Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Three-and-a-half years after returning to acting, I remain fascinated by the process of learning lines.

Back in 2014, after I finished performing in Third—the play that marked my return to the stage—I began researching the subject of line-learning. The two pieces of writing that resulted from that research (an annotated bibliography and an essay) are ones that I wrote primarily as models for my students. But the research, itself, is work that I would’ve done anyway. Chalk it up to my enduring interest in the subject.

I’m not sure what I expected to find, other than some examinations of best practices. Reading the lectures of Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner, and Lee Strasberg momentarily gave me a seat in the classrooms of those great acting teachers, but it didn’t offer much about the practice of line-learning, itself. Similarly, reading a research article on acting and cognitive functioning led me into the lecture halls of its coauthors—one a professor of psychology, the other a professor of theatre—demonstrating that acting may enhance memory, but not revealing how anyone actually learns lines.

So how do we do it?

I was too nervous—and too busy trying to remember my lines—to ask myself that question when I was in rehearsal and performance back in 2014. Only afterward could I begin the research that led to the essay that opened with these words:

How do actors learn their lines? It’s not the same act of memorizing that we perform as students when we commit to memory the steps of photosynthesis for a biology midterm. Actors learn lines to repeat them over and over in performance after performance, and yet must do so as if they have never spoken them before, to create ‘the illusion of the first time’ (Stanislavsky qtd. in Strasberg 35). Earlier this semester, I managed to learn lines for a play and repeat them in six performances, but I still don’t know how I did it. In fact, it was only after the play closed that I could bring myself to count the words. I was curious to know how many I’d memorized, but if I had counted them before I’d learned them, the process of memorizing would have been too daunting. And counting them during the run of the play could have undermined my performance; dwelling on how many words I was keeping in my head might have made me more prone to forget.

So how did I learn those 1,567 words and remember them?

Fast forward to late April 2017, when I found myself cast in a role that required me to learn more than twice that number of words—yes, more than twice. After I picked up my script from the theatre, I began my ritual of cutting and pasting, literally cutting and pasting photocopies of my lines onto three-by-five note cards.

When I began cutting and pasting lines for my twentieth card, panic set in. The most lines I’d ever learned had fit onto twenty-two note cards. I was on card twenty, and I wasn’t even halfway through. How many cards would I have, and how would I ever learn all of these lines?

When I cut and pasted the last lines, I was on card fifty-two. If only I had a year, I thought. One card per week seemed manageable.

Somehow I did manage to learn all of those lines in matter of weeks—not months, or anything close to a year—though I’d feared that all those words (which I still haven’t counted) would far exceed what my brain could store and retrieve.

An earlier draft of these reflections included a list of guidelines I’ve developed. As I revised, I omitted them to avoid prescribing my own idiosyncratic process. Suffice to say, the ritual of cutting and pasting lines, as time consuming as it is, is worth the effort for me. As I cut and paste the words onto note cards, I sense that I am beginning to internalize not only the character’s speech patterns but also the structure of the play.

Though my research and ruminations haven’t taught me how I learn lines, I have developed a keener sense of what draws me back to the process again and again. As with writing, it’s the words. And as I wrestle now with these words on the page, I find myself hoping to be fretting over another stack of note cards soon.

Work Cited

Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method. Ed. Evangeline Morphos. Little, Brown, 1987.

Laurie Jameson (Jill Roberts) and Nancy Gordon (Jane Lucas) / Ashley Potter Photography

In Nancy Gordon’s first scene in Third, she sits on a park bench outside the college bookstore and tells her friend and colleague Laurie Jameson how a boy she dated her freshman year taught her that Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” scans exactly to “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Nancy begins to sing the lines and Laurie joins in. Singing heartily, so caught up in the fun of it, Laurie doesn’t notice at first that Nancy has stopped singing. She can’t repeat the line “And miles to go before I sleep,” because she doesn’t know whether she has miles to go. Soon she will undergo a bone marrow transplant.

The early drafts of Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, Third, didn’t include Nancy. Three years ago as I prepared to play her, I learned  that when Wasserstein added her as a friend for Laurie, she was adding an autobiographical character, a cancer survivor who would live on after Wasserstein died,  just three months after Third opened in New York in October 2005.

7/8 gone for "Third"

7/8 gone for “Third”

Whenever the prospect of playing Nancy frightened me–which it did, often–I reminded myself of Wasserstein’s courage and how creating Nancy sustained her as her health declined. What an honor and a privilege it was to tread the boards in Nancy’s shoes.

As I reflect on Foothills Performing Arts’ production of Third, on the third anniversary of its opening, I remain grateful for director Mark Shell’s artistic vision and faith in me, and for the stellar cast and crew: Jill Roberts, Justin Thomas, Carla Robinson, David Kerley, Dustin Greene, Amber Ellis Biecker, Tony Hendrix, Heather Lee Hendrix, Aleesha Hendrix, Jared Smith, and Josh Wolfe.

 

David Lindsay-Abaire’s farce Wonder of the World chronicles Cass Harris’ search for meaning as she embarks on a new life in Niagara after discovering that her husband of seven years, Kip, has harbored a secret sexual perversion. Once she reaches her destination, she finds that life away from Kip is no honeymoon either but a series of encounters with an assortment of eccentrics grappling with their own losses.

For Cass, the loss is one of innocence. No longer innocent of the knowledge of her husband’s bizarre fetish, she ww-script-notesstruggles to come to terms with it. Though Cass chooses to start a new life, she continues to see the world through the lens of the ninth-grade teaching job that she leaves behind (along with Kip), equating her mistake of marriage to a mathematical miscalculation. As she explains to Kip: “Look, I agreed to marry you based on what I knew to be true. Kip equals X. X will make me happy. Everything added up. Seven years later I find out that you’re not X at all, you’re Z. And if you’re Z, then I did the math wrong” (1.1). Ever the math teacher, Cass perceives the world as a series of signs with determinate meaning, a tendency that seems to compound the difficulty of her quest. On the bus to Niagara, where Cass adopts fellow traveler Lois Coleman as her sidekick, Cass continues to think in terms of numbers, measuring her old life as “463 road signs behind me” (1.2). Though she eventually loses track of the signs, she remains focused on her numbered to-do list, which includes becoming a contestant on The Newlywed Game, a show that turns couples’ compatibility into a numbers game.

Unlike Cass, her husband, Kip, does not seek meaning in numbers. When Karla and Glen (partners in marriage as well as private investigation), confide to Lois that Kip has hired them to track down Cass, Glen notes that Kip “[s]tarted to put two and two together” (1.7). For Kip, “started” is the operative term. He is not a numbers man. The proof that he offers of their undying love—including the ring they found, “the sign,” as Kip a calls it (2.1) —is insubstantial evidence in the eyes of Cass. Their sign systems aren’t the same; they speak different languages. For Kip, numbers games are “crass and divisive” (1.2).

When couples counselor Janie, clad in a clown suit, leads Cass and her cohort of misfits through a Newlywed-style ww-draft-1therapy session, Cass says that “[i]t’s not just a game! Things have meaning. Or at least they should” (2.3). Her emphasis on “should” indicates that she has embraced the concept that meaning may be indeterminate. But neither she nor the other characters can leave numbers behind, not altogether. After Captain Mike, Kip’s rival for Cass’ affection, accidentally shoots himself, rather than reflecting on his death, the characters attempt to quantify fears as they quibble over which is number one: being alone, public speaking, or needles (2.3).

Only Karla seems to yield to the idea that answers may elude us. As she observes to Lois: “I don’t even think about my marriage anymore. Why this, why that? I have no idea how it works, and that’s fine by me. It’s like Stonehenge, an unknowable mystery that the world has come to accept” (2.4).

ww-draft-2The final scene on the river leaves the audience, along with Cass and Lois, in a holding pattern. What happens remains unclear. The ambiguity comes at a risk; it may try the patience of audience members who find the play’s farcical humor too ridiculous or contrived, or as New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley wrote “forced rather than organic.” For others, though, the grotesqueness of Cass’ Niagara Land may serve as an apt metaphor for our own absurd political terrain with its crass and divisive stream of fake news and alternative facts. Perhaps asking “[w]hen does the clarity come?” (2.4) and persisting in our quest for it will sustain us, like Cass and Lois, as we find ourselves over a barrel.

Works Cited

Brantley, Ben. “Setting Forth, the Wind in Her Sails.” Review of Wonder of the World, by David Lindsay- Abaire, The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2001, http://www.nytimes.com, Accessed 18 Jan.  2017.

Lindsay-Abaire, David. Wonder of the World. Dramatists Play Service, 2003.

When I began work on the paper that I’m writing as a model for my students’ Unit III essay, I didn’t plan to compile an annotated bibliography of potential sources. I did, however, write one bibliographic entry as part of the preliminary work that I shared with them. When we looked at the sample entry in class, I told them that I wrote it because all of its elements would appear in some form in my paper. In other words, I told them, if you know you will need to write a works cited entry for your source, why not go ahead and write it? If you know you will need to summarize your source, why not go ahead and write a summary? And so on.

Still, I wrote the one bibliographic entry, thinking I would move on to more general note-taking afterward. But I found myself returning to the process of summarizing each source. I realized that what I recommended to my students as a useful but optional step was essential to my own process, at least in the case of this paper.

A couple of the summaries are the welcome result of a problem I encountered with two of the books, namely no index. Without an index, I couldn’t simply turn to the pages where the authors, both acting teachers, specifically address the subject of learning lines. Instead I was forced to engage in a form of concentrated skimming, reading portions of every paragraph for mentions of line-learning or memorization. My careful study of those two books—and of a third that did include an index—enabled me to produce general summaries as well as notes specific to my subject: learning lines.

The bibliography that follows brings together the insights of four of the most influential acting teachers of the twentieth century, in books by Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, and Lee Strasberg; and in a documentary film on the life and career of Sanford Meisner. It also includes an academic article chronicling research on line-learning and cognitive function.

Adler, Stella. The Art of Acting. Ed. Howard Kissel. New York: Applause, 2000. Print.

The Art of Acting (2000)

The Art of Acting (2000)

From audiotapes and notes on Stella Adler’s lectures, Howard Kissel produced The Art of Acting, a book whose twenty-two chapters, or classes, emphasize a technique informed by the work of Adler’s father, stage actor Jacob P. Adler; Harold Clurman, a co-founder of the Group Theatre (and one of Adler’s husbands); and Constantin Stanislavski, the Russian actor and director who developed the Stanislavski method, or “method acting.” Rather than instructing her students to memorize their lines, Adler taught them to build a relationship with the words. In her first lecture to her students (“First Steps on Stage”), she tells them to read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and select one idea from it to paraphrase and perform on stage (25). Later, when she returns to that exercise in her fourteenth lecture (“Understanding the Text’), she refers to the process as something “we must do with every text” (162). According to Adler:

Paraphrasing allows the ideas to become part of you. By putting the text into your own words you build a relationship. It becomes part of your heart as well as your head, which is essential before you can communicate the words to an audience. If the ideas are clear to you, they will be clear to them. (162)

Founder of the Stella Adler Studios in New York City and Los Angeles, Adler—considered one of the most influential teachers of acting—taught both Marlon Brando and Robert Deniro. Her writing on the craft includes The Technique of Acting (1988) and Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov (2001).

Hagen, Uta. A Challenge for the Actor. New York: Scribner’s, 1991. Print.

A Challenge for the Actor (1991)

A Challenge for the Actor (1991)

In A Challenge for the Actor, Uta Hagen expands on the ideas she presented in Respect for Acting (1973), addressing both the goals of the actor and the particulars of technique. When Hagen discusses learning lines, she refers to it as a “by-product of the work” (117). Instead of coaching her students to focus on memorization, she instructs them to make every element of the play real to them, “every person, thing, event, and landscape, even the weather” (117). Hagen asserts that creating those particulars will the lead the actor to the lines:

As you make your particularizations, much of what you have to say will become inevitable, and, when followed up in rehearsals by the discovery of your verbal intents and expectations, the words will be further validated until ‘learning the lines’ has become a by-product of the work, replacing the outmoded method of mechanical memorization. (117)

Uta Hagen originated the role of Martha in the Broadway production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and later became of the most distinguished acting teachers of the twentieth century. At the Herbert Berghof Studio, she taught, among others, Al Pacino, Jason Robards, and Jack Lemon. Her books on acting include Respect for Acting (1973) and A Challenge for the Actor (1991).

Noice, Helga, and Tony Noice. “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.1 (2006):14-18. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

In “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning,” Helga and Tony Noice address the process of learning lines—specifically memorizing large amounts of dialogue in a short period of time—and how actors reproduce those lines verbatim with spontaneity. Applying that process to other activities, including learning techniques for undergraduates and memory improvement in older adults, they conclude that the essence of acting—what the Noices term active experiencing or AE—may enhance memory.

Helga Noice, a Professor of Psychology at Elmhurst College, researches acting and memory. Her current study of memory training in older adults receives funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Tony Noice, an adjunct member of the theater faculty at Elmhurst College, co-authored with his wife, Helga Noice, The Nature of Expertise in Professional Acting: A Cognitive View (1997).

Sanford Meisner (left) teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse, 1957 / risabg.com

Sanford Meisner (left) teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse, 1957 / risabg.com

Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret. Dir. Nick Doob. Perf. Robert Duvall, Joanne Woodward. YouTube.com. YouTube, 18 Nov. 2006. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

An episode from the fifth season of PBS’s American Masters Series, Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret (1990) documents the life and career of actor and teacher Sanford Meisner, founding member of the Group Theatre and master teacher of acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where he developed the Meisner technique, based on Constantin Stanislavski’s method system. In his interview, director Sydney Pollack—one of many students of Meisner’s featured in the film—discusses how Meisner downplayed the role of dialogue:

What Sandy did is begin to examine the fact that dialogue is the last thing that happens, at any time, between two people. It’s all supported by behavior and attitudes. You say something. You mean a certain thing to me when I see you because of whatever relationship we may have. You say something. I hear it. Depending on the state I’m in when I came into the room, it means something to me. It produces a reaction in me emotionally, and the last thing that happens is that I respond with dialogue.

Hailed as one of the American theatre’s most influential teachers (along with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg), Sanford Meisner joined the faculty of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in 1935 and later served as the Director of its Acting Department. His students at the Neighborhood school include actors Robert Duvall, Tony Randall, and Joanne Woodward, as well as director Sydney Pollack and playwright David Mamet.

Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method. Ed. Evangeline Morphos. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Print.

A Dream of Passion (1987)

A Dream of Passion (1987)

A Dream of Passion chronicles Lee Strasberg’s training with Richard Boleslavsky, a student of Constantin Stanislavsky’s, and details Strasberg’s application of Stanislavski’s system to his work in both the Group Theatre (which Strasberg co-founded) and in the Actor’s Studio (for which he served as Artistic Director). Strasberg observes that the actor’s central problem lies in the fact that he knows what his character does not and cannot know: “Regardless of the skills with which the actor may pretend not to know what will occur next on stage, his normal scenic activity is actuated by his memory—by his carefully prepared and memorized words and motions” (107). The challenge for the actor then, Strasberg notes, is to recreate that experience believably not once but over and over for every performance, and “yet include what Stanislavski called ‘the illusion of the first time’” (35).

To help his students understand the meaning of scenes—rather than simply memorizing their words—Strasberg required them to read short stories. He chose short stories over scenes from plays because the conversations are often more realistic than the dialogue of plays, which, as Strasberg remarks, include “elements that characters would never say but convey necessary information to the audience” (161). Strasberg also found short stories useful teaching tools because “the short-story material forces the actor to really find out what he is talking about, not just what he is saying, and to find out how that relates to what the scene is all about” (161).

Considered the father of method acting in the United States—a system that revolutionized acting on the stage and screen—Lee Strasberg co-founded the Group Theatre (with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford), served as Artistic Director for the Actors Studio, and founded the Lee Strasberg Film and Theatre Institute in New York City and Hollywood. His students include actors James Dean, Robert DeNiro, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, and director Elia Kazan.

My last blog post, Friday, March 21, featured a sample paper draft that I composed as a model for my students. The draft included lines for a script selected from an academic essay on Sherman Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and its film adaptation Smoke Signals.

As a model for their collaborative revisions, I revised my script to include lines from an interview with Alexie and lines spoken by his characters Victor Arnold and Thomas Builds-the Fire. And to tie the parts together, I added myself as a moderator. Similarly—but collaboratively, in groups of four and five—my students will fashion their individual drafts into one-act plays, placing their sources in conversation.

The setting for my sample revision, which follows, is the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho, where Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, Gordon E. Slethaug, and I sit atop the KREZ weather van.

From “This is What it Means . . .” to Smoke Signals, or Sherman Alexie’s Road Trip from Page to Screen: A One-Act Source Play

Character Guide

Sherman Alexie: A poet and fiction writer who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Northeastern Washington State. His books include the short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), which he adapted for the screen. Smoke Signals, the film adaptation, received both the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998. More recently, his semi-autobiographical novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (2007) received the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire: One of the characters in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Smoke Signals

Victor Joseph: The central character in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Smoke Signals.

Jane Lucas: An Adjunct Assistant Professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University, who along with her students is studying Sherman Alexie’s short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” (from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven) and Smoke Signals in conjunction with Alexie’s appearance as part of the University’s Visiting Writers Series.

Gordon E. Slethaug: An American-Canadian Professor of English at the University of Southern Denmark and author of Teaching Abroad: International Education and the Cross-cultural Classroom (2007), Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction (2000), and The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction (1993). He also co-authored Understanding John Barth (1990) with Stan Fogel.

Lester Fallsapart (Leonard George) delivers the KREZ weather report in "Smoke Signals"/Movie still from ejumpcut.org

Lester Fallsapart (Leonard George) delivers the KREZ weather report in “Smoke Signals” / ejumpcut.org

At the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, Jane Lucas, and Gordon E. Slethaug sit atop the KREZ weather van, which has been stationed at the crossroads since it broke down there in 1972. Oddly, tribal meteorologist Lester Fallsapart is nowhere in sight. Jane Lucas picks up his red- and white-striped umbrella and looks it over a moment before she speaks.

Jane Lucas: First, I’d like to thank Randy Peone, the voice of Coeur d’Alene’s KREZ, for letting me meet with you atop the weather van. I was hoping Lester Fallsaparts would be here—isn’t he always here, like the weather?—and Sherman Alexie should be here, too. Alexie’s running late, it seems, but we should get started. As someone who’s studying “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and Smoke Signals, I’m interested in the differences between the two. Gordon, you’ve written of the “different perception” (131) of the film.

Gordon E. Slethaug: Yes, it “presents a different perception from the short story collection [. . .] the short fiction gives a comprehensive representation of the entire Spokane reservation community and includes a typically Alexie critical and cynical view of the systemic problems of unemployment, poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, violence, drugs, alcoholism, and premature death in a culture removed from its traditional moorings” (131).

JL: Aren’t many of those problems that you mentioned apparent in the film as well?

GS: Yes, but “the film presents a warm-hearted, compassionate view of Victor and Thomas through the medium of the road narrative and engages the audience on the level of humor and sentiment even while it gently critiques white society and racist treatments of Native Americans” (131).

JL: It’s an engaging road-trip story, alright, but I’m not so sure about what you call the gentle critique. Some of the characters’ exchanges on screen are less gentle than their counterparts on the page. For example, Victor, there’s what you say on the bus to Cathy, the gymnast, who was an alternate for the 1980 US Olympic Team.

Victor Joseph: Yeah, I was just thinking about that. In the short story, our conversation with Cathy ends with that line of yours, Thomas. What is it you say?

Thomas Builds-the-Fire: (Opening his eyes) “Sounds like you all got a lot in common with Indians” (67).

VJ: Yeah, but in the movie, I keep talking. I say, “you said you were an alternate for the team, right?” And she answers, “yeah.” And I say, “well, if you were an alternate you’d only compete if someone on the team was hurt or something, right? And she answers, “yeah.” And I ask, “was anybody hurt?” And she says, “no.” And I say, “Then you weren’t really on the team, were you? I mean, it didn’t matter if there was a boycott or not. You were staying home anyways. You got nothing to complain about, so why don’t you just be quiet?”

JL: That isn’t what I’d call gentle.

(Sherman Alexie climbs the ladder attached to the back of the van.)

Sherman Alexie: Sorry I’m late—flight delay from Seattle. So it goes.

JL: Sherman, you said in an interview that you “didn’t have any problems with mutating [your] own book” (qtd. in West and West).

SA: (Nodding in agreement) “Right from the get-go, I said, ‘OK, Sherman you’re going to do composite characters, compress time, take bits and pieces from stories you need for this screenplay, and you’re not going to care.’ The narrative integrity of any one story was never the point, it was all about taking situations from the twenty-two short stories—it actually ended up being adapted from four short stories—taking the best you can find in this book to make it a screenplay” (qtd. in West and West).

JL: So the changes you made were your answer to the question, how can this story work best on the screen?

SA: Yes, “I’ve always separated them [books and movies] as two very distinct art forms” (qtd. in West and West).

JL: I wish we had more time, Sherman, but I know you’re heading to Albuquerque for a reading at the University of New Mexico, and I need to get back to Lenoir-Rhyne. I’ll leave a tape of our conversation for Randy Peone. Whether it airs on KREZ or not, I have a feeling that our words here today will become one of those stories told by you-know-who.

TB: Sometimes it’s a good day to die, and sometimes it’s a good day to write a one-act play.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. 1993. New York: HarperPerrenial, 1994. 59-75. Print.

Slethaug, Gordon E. “Hurricanes and Fires: Chaotics in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Literature and Film Quarterly 31.2 (2003): 130-40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perf. Adam Beach and Evan Adams. Miramax, 1998. DVD.

West, Dennis, and Joan M. West. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Cineaste 23.4 (1998). Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

 

Since writing academic papers requires placing sources in conversation, why not begin the writing process with an actual conversation on the page in the form of a play? That’s the idea behind the assignment developed by some of my former colleagues at VCU and one that I adapted for my own UNIV 111 classes.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)

Rather than requiring each student to produce a play individually, I altered the project to focus on collaboration, assigning students the responsibility of producing individual preliminary drafts consisting of one character’s lines (quotations and/or paraphrases from one source), which they collaboratively place in conversation with their group members’ characters in a one-act play that they perform in class. The final product consists of quotations and paraphrases from three-to-five sources, a character guide with a biographical note on each source’s author, and a works cited list. I encourage (but don’t require) students to include a description of the setting and stage directions as well.

It’s an assignment that many of my former students at VCU viewed in hindsight as a particularly helpful exercise in synthesizing a variety of materials (articles, essays, books, etc.). Though it involves more compiling than composing—at least in the initial stages—it’s a critical step in the process of writing an academic essay.

Returning to this assignment with my ENG 131 students at Lenoir-Rhyne, I composed the following sample as a model for their preliminary drafts. I chose as my subject Sherman Alexie’s short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and its film adaptation Smoke Signals—adapted for the screen by Alexie, himself—because my students are studying the story and the film in conjunction with Alexie’s appearance on campus March 27 as part of the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series.

Working Title: From “This is What it Means . . .” to Smoke Signals, or Sherman Alexie’s Road Trip from the Page to the Screen

Character Guide

Gordon E. Slethaug: An American-Canadian Professor of English at the University of Southern Denmark and author of  Teaching Abroad: International Education and the Cross-cultural Classroom (2007), Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction (2000), and The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction (1993). He also co-authored Understanding John Barth (1990) with Stan Fogel.

Slethaug’s lines for the play follow.

Gordon E. Slethaug: “Although there has been some interest in depicting a more historically authentic view of Native Americans than that presented in the typical post-World War II Western, the reality of their lives and perspectives still seems sadly underrepresented and diminished in mainstream Hollywood film” (131).

GS: “Smoke Signals provides an important step in remedying this problem [of stereotypes]. It’s “based upon the first third of his collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” (131).

Smoke Signals (1998)

Smoke Signals (1998)

GS: “The film, however, presents a different perception from the short story collection [. . .] the short fiction gives a comprehensive representation of the entire Spokane reservation community and includes a typically Alexie critical and cynical view of the systemic problems of unemployment, poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, violence, drugs, alcoholism, and premature death in a culture removed from its traditional moorings; the film presents a warm-hearted, compassionate view of Victor and Thomas through the medium of the road narrative and engages the audience on the level of humor and sentiment even while it gently critiques white society and racist treatments of Native Americans” (131).

 Works Cited

Slethaug, Gordon E. “Hurricanes and Fires: Chaotics in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Literature and Film Quarterly 31.2 (2003): 130-40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

To develop this individual draft into a one-act play, I will place Slethaug in conversation with Alexie, using these sources:

Alexie, Sherman. “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. 1993. New York: HarperPerrenial, 1994. 59-75. Print.

Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perf. Adam Beach and Evan Adams. Miramax, 1998. DVD.

West, Dennis, and Joan M. West. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Cineaste 23.4 (1998). Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

Wendy Wasserstein's "Third," the acting edition (2008)

Wendy Wasserstein’s “Third,” the acting edition (2008)

For their first paper of the semester, an annotated bibliography, my students have the option of choosing as their subject something they’re studying formally (for a class) or informally (on their own). As a model for them, I’ve composed a bibliography on Wendy Wasserstein’s Third, a play I’m studying—both formally and informally, in a sense—as I rehearse for the upcoming production at the Foothills Performing Arts Theatre.

The bibliography that follows includes the play itself, as well as two secondary sources: a review of the original Off Broadway production at the Lincoln Center Theater, and an academic essay by a professor of theater and literature, a harsh critic of Wasserstein’s who reexamined and reevaluated the playwright’s work after her death.

For me, as I rehearse for Third, Wasserstein’s words are far more important than what any drama critic or theatre scholar has written about the play, but I value what I’ve learned from Ben Brantley’s review and Jill Dolan’s essay, regarding both the critical reception of Wasserstein’s final play and the differences among the productions at the Lincoln Center, the Geffen Playhouse, and the Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Annotated Bibliography

Brantley, Ben. “As Feminism Ages, Uncertainty Still Wins.” Nytimes.com. New York Times, 25 Oct. 2005. Web. 25 Jan. 2014.

Ben Brantley’s “As Feminism Ages, Uncertainty Still Wins” reviews the original production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Third, which opened Off Broadway at the Lincoln Center Theater on October 24, 2005. Observing the similarities between the play’s main character, Laurie Jameson (Dianne Weist), and title character of Wasserstein’s Heidi Chronicles, Brantley asserts that Third shares the shortcomings of her other plays: “an overly schematic structure, a sometimes artificial-feeling topicality and a reliance on famous names and titles as a shorthand for establishing character.” Brantley also notes that the supporting characters are more convincing than Laurie Jameson, both as written and performed. Nevertheless, Brantley commends the play as an affecting portrait of a woman confronting the “certainty of the uncertainty in life.”

Brantley, chief theatre critic for The New York Times, is the editor of The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century (2001).

Dolan, Jill. “Feminist Performance Criticism and the Popular: Reviewing Wendy Wasserstein.” Theatre Journal 60.3 (2008): 433-457. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.

In “Feminist Performance Criticism and the Popular: Reviewing Wendy Wasserstein,” Jill Dolan cites the death of Wendy Wasserstein as the impetus for rethinking her harsh criticism of the playwright’s work and the mainstream feminist playwriting that it represents. Dolan asserts that a close examination of Wasserstein’s last play, Third, demonstrates the impact of her work as well as its importance in raising public awareness of the debates within and about American feminism. Along with her analysis of the play’s text, Dolan presents a study of two divergent productions: one at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles (2007), and a second at the Philadelphia Theatre Company (2008).

Jill Dolan is the Annan Professor in English, Professor of Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, and Director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of The Feminist Spectator in Action: Feminist Criticism on Stage and Screen (2013).

Wasserstein, Wendy. Third. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2008. Print.

Wendy Wasserstein’s Third spans one academic year at a prestigious liberal arts college in New England. The play focuses on Professor Laurie Jameson, an acclaimed feminist literary scholar, coping in midlife with her father’s advancing Alzheimer’s, her daughter’s departure for college, her husband’s detachment, and her best friend’s recurring cancer—all amid the onset of her own menopause, replete with hot flashes. On the first day of class, when Laurie encourages her students to contradict her, she has no idea what challenges she’ll face when one of them—the title character, Woodson Bull, III—takes her up on the offer. Angered by what she perceives as the Bush administration’s rush to war, she sees Third as a “walking red state” (27). When she accuses him of plagiarizing a paper she believes he’s incapable of writing, Third claims he’s a victim of “socio-economic profiling” (22).

Wendy Wasserstein’s other plays include An American Daughter (1997), The Sisters Rosensweig (1992), and Uncommon Women and Others (1977). Her most critically-acclaimed play, The Heidi Chronicles, won both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1989. Third opened Off Broadway in late September 2005, four months before Wasserstein’s death from lymphoma.