Oct 27, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 84: Rob Handel
Current Town: Pittsburgh.
Q: You're the head of the Dramatic Writing MFA program at Carnegie Mellon. I want to start out by asking you to plug your program. What can you tell me about it? How is it different from other programs? How long have you been teaching there? How do you approach teaching playwriting?
A: I’ve been in this position since August 24, 2009. I was charged with recreating the program, which has been intense. I honestly believe the program is ideally positioned to be a juggernaut. First, we’re part of the CMU School of Drama, the oldest degree-granting theatre school in the country. My program is centered on constant collaboration with the astonishingly successful directing and design graduate programs, and the intensely competitive undergraduate acting conservatory. (It feels like you’re simultaneously in Fame, Slings and Arrows, and Wonder Boys.) The MFA writers work with these collaborators in multiple weekly classes as well as the New Works Series.
Second, the faculty is full of working professionals in all disciplines, not a bunch of dusty academics. It’s also in the midst of an infusion of new blood right now, including Marianne Weems, who recently came on as head of the grad directing program.
Third, Carnegie Mellon is an amazing place. We’re surrounded by the CMU computer animation people, the CMU robot people, the CMU digital privacy people, the CMU geoengineering-to-combat-climate-change people... These people are changing the world. It creates pressure to make really good plays.
Having devoted the past seven years to 13P, I’m interested in nurturing leadership. I’m teaching a class called “Envisioning a Theatre,” in which students examine revolutionary movements in theatre; write manifestos of their own; and build a plan for starting a theater company.
Q: What are you working on now? You have a play in the works?
A: I’ve been working on a big play called A Maze. (It used to be called Infinite Space, and before that it was called Captivity Narrative.) It’s about a girl recreating her identity after eight years held captive in a suburban basement, a band recovering from addiction and a hit song, and an outsider artist writing a 15,000-page comic book. I’m also working on James Boswell and Elvis Presley. (Those are two different plays. At present.)
Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: My parents took me to the 1976 revival of My Fair Lady. The houses along Wimpole Street were painted on a scrim, so at the beginning of every scene in Henry Higgins’s study, you would first see the street, then the study would be lit so you could see Henry and Eliza inside, through the scrim. Then, before the dialogue began, the curtain would be pulled off, all the way across the width of the St. James Theatre stage, with this prolonged, mechanical shower-curtain sound. I was fascinated by the scrim because it created an illusion (The street vanishes! Here’s the indoors!) and then immediately punctured it (It’s a curtain! WHSSSKK!). This phenomenon has never ceased to draw me back to the theatre. It’s not about tricking the audience, but rather inviting us to play along.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: You really can’t take a step without an MFA from Carnegie Mellon. Other than that:
Send Your Plays Out. Everywhere. All The Time. I’m constantly frustrated when writers tell me they didn’t bother to take advantage of a submission opportunity because only famous writers get produced there, or only boring writers get produced there, or blah blah blah. You must remember that these places all have script readers. Who are script readers? Surly interns. Who are surly interns? Young theatre people. LIKE YOU. Who will love your scripts? PEOPLE LIKE YOU. In the early 90’s, after moving from Chicago back to the East Coast, I got a call from a former reader for a company that had turned down my play. She had kept the script for years, and her boyfriend had been using it for an audition monologue. She had now joined the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, which was producing projects in a festival at HERE that year. It ended up becoming one of my first NYC credits.
Also, produce your own work. For advice on that, see the “Try This At Home” page at 13p.org.
Q: Anything else we should know about you?
A: My last name is pronounced han-DELL. But I never correct people.
Q: Any plugs?
A: 13P’s production of Julia Jarcho’s American Treasure starts November 21. In The Next Room. What Once We Felt. The Lily’s Revenge. Creature.
Plays by Rob