John Tang

That First Step

Posted in Sketchbook by Jt's Item Roster on February 25, 2011

Currently I am enrolled in Teaching Creative Writing.  One of our assignment is to interview a professor outside your genre, which mine would be fiction.  I interview a Larry Eilenberg from San Francisco State University in the art of theater. In the very least what I left from the interview is a sense or a platform you can make it in the genre; and this is what teachers should do. Also the experience highlights a quote I heard from Michael Jordan in a summation of his work ethics: “If you don’t shortcut the game, the game won’t shortcut you.”


Interview with Larry Eilenberg

Scene: Small room. A wall of two shelves full of master dramatists and criticisms. A cluttered desk. Two director chairs. Tapestry on the floor with a raincoat hanger by the door. When lights turn on they’re sitting across from one another.

Me: By the end of this semester, what do you think every student should know or grasp?

Larry: What do you mean? You’re not asking anything.

Me: For playwrights…like what should they read? Should they know their Shakespeare’s, their Ibsen’s, their Reza’s, their Williams’, their Beckett’s…”

Larry: If you want one of my course syllabus, I can give that to you. I have a copy. I know you’re here for an interview, but I don’t think a copy of my syllabus will be of any help.

Me: I’m asking: I want to be a playwright. How do I increase my chances?

Larry: If you’re serious, well yes, they should know the history of each era: Greeks, Renaissance, Modernity, the politics behind those times. I teach contemporary plays in the last five years; they should know who’s doing it best now. They should read plays, more so, watch plays. They need to write for the stage. Observe set designs. Things they like, they don’t like.

Me: What about writing?

Larry: It’s a collaborative art, so it doesn’t all fall on the playwright. It’s not meant for the page. You said you’re in fiction.  Have you read Thornton Wilder—you might know his Our Town, Skin of our Teeth…

Me: Heard of them, but never read them.

Larry: He won a Pulitzer for his novel The Eighth Day, I think. Well, he wrote an important essay—I don’t know it off the top of my head…just find it online. He says he does something different for fiction than he does for the theater. Dialogue, for example, doesn’t work the same way it does in fiction than it does on stage; fiction has the illusion of realistic conversation between two people. Dialogue on stage is spoken.

Me: Wait. Why can’t you put that dialogue into fiction? I can imagine a world, a garden…uh, the lake in The Seagull, dinner set table when I read Chekhov’s play. (Pause.)…Sorry…go ahead.

Larry: Or in general. Scenes do something different in fiction than on stage. Phillip Roth. Say, you have a grassy hill; you want the reader to imagine that grass hill, its slope. But for the playwright there might be a backdrop of a hill, a lake, a window. Setting for the playwright is the stage. The playwright writes for the stage, not the page…who’d you be teaching?”

Me: Undergrads. Is there anything else they should know?

Larry: That they won’t get published until after it is performed. It only reaches its full potential on the stage. (Pause.) But if you’re serious, take an acting class.

Me: Tried that. Did not work out so well. I had to be Jim from Glass.

Larry: Even if you don’t do it well, get the experience, because people, actors will be saying your words. (Pause.) Well, if you’re serious, get invited to a reading, a design meeting…it is a collaborative art (Pause.) If you are taking it seriously. You have to see it at its best. It’s like basketball in the sense you have to set the standards. And for students, these things can get expensive, so we have a theater here in the city that broadcasts on screen productions from the National London Theater. (Grabs notebook off desk.) oh here’s one on May 1st in Berkeley: The Druid Theater Company. They are playing…playing The Cripple of Inishmaan by McDonagh, an Irish play, which is what they do best. They need set the bar high.

Me: I haven’t even thought of that. Drama has its own world. So here’s what I have: Read plays, watch plays, act…

Larry: See how they design stages, go to readings if you can, see it at its best, setting the standards high.  That they need to write for the stage, not the page.

Me: (Pause.) I think I’ll end it with that. Thank you. This has all been helpful, for me especially. Appreciate it.

Larry: That is more than enough for a student. I don’t even believe you’ll be using it all. What is your name again?

Me: John Tang.

Larry: John Tang. Good luck.

Lights Dim



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