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self-assessment, re: playwriting by Allan K. '17

notes on taking playwrights' workshop this semester

Though I’ve thought of myself as a writer for most of my life, I always struggled with fiction writing and long-form storytelling. Writing a news article for the school paper or a personal blog post or a school essay was easy—in fact, fulfilling—but true storytelling blocked me like no other. In high school I became interested instead in poetry; not only writing poetry, but noticing poetry, recognizing symbolism and meaning in the everyday arcs of human experience. But still, I struggled. I felt that I had stories to tell and no means with which to tell them.

This was my state entering playwrights’ workshop, with the basic aim of forcing myself to learn to write longform. Poetry taught me how to capture moments, feelings, emotions—but more complex discussions of the human experience and the sorts of relationships we form necessitate the sort of storytelling ability I felt I lacked.

As I began writing plays, I struggled to find ways to drive action, create drama, all in a theatrically compelling way. In particular, I found myself wanting to say big things, philosophical and critical things about the current state of humanity. I would get stuck on creating a story that would make the statements I wanted. The training wheels of the class helped. I learned to think in terms of change, theatrical devices, use of objects, lighting and staged sound, characters’ desires and motivations and raisons d’etre. And as I heard and read and saw more plays, I changed the way I observe and listen.

I focused on a particular skill with each play I wrote. One would be about creating vivid dialogue; one about staging and lighting; one about managing large numbers of distinct characters. Most of these were unsuccessful in some way or another, but some were successful—and as I kept trying, I found myself happier with my results. Curiously, I found myself returning to certain discussions: societal oppression, the ethics of engineering, social awareness. And I drew heavily from poetry (was that cheating?) in attempts to heighten the visual impact of the performance, attempting to pierce the layers and defenses an audience comes armed with and reach into a core, common humanity.

It was hard to have the drive to continue writing ten pages a week when life and problem sets got in the way, and alternately inspiring and horrifying to hear my characters brought to life by my classmates. It was ultimately liberating, I think, to have had a supportive space where I could take risks and try my hand at a new craft without too much fear of judgment or failure.

I still have stories to tell and questions to pose. Being simultaneously an MIT student and a writer is difficult, but I now know that it’s possible—and I would say, even necessary: for a fresh perspective, for a new angle, for a different mental dexterity, for getting out of a rut. I have a new confidence and a better understanding of my ability to communicate, to put my mind in ink and text and feed it to another person.

So here’s to writing more and writing often, stories told, retold, and as yet untold.

Things I wrote this semester, and their prompts:

“LOSS” (the monologue)

“Soapbox” (the play about a box)

“A Matter of Life and Death” (the play about motivation)

“Unresolved Sexual Tension” (the play about context)

“Ad Astra, Per Aspera” (the play about broken rituals)

“The Elephant in the Cage” (the play about a life-changing activity)

“Institutional Practice” (the play about a man whose foot is crushed in a factory accident)

“Therapy” (the play about a boy with glowing eyes)

“Engineering Ethics” (the play that can’t be staged)

“Hearts. Sleeves.” (the last play)