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Teaching at Hunter

By Tina Howe

[In April, 2005, at a ceremony in Independence, Kansas, Tina Howe was given the William Inge Theatre Festival’s Distinguished Achievement in American Theatre Award. Tina Howe has been a Visiting Professor of Theatre at Hunter College since 1990, teaching graduate Playwriting. On May 17, 2005, Hunter held a tribute to celebrate her Award, for which Tina prepared the following remarks about teaching. She read them as an introduction to a series of readings from her plays, directed by Peter Bloch.]


My feelings for Hunter are so strong I thought I'd better write them down so I don't whirl around the ceiling like an exploding helium balloon. You don't want to spend the rest of the evening picking rubbery pieces of Tina out of your hair and clothing.

As I was doing laps in the pool this morning, I was trying to figure out exactly what it is about teaching at Hunter that has made me so happy these past 15 years. God knows, I love teaching playwriting. It's such a pernicious form… On the one hand it requires gargantuan intelligence and architectural skill. A play can only be as thrilling as the container you put it in. Whether it's a Gothic cathedral, the frozen food aisle of a supermarket or a stretch of beach along the ocean, you've got to stay true to the setting. But once you shake this gorgeous container to life, you have to forget your gargantuan intelligence and surrender to the whims and foibles of your characters. You have to let them lose their way, fall mute, burst into tears, eat dirt and start playing the tuba. In short, you have to let them LIVE! It's a very difficult balancing act because here you've designed all these splendid winding paths but then you have to get the audience to care about the people who are lurching around inside them.

This is where Hunter comes in…

Your glorious students…

Anyone who's a graduate student in the Theatre Department can take my playwriting class. They don't see themselves as playwrights, they just think "playwriting" sounds like fun. You know -- "playing at writing." So I get all these students who love the theater but have never written a play in their life so they have NO attitude about how great and important they are. I can't tell you how refreshing that is! Since being a witness of any kind involves humility, it's a tonic to have students who are completely open to the process -- and each other. We're all equals and that includes me. In fact, I'm probably more terrified than they are.

I don't use a textbook. The class is all about the class. Which can be a scary way to teach because in a sense you're depending on the kindness of strangers. But what amazing strangers my Hunter students are! Largely because they're grownups who go to work every day and don't have time to write anything -- let alone a play… which is the last thing the world needs! A new play!

So who are these misguided people? A lot of them are teachers in the public school system. Many of them teach Special Ed, which they means they have high doses of compassion. I've had actors, singers, dancers, artists, therapists, masseurs, stand up comics, computer nerds, editors, copy writers, saints, sinners, belly dancers -- alcoholics, recovering alcoholics, recovered alcoholics -- psychotics, weepers, nurses, musicians, composers, single mothers, expectant mothers, grandmothers, over-protective mothers who call their children during class, people who do strange things in legal offices, security guards, game show winners, bartenders, waiters…. A lot of bartenders and waiters…. Almost more bartenders and waiters than anything else. And through the years these eclectic souls have become my best friends. It's true. Most of my social life centers around former students. I have a very difficult time letting go of the good ones and have actively been trying to bribe my present class to return for a third semester. I don't hang out with them when they're enrolled in class, however. I have some limits. Barely.

And then there's the theater faculty. Many of whom have become close friends. We go the theater together, early music concerts, art galleries, have barbecues, go shopping -- you name it! They're a hale and hearty bunch. Diminutive Claudia Orenstein even directed me in a student production of The Bald Soprano here at Hunter. I was pretty dreadful but had the time of my life playing The Maid. The fact that I accosted her in the hall and was a good foot taller than her certainly helped me get the role.

Of course the trick of being a playwright who teaches playwriting is figuring out the balance between the two. If I weren't slipping and sliding, struggling to write my own plays as they're struggling to write theirs, I wouldn't be much of an example to them. We're called "Play Wrights," after all. That's spelled, W.R.I.G.H.T. as in "Wainwright," "Chimneywright," "Jewelrywright" … (I'm making these up) -- workmen, laborers -- people who make things with their hands. So when you're a playwright teaching playwriting, there's a great hubbub in the room as we go about our work. Our tools are words… and each other. It's all about the process. Being open. Being daring. Being kind. Being good. Being a Hunter student.

Speaking of plays, I ought to say a few words about the scenes you're going to see. I chose three love scenes because I thought they'd be spicier than some full-length dirge about the meaning of it all. I was hoping to present them chronologically, but due to some last-minute conflicts with the actors, we had to change the order. We'll begin with a scene from my most recent play, Rembrandt's Gift, and then plunge into one of my earlier ones, The Art of Dining, finishing off with the most romantic of all, Coastal Disturbances.

In looking to see what themes or behavior might tie them together, I was appalled to realize that when my heroines fall in love, they tend to express themselves through fevered, often insane arias. Once they start talking, they simply can't stop. They're too terrified by the velocity of their own feelings. If silence should fall, who knows what might happen? Well, I know. They'd turn into billy goats or shaking vats of spilled glue.

Before we begin, I must express my appreciation to Peter Bloch, the extraordinary man who's directed these readings. His tenacity and insight have been remarkable. I also must thank the seven fabulous actors who've agreed to bring these scenes to life:

They are, Alvin Epstein, Kathryn Grody and David Mazzeo for Rembrandt's Gift. Susan Barnes Walker and David Mazzeo for The Art of Dining, and finally Kat Foster and Austin Lysy for Coastal Disturbances. Jim Finn will read the stage directions for all three and once again David Bean is our unflappable technical director.


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