. There was no high degree of complexity in the work and the skills were not up to a high level, but students brought an interesting rawness to writing about their experiences on their own terms."

Guerra admits that he initially believed young students lacked the maturity and discipline required to create dramatic work. "You don't teach play writing to young people," he remembers thinking. "You wait until they have something to say or something to write about." Yet, as the festival and the play-writing elective grew in popularity with both high school and college students, Guerra changed his mind. "One of the prejudices banished for me is that a young person couldn't possibly elaborate a thought and transform it into a structure that could have a life of its own."

For Lima the question is not whether he can teach writing to teenagers as opposed to retirees. "I don't believe I can teach writing at all," he insists. "I think all I do is remind people of what they vaguely sense and maybe already know, and then I can help them sharpen that." He considers himself "a coach of sorts," who helps accelerate the writing process. To this end, he hopes to expose students to an array of opportunities while they are still in school. "I want a class on the mechanics of the writing world," he adds. "I want to bring in producers and visiting literary agents who can look at the work and talk to the students."

He has arranged for Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson to visit his classes during the next two semesters, and he also wants to teach screenwriting. "If [the school's] mission statement says we are to train artists to function and compete in the professional world of art, then we would be derelict in turning out playwrights who cannot write screenplays," Lima says. He maintains that only a few playwrights can earn a living writing plays alone, and that innumerable authors, from Terrence McNally to Eduardo Machado to Eric Overmyer, write for the screen as well as the stage.

Lima put his own New York stage career on hold to write exclusively for Hollywood, doing movie scripts and TV shows such as Wise Guy and China Beach. After a half-dozen years he came back to Miami suffering from what he terms a severe case of "burnout." Given his nasty reaction to life in the West Coast fast lane, can he justify encouraging others to write for film and television? "I know now what I didn't know then," Lima explains somewhat philosophically. "I took every script offered me. I worked back to back for six years without ever writing anything for myself. But everything in life is a balance, including screenwriting. I would tell my students, 'Write a play for yourself, take a screenplay; write a play for yourself, take a screenplay.' And when I say write a play for yourself I mean write something because you are compelled to and not because you have a check waiting on the other end."

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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