Home to the only MFA Playwriting program in the state, The Theater Department at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University is headed by Guild member Kathleen Tolan and boasts DG alums such as Michele Rittenhouse, Lia Romeo, Brendan Votipka, and Samuel Brett Williams. I had the great opportunity to speak to the BFA and MFA Theatre students about the Guild alongside representatives from other groups who protect the work of artists: AEA, SAG/AFTRA, IATSE, and United Scenic Artists. While there, I wanted to learn more about Ms. Tolan and the current program so I asked my own questions as well.
Stephen Kaplan: You’ve been at Rutgers since 2012 and previously taught at Purchase College - what drew you into teaching playwriting?
Kathleen Tolan: I really like examining the form, thinking about the dramatic impulse, figuring out how to support and challenge students. At Purchase, I began to develop strategies for teaching which I’m still discovering today.
SK: Do you have a favorite thing to teach about playwriting? One aspect of playwriting that you think is the most crucial for emerging writers?
KT: I didn’t formally study playwriting before I began writing plays. I’d come to playwriting after acting professionally for some years and have always felt that I’m like a carpenter or contractor, someone who has been inside all these different structures, these different experiences of character, story, space and time. When I began to write I got a few books and went at it. (Once I began teaching I enrolled at Brooklyn College with Mac Wellman and eventually received an MFA.) When I began teaching, I decided the only way I could effectually teach playwriting was if we were attending productions of plays. So that’s what we did. And at Rutgers, we see a lot of plays. That has seemed essential.
I really like to have them respond to multiple assignments. You never know what is going to spark a play that will be viable. It’s so much fun when I receive something that’s fresh and exciting. But even if a fragment of a play doesn’t work, we can talk about what’s interesting about it—the setting, a character, the theme, the language, whatever—and that attempt may foster a new, wonderful play.
SK: Why do you think Rutgers is a perfect setting for playwrights to learn their craft? What are some of the unique aspects of the program?
KT: I love this program. The playwriting program is really small, right now there are four students. That’s because we guarantee them productions—something that I think is essential for any program—how can you know how a play will land if you don’t see it in all its glory with actors, design and audience? So we collaborate closely with the actors, designers, production staff.
And there’s a very strong academic curriculum that included theatre history and critical theory and study of international theatre that’s rich and expansive. We go into NYC and see a lot of plays and meet with various playwrights and literary managers, and we see plays in New Jersey too, like the McCarter, Two River, Crossroads and George Street. Also, we hire professional directors to direct the playwrights’ productions, and we have a relationship with Ensemble Studio Theatre where we do readings each spring with professional actors and directors. So they do a lot of thinking and studying and writing and collaborating with theatre makers while they’re at Rutgers.
One of the things I love about teaching is it allows me to think about plays and all the elements of plays. And how, within the structures, the mechanics, there needs to be a beating heart. And how you have to challenge and support the fledgling writer. I feel privileged to be able to work with young playwrights discovering their voices, developing their craft, creating something new.
For more information, check out www.masongross.rutgers.edu/theater/programs-of-study/playwriting-mfa.