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Teaching Experience

Gurney, Lucas, Uhry, Wasserstein, and Weller help five emerging playwrights along in the Cherry Lane Alternative. Michael A. Casano reports. logo

Playwright and mentor Alfred Uhry
Ever wondered what it would be like to develop your original play with support from the likes of Wendy Wasserstein, A.R. Gurney, Craig Lucas, and Alfred Uhry? Well, that dream became reality for five emerging playwrights selected to participate in the Cherry Lane Alternative Mentor Project.

Each of the aforementioned playwrights, along with Michael Weller (Moonchildren, Buying Time, Spoils of War), volunteered their time over a six-month period to help young authors develop their new works. As mentors, they made themselves available to the writers as a source of reference, experience, inspiration and hands-on instruction. Their guidance is now culminating in the Cherry Lane Alternative Showcase Series, currently running through June 16th.

The idea behind the Cherry Lane Alternative Mentor Project came from a conversation Michael Weller had with director Susann Brinkley. "I've always used apprentice playwrights on my projects," Weller explains. "I shared this with Susann, who thought [the concept of established playwrights mentoring emerging ones] had the makings of a strong, formalized program."

After her conversation with Weller, Brinkley discussed the possibility of the program with Angelina Fiordellisi, artistic director of the Cherry Lane Theatre. Fiordellisi was immediately enthusiastic, even offering available theater space to showcase the work developed by the playwrights.

Now in its second year, the Cherry Lane Alternative has become a great resource for providing a variety of programs and services dedicated to the development of the American theater artist. The goal of the mentor project is to offer a comprehensive developmental program for the selected playwrights through a series of public and private readings, script evaluations, and work sessions, culminating in a full production of each playwright's script.

Selection for participation in the mentor project is competitive. The program usually receives about 50 plays a year, often a combination of individual submissions and those from literary managers. After an initial review process, each of the five mentors receives three plays for consideration. The mentor then chooses the play he or she would like to support. "I don't want to make [the process] too structured," Weller adds. "The more personal you make these kind of operations, the more successful they are."

And what criteria does Weller look for in a mentor? Ultimately, it comes down to a key element: craft. "I choose playwrights purely on the basis of what I consider technical superiority," Weller says. "There are many successful playwrights out there who have produced wonderful work, but they don't necessarily put craft ahead of other parts in their writing. They may turn out to be [strong teachers or mentors] but I think you're upping the odds of it not working out if you just use wonderfully imaginative people who don't seem able to organize their material very well."

One distinct advantage mentors offer emerging playwrights is the ability to approach established actors during the development process. "We can call on them to come on in and read," Weller says. "Now, often, those people can't commit to doing a production. But they'll give a wonderful rendering of the play, which the playwright can use as a working basis for their rewrites."

The relationship between the mentor and the emerging playwright begins right after acceptance of the script. This year, Weller acted as mentor for Hunt Holman, whose play Gun Club kicked off this year's Showcase Series. After selecting Holman's play, Weller made some notes and shared his feelings with Holman on what scenes or events in the play needed careful consideration.

The first milestone after that discussion was a cold reading of Holman's play this past December. The initial reading led to further discussion and rewrites. A public reading soon followed in January, which involved the play's director, Amy Feinberg. After some final changes, Holman's script was then ready for rehearsal.

"Michael was really instrumental in helping me learn how to trust my first impulse," Holman says. "Some people I talked to suggested all these rewrites and revisions. But their suggestions were twisting the play into something it really wasn't. What Michael was really helpful in doing was guiding me much the same way a director guides an actor's performance. He helped me realize, more effectively, what the play was."

Another writer who found tremendous benefit from his mentor was Gary Winter. Winter--whose play Golem will premiere in late May--had the chance to work with Pulitzer Prize-winner Alfred Uhry (The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Driving Miss Daisy, Parade).

"From the outset, [Uhry] was very cautious and sensitive," Winter says. "He's very aware of saying something that will change the way I write. For example, there was scene between two characters which he felt didn't create the tension adequately enough. But he tempered it by making sure that I rewrote it in my style. So, he succeeds in walking that fine line." Throughout the process, Winter found his relationship with Uhry was not strictly that of a mentor and student; rather, Uhry treated Winter as a peer as they discussed the work.

"I don't know of any other program that allows young writers and established writers to work together in such a constructive way," says Golem's director, Hayley Finn. "In Gary's case, it is such a wonderful opportunity to have someone like Alfred Uhry critiquing his play and giving reactions regarding its dramatic structure--while also being supportive of the process. It is so difficult for a young writer to get a play done in New York. Through this program, a young artist gets the support needed to get them going."

Holman echoes Finn's sentiments, adding, "Programs like these are absolutely essential, especially when there is a theater organization already in place to support you. Unfortunately, most theaters aren't interested in new work from writers no one has ever heard of. For that reason, the Cherry Lane Alternative is indispensable."

Regardless of how the program grows in the future, continued support--with an emphasis on confidence and craft--will remain the focal point of the Cherry Lane Alternative Mentor Project.

"The real corrective that I'm trying to put in place is to keep emerging playwrights away from that infinite development of countless readings," Weller says. "I want them to get used to the idea that they have to be responsible for the play and really shouldn't listen to too many people about how it develops. I come from a process where it's as if the fear of humiliation becomes the greatest rallying source of your creative muse. I hope they will eventually embrace that as well."

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