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
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
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.