The Playwright As Teacher

By Jose Casas

I have been teaching on and off college campuses ever since completing graduate school back in 2003 and one of the things I have noticed is that the life of an artist (in my case, the life of a playwright) eerily mirrors the life of an adjunct professor looking for tenure. I have taught a number of different courses in departments such as Theatre Arts, English and Chicano Studies.

I respect the teaching profession and attempt to teach each class as well as I can because I hold a responsibility to the students I instruct. However, that does not mean there are classes I prefer to teach over others. I am only human. Please do not ever put me in front of another INTRO TO THEATRE course for non-majors [wink wink]. That is all I ask. But seriously, the class I prefer to teach more than any other, by leaps and bounds, is: PLAYWRITING.

I cannot speak for all playwrights, but I have a very strong suspicion that most playwrights would love to pay the bills only by writing. I know I would, but that is not the reality. That being said, once in a while we got lucky and get the opportunity to teach our craft.

The question being posed to me is: am I disillusioned or inspired?

I am disillusioned in the sense that many students I have come across seem to choose to enroll in a playwriting course, but they come in with a screenwriter mentality; their visions spilling out in 3-D and surround sound. That is not to say anything negative about screenwriting; not at all. It simply means that some students seem bored by writing plays and the skill that goes along with it. They picture a movie in their heads instead of the energy of actors on a stage. They think with an MTV type of reality where short and quick looks at the world make it difficult for them to concentrate on a layered and meaningful piece of drama. They want instant gratification because the mere thought of WRITING  and REWRITING and REWRITING is unacceptable; the process getting lost in the shuffle.

Now that I have stepped off of my soap box I can honestly say that the majority of my time with emerging playwrights is truly inspiring and hopeful because not only do I create theatre, I actually watch it too. If I can play a part in trying to help our theatre collective evolve and survive then even better. I am inspired by the stories students create; giving me hope that people still have something to say. I am energized by seeing a writer develop. I am not making that student a writer; merely leading them, ideally, in the right direction so that they, one day, truly discover  and understand that their voices make a difference.

And the best thing about teaching playwriting? The best thing is that my students, undoubtedly, inspire me to become a better writer. They offer up new perspectives and ideas that I never would have or could have envisioned if I had not made a connection with them. There is nothing better than reading a student’s play and declaring [to myself], “damn, I wish I could write like that.”

It brings me back to the days where my teachers challenged me to think of new stories and not accept the status quo.  It brings me back to the days when I felt that if I could not say what I wanted to say I would explode. It brings me back to the days I first realized I was not seeing “my” stories being told.

In the end, teaching playwriting reminds me of the reason I put a pen to the paper in the first place.

Jose Casas is a playwright living in Moreno Valley, California. His plays have been produced across the country. Works written include MindProbe/Freddie’s Dead, The vine, La Rosa Still Grows Beyond the Wall, 14, Somebody’s Children and La Ofrenda. His play, MindProbe/Freddie’s Dead, won the Sherrill C. Corwin/Metropolitan Theatre award for Best One-Act plays. His play, La Ofrenda, has won the 2005 Bonderman National Playwriting for Youth Award and the 2007 American Alliance Theatre and Education’s Distinguished Play Award. His play, Somebody’s Children was the winner of the 2009 Bonderman National Playwriting Award and the 2010 American Alliance of Theatre and Education’s Distinguished Play Award. His plays, 14  (2003) and  La Rosa Never Grows Beyond the Wall (2005) have both been awarded the ARIZoni Theatre Award for Excellence for Best Production of An Original Play. He has three published plays: La Ofrenda (Dramatic Publishing), 14 (AltaMira Press & Paseos Nuevos) and Somebody’s Children (Dramatic Publishing). He recently completed a commission for Dramatic Publishing which will be included in the anthology, The Bully Plays, which will be published this summer. He currently is an adjunct faculty at California State University, Los Angeles in the Chicano Studies Department.