I have just finishing up teaching another playwriting class, this one known as ENGL 371 at St. Mary’s University College here in Calgary. As often as I have taught such classes, I have at least a rough idea in my head of how it might go. In fact, you might think that we followed some kind of rigid plan, known these days in academic circles as a syllabus. But with this ENGL 371, such was not the case.
Good thing too, because in my mind in a creative writing classes, the syllabus is really a worst case scenario. What one hopes for, as an instructor (and no doubt the students do too), is for some kind of divine intervention to throw the whole thing off course and take you to places you never dreamed of being in. And that’s what happened with a handful of amazing students and me this semester.
The original plan was for us to follow some classic texts as we explored the mysterious and arcane process of writing a play. As we followed Hamlet and Willy Loman and those strange creatures in urns in Beckett’s Play (please check this out for yourself on YouTube, it’s amazing!) and even Luke Stike from my own play Writer’s Block (maybe not an actually classic, but you get the idea), we would learn how to write dialogue and monologues and scenes and learn about raising the stakes and all about status and of course conflict and the rest of it . . .
A little ways into the semester, we were invited by Alberta Theatre Projects to attend the dress rehearsal of their co-pro of a play called Good Fences by the Downstage Theatre Ensemble.
Seeing that play changed everything for my class and me and for the course we would find ourselves on for the duration of ENGL 371. When we got back to the classroom, we talked about the process of collective creation. I asked the students to use the “clustering” technique in their notebooks to come up with some ideas that interested them. When we came back, there was a true consensus that what interested everyone was gender identification and the extension of that, relationships of the romantic variety. (No big surprise, they’re university students, after all.)
And so we spent the rest of our time writing scenes, monologues, poems and even songs along these themes and Hamlet and all the rest of them soon went out the window. Funny, once the students were focusing on a subject that really engaged them, things like dialogue and structure didn’t prove to be a big problem. They just took care of themselves, somehow. I gave some feedback and talked about things like keeping the stakes high and reminding them that the dialogue they were writing had to be spoken by human beings, but by and large, more and more, I just got out of their way and let them run with this idea.
Well, sometimes, maybe at the best of times, teaching is nothing more than just getting out of the way and letting the students take the initiative. I had the faith and confidence in my students to do that and they didn’t let me down. I can say modestly that some of them told me that ENGL 371 became one of the most meaningful and dare I say inspirational classes they have ever taken. Less is more, indeed. It wasn’t bad for me either!
We presented our findings in the form of the script, 59 Minutes, at the fabled Auburn Saloon on Monday evening for an audience of 50 or so family and friends and fellow students. To use the popular vernacular, we rocked. At one point in the evening I had to shake my head and remind myself that the people up there performing were, after all, merely students who had signed up for a creative writing class.
Yet, as they performed 59 Minutes is was clear they had reached far beyond that. For that 59 minutes on Monday evening, there was magic in the air and anything seemed possible.