Playwrights Michael Weller and Ross Berger talk about teaching and learning the craft through the Cherry Lane Mentor Project.
To be a great playwright, one must, of course, be born with a certain amount of talent. But that talent can only be realized with a knowledge of the craft. Some learn the necessary skills through reading and seeing plays, some through university programs; but the best way for an emerging writer to learn the craft is to study with a master playwright.
The Cherry Lane Mentor Project was created in the hope of fostering new talent with the help of some old hands. This year, five plays were chosen and their authors were paired with such theater luminaries as David Henry Hwang and Alfred Uhry, who mentored the young playwrights and have helped them work their plays up to production.
The five chosen plays are currently being produced at the Cherry Lane Theatre's sister space, the Cherry Lane Alternative. Now playing is Ross M. Berger's The Shoebox of Ebbets Field. Just an hour before its debut, TheaterMania spoke to both Ross and his mentor, Michael Weller.
TM: How long has the Cherry Lane Mentor Project been around?
MICHAEL WELLER: Three seasons.
TM: How did you get involved?
MW: I do it every year; I'm a sort of permanent fixture.
ROSS BERGER: I found out about it initially two years ago. I think it was May of 1999 when an instructor of mine at Columbia asked all of his students if they had scripts that he would submit. Which I did. I didn't make the round, I was part of the reading series last year; [it was] one of the very first things I ever wrote, not even full-length. And then this year, I think it was April of 2000, I submitted The Shoebox of Ebbets Field.
TM: So what's the play about?
RB: I'm bad at this, because I always think I'm going to spoil it.
RB: Roughly, it's a drama that takes place in Brooklyn in the 1950s. And it's basically about a working class family that has...
MW: It's about the break up of a family, using the metaphor of the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn.
TM: What was it about this play in particular that caught your attention, Michael?
MW: Everything. It just grabbed me.
TM: And were you already familiar with Michael's work, Ross?
RB: Yes, I was. I saw his movies first before I read his plays. I didn't see any of his plays until I moved to New York; the first play I saw was Buying Time, last September.
TM: Would you say your writing styles are similar at all?
MW: [shakes head no] I wouldn't pick someone who was like me. [laughs] I wouldn't encourage people like me.
TM: Ross, have there been a lot of rewrites since you submitted the play?
RB: The only rewrites were small, little line changes and sometimes chunks of sentences here and there, just to basically enrich the situation that was already there. In terms of structure, in terms of character motivation, other things of that nature, it was pretty much intact. But when Michael read it, he said there were certain necessary things I needed to do in order to enrich the inner life, to clarify certain motivations of the characters.
TM: How did the mentoring process work once you were paired together? How often did you meet?
RB: Initially, there was a lot of activity that was going on at the theater itself, and we used to see each other every week. And we used to set some time out for us to look over the script. A lot of the stuff was either through e-mail or through telephone. The real important meetings, the major suggestions he had, were done in person.
TM: Michael, as a mentor, do you set up certain rules for yourself?
MW: No, I try--and I encourage all the other members as well--to shoot from the hip. I don't want to formalize this so much, and I don't think it should be. Usually, the three natural steps start with a cold reading followed by some notes. Then there's a rehearsal, followed by another set of notes. And then finally, the show goes on.
TM: Is this like a workshop? Do you feel there are going to be changes made?
RB: During the process, starting now? No. However, afterwards, I do see there are changes to be made, as with any production that you have. I'm going to re-evaluate what I've written, see where changes need to be done.
TM: How new is this experience for you, Ross? Have you had productions before?
RB: I've had productions in festivals, but this is the very first full-length play I've had done. Actually, it's one of the first full-length plays I ever wrote. Prior to that, I've had stuff done at Off-Off Broadway short play festivals. That was what I knew the theater to be about when I first got to New York.
TM: Where are you from?
RB: I'm from Connecticut. I went to Boston for college, and from there I went directly to the Columbia M.F.A. Playwriting Program.
TM: How is the university experience different from this kind of mentoring?
RB: When you're in a class of eight, it's much different than when you're in a class of one; you get the concentrated attention that you really need. Michael uses this word, "persnickety". The really important thing is that you can't get persnickety in a class workshop. But when you're being mentored, it's this hyper-awareness of your work. Not only is the mentor hyper-aware, but that's pretty contagious; it trickles down to the apprentice. You get more enthralled in the work itself, and you work harder to make the piece stronger.
TM: Do you think you'll show your future work to Michael?
RB: [laughs] Yes, I've already done that.
MW: That's one of the objectives: To forge a professional, ongoing relationship with the mentor. All the people I've ever mentored, even before this program, continue to stay in touch.
TM: Are there any other programs out there on this scale?
MW: Not on this scale. None of them, except Rattlestick Theater, work shows up to production. I don't like to call them workshops; it's a full production. And the writer has to think of it that way, has to think that this is something that people are going to pay to see and you can't get away with anything. You have to make it worth their buck. That's the crucial distinction I'm trying to make in terms of the developmental process, rather than programs where you go into this sort of indefinite netherland that never really puts you on the spot and gives you cold sweats. Which is how you learn.
TM: As a young playwright, did you have a mentor?
MW: No. In my day, they didn't have mentor programs, though there have always been master classes. I did hang around theaters. The way you got into something like the Royal Court Theatre, you read scripts, see how they worked.
TM: How much has the play evolved over the course of this project?
RB: When the last show is done, I think I'll really understand to what degree it has evolved. There are certain things that, as an emerging writer, I've evaded in the past but now, with Michael's tutelage, I've incorporated. And I think there are subtle things that really make a play that I understand more. As I was saying before, the suggestions he made to have me enrich the motivations of the people, to make them clear--not necessarily in an ostensible way, but a way you can feel viscerally--I think that's the most important change you can make in a play. But I knew when I submitted the play that it was going to be recognized because the subject matter was such, and the structure was such, that it would at least get a raised eyebrow. And after that, the subtleties are something I didn't really know; that was taught to me later on. Over the last 6 months, I should say.
TM: What drew you to the subject matter of the play?