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IU Department of Theatre and Drama

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Last modified: Monday, December 6, 2010

Relaunched M.F.A. program at IU expected to be 'bridge' to world of professional playwriting

Dec. 6, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- After a three-year hiatus, Indiana University's Department of Theatre and Drama in the College of Arts and Sciences will once again offer a master's degree in playwriting.

Assistant Professor Ken Weitzman will lead the newly imagined M.F.A. program, mentoring students through the process of generating original ideas, collaborating with actors and directors and, finally, staging of full productions as part of the department's Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center season.

Weitzman takes over where the program's previous director, Dennis J. Reardon, left off when he retired in 2008. Now that the program is being rebuilt, Department of Theatre and Drama Chair Jonathan Michaelsen is giving Weitzman free reign to restructure the program in accordance with his vision, drawing upon his professional experience and industry relationships.

"The sort of lovely thing was that Jonathan Michaelsen didn't say 'modify what came before you,'" Weitzman said. "He said 'Ken, you know the field, you know other programs, you know the profession -- what do you want this to be? What would be a really exciting program that would give the best education to a playwright entering the program now? Start there, and we'll make it happen.'"

Along with classes and workshops in the areas of adaptation, screenwriting, writing a solo play, writing with an ensemble and writing for television will be visits and guest workshops from successful writers, literary managers, artistic directors and agents.

Among the guest visitors Weitzman plans to bring in are a former writer for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," a writer for NBC's "Parks and Recreation," a successful screenwriter and artistic staff from theaters such as Indianapolis Repertory Theatre and Actors Theatre of Louisville. The students will also take regular trips to see productions in Chicago, Louisville, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, where they will meet industry professionals and learn of internship and observership opportunities.

The program will remain intentionally small, with no more than three students at a time, thus ensuring the necessary funding and attention each student needs to develop a career, Weitzman said. "If we can guarantee funding for three productions -- they're not in competition with one another -- so they have that collegiality and are really there to support each other."

Weitzman will invite industry professionals to the annual spring productions of plays by the program's second- and third-year students.

"The great advantage of that is that they're also coming to see the actors work and the designers work and the directors work," Weitzman said. "My hope is that the playwriting program will benefit all parties in a very specific way by creating a bridge to the profession." Weitzman said the connections he formed through similar exposure during his graduate education at the University of California, San Diego led to professional relationships that exist today.

Weitzman said writing a play for full production is far different from writing for a public reading. "Students can't learn about a play until they see it fully produced -- and they won't be prepared for the professional world unless they've gone through that process. I wouldn't want a playwright going out into the world and doing their first production not understanding how to collaborate with directors, designers and actors and really not understanding what it means to be in production."

The process will mirror the new play process of the professional world but with less stress, and more room to grow and experiment. The students will also have the opportunity to teach undergraduate writers, Weitzman said.

"I will have an eye toward how they're going to make a living while they're writing," he said, adding that playwrights often either teach or write for TV to subsidize their careers. Weitzman also wants to give students as much experience writing in different styles as possible, with guest seminars on writing for the Web, writing for video games and "as many things as I can expose them to."

"I think as many ways as you can learn to tell a story, the better -- and as many ways as you can make a living, the better. Playwriting will be the primary focus with selected classes to help round it out," he said.

Students will be encouraged to become mindful of their individual creative processes, working to hone the things that work best. "Their inspiration might be a character study, it might be thinking in terms of structure, it might come from something visual such as a painting," Weitzman said. "We'll do a lot of playing around with that."

Ultimately, Weitzman wants to create at IU a program that does for new writers what the UCSD program did for him. "I want to turn out good people with original voices who will make a positive impact on the profession."

About Ken Weitzman

Ken Weitzman's plays include The Catch (premiering in Jan '11 at The Denver Center Theatre Company), Fire in the Garden (premiering at Indiana Repertory Theatre in Feb '11), The As If Body Loop (Humana Festival '07), Arrangements (Atlantic Theatre Company, Pavement Group), Spin Moves (The Summer Play Festival), Stadium 360 (Out of Hand Theater), Memorabilia (Alliance Theatre), Hominid (Out of Hand Theatre/Theatre Emory, Oerol Festival Netherlands.)

These plays and others have also been developed and presented at, New York Stage and Film, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Playwrights Horizons, Arena Stage, the Geva Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum, Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Dad's Garage, Florida Stage, Cherry Lane Theatre, the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Page 73 Productions.

Weitzman's play Arrangements received the 2003 L. Arnold Weissberger Award, Fire in the Garden was co-winner of the Mario Fratti-Fred Newman Political Play Contest, and The As If Body Loop won the McDonald Playwriting Award (for the best new play in San Diego).

He has been commissioned by Arena Stage, the Alliance Theatre, Theatre Emory, Actors Theatre of Louisville and South Coast Repertory (the Elizabeth George Commission for an Outstanding Emerging Playwright.) Currently, he is the playwright-in-residence for Out of Hand Theater Company.