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Playwriting program reborn: IU grad student plays being performed in repertory titled 'At First Sight'

Mar. 21, 2013

View a behind-the-scenes video on IU's MFA program in playwriting.

Last semester, second-year MFA playwriting student Kelly Lusk had fallen into a routine.

About once a week or so, he’d turn up in the office of Ken Weitzman, assistant professor in IU Bloomington’s Department of Theatre and Drama and director of the department’s newly reinvigorated playwriting program.

“I’d be like, ‘I’m stuck,’” Lusk said with a dry chuckle.

asmine Desiree Traylor

Jasmine Desiree Traylor plays Danielle in “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea.” | Photo By Ben Tamir Rothenberg

“And Ken would always say, ‘Just keep writing.’ I’d tell him that my character was going in directions that I didn’t want him to go, but Ken would say, ‘Just let him go. See what happens. You can always fix it later.’ So for me, one of those big lessons was learning that sometimes you just have to keep writing, that whatever you write doesn’t have to be permanent.”

Lusk is one of two students in IU’s “new” playwriting program, which fell into dormancy in 2008 following the retirement of professor emeritus Dennis J. Reardon, who’d headed the program since 1987.

Weitzman joined the department, which is part of the College of Arts and Sciences, about five years ago and re-launched the program in late 2010.

Now in their second year of the three-year program, Lusk and fellow MFA student Nathan Davis will soon unveil their new plays in repertory. The “At First Sight” series is set to open March 22 in the Wells-Metz Theatre.

Inside IU Bloomington readers can win tickets to the performances by emailing iniub@indiana.edu with the subject line "Inside IU Bloomington-At First Sight ticket giveaway" by close of business Friday, March 22. Entries must come from current IU employees using a valid IU email address.


A scene from "(a love story)," by Kelly Lusk. | Photo By Ben Tamir Rothenberg

“It’s not unprecedented for the department to produce student work, but the program had been fallow. The idea is to have full productions in years two and three,” Weitzman said.

“The year-long development process mirrors the professional world, and we plan to invite guests such as literary agents and artistic directors from the region -- and eventually, we hope, from across the nation -- to our student productions. These folks can then act as additional mentors, helping our playwrights with goals and networking, among other things.”

Lusk’s play, titled “(a love story),” entwines three separate stories of passion and is directed by second year MFA directing student Paul Daily.

Kelly Lusk

Kelly Lusk

Davis’ production, “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” tells the story of young black man who dreams of an ancestor thrown overboard during the Middle Passage and becomes determined to retrieve the drowned captive from the deep. It’s directed by associate professor Fontaine Syer.

The two students crafted first drafts last summer, and spent the fall polishing them. A read-through using actors and a second reading in front of an audience gave the playwrights a chance to actually hear their works aloud, kicking off another round of refinements.

For Lusk, that included shifting his play’s Greek chorus from its initial styling as a folk band to a more classical concept -- “I really liked my earlier concept,” he said,” but just couldn’t make it work” -- while Davis reshaped his introduction to shorten the time between the start of the play and actual dialogue.

Hearing work performed by an actor can completely change the feel of a play, as can the energy generated by an audience, Weitzman said, who asks his students maintain a journal throughout their creative process to help shape their progression.

“That’s an important part of the collaborative process,” he said.

“An audience can really help shape the incarnation of a play, and seeking descriptive feedback can help drive rewrites.”

These are the two students’ first fully-produced plays.

However, another of Davis’ plays, “The Wind and the Breeze” was recently announced as a finalist in Washington, D.C.’s 2013 Source Festival and won the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival’s Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, named after the African-American playwright perhaps best known for her seminal work “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Nathan Davis

Nathan Davis

For his part, Davis described IU’s revived playwriting program as “perfect,” praising its small size, focus on presentation and support received through Weitzman -- an accomplished playwright himself, with more than a dozen productions under his belt and accolades ranging from a national Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award to commissions by theater companies.

“There’s a letting go required by the process of hearing your work performed,” Davis said.

“You know you’re still working on it, trying things out, but your audience is hearing it as a finished product. I don’t know if I’ll ever really get over that, but I’m learning to accept it. Ken’s an excellent mentor, because he’s been through this process himself. He’s somebody who’s further down the road than you, but he’s also on that same road with you.”

Ticket prices range from $12 to $25 for each performance. Order online or call the box office at 855-1103.

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