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
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