Each residency, the Spalding MFA Program places special focus on one of our areas of concentration. Writers in every genre benefit from the creative challenge of trying on an unfamiliar mode, gaining new tools to bring back to their chosen form. At the Spring 2015 residency in Louisville, we focus on dramatic writing. We’ll read scripts in common, hear from one of the most eminent dramatic writers working today, attend a storytelling slam, and craft our own stories for an open-mic performance.
John Patrick Shanley: Doubt—The Film and the Play
A Pulitzer Prize-winning play, adapted by its author into an Academy Award-nominated script: This is Doubt, written for the stage and adapted for the screen by John Patrick Shanley, who also directed the film. Shanley visits the Spalding MFA Program’s Spring 2015 residency as the Diana M. Raab Distinguished Writer in Residence in a presentation with Q&A at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, May 27, at the Brown Hotel, 335 W. Broadway. The event is open to the public.
Shanley is from The Bronx, New York. His plays include Outside Mullingar, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Savage in Limbo, Italian-American Reconciliation, Welcome to the Moon, Four Dogs and a Bone, The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, Dirty Story, Defiance, Beggars in the House of Plenty and Storefront Church. His theatrical work is performed extensively across the United States and around the world. For his play, Doubt, he received both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In the arena of screenwriting, he has nine films to his credit, most recently Doubt, with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, which was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay. Other films include Five Corners (Special Jury Prize, Barcelona Film Festival), Alive, Joe Versus the Volcano, which he also directed, and Live From Baghdad for HBO (Emmy nomination). For his script of Moonstruck he received both the Writers Guild of America Award and an Academy Award for best original screenplay. The Writers Guild of America awarded Shanley the 2009 Lifetime Achievement In Writing.
Set in a New York Catholic school in the 1960s, Doubt is the story of a Catholic nun who accuses a priest of inappropriate conduct with a troubled student. The scripts and film form a focal point for the residency and a shared experience for all MFAers. Before coming to residency, all students and faculty read the scripts and view the film in preparation for our opening-night discussion, led by Program Director Sena Jeter Naslund. Shanley’s visit falls midway through the residency, and students and faculty will have the chance to ask him questions.
The screenplay is available in PDF form on the MFA portal page in the Semester Information section, under Preparing for the Spring Residency. ENG622 students also complete a special assignment regarding the scripts. The playscript is available for purchase via Amazon or elsewhere, and the film can be viewed on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and elsewhere.
Dramatic Writing Focus and Interrelatedness-of-the Arts Events
Students also will attend a panel discussion by MFA faculty members on films that influenced their own writing. The discussion will illuminate ways that artistic choices in subject, structure, and style lend significance to films and plays. Meanwhile, for our interrelatedness-of-the-arts focus, we’ll explore oral storytelling as an art form.
Oral Storytelling: This Is Not a Reading
Oral storytelling is a hybrid creature, occupying the space where creative writing and theatrical performance intersect. MFA students will learn about the art of storytelling, attend (and possibly participate in) a public storytelling competition, work up their own story, and—if they’re willing—get up onstage at the MFA Program’s storytelling open mic at the end of the week. This is not a reading.
The storytelling focus begins on Sunday, May 24, when we’ll hear a presentation and performance by award-winning storyteller (and MFA alum) Graham Shelby, who will introduce the elements of good oral storytelling, coach us in preparing our own stories, and perform a few tales of his own.
Next up: a competition. On Tuesday, May 26, MFAers attend the Moth StorySLAM, a monthly competition held at a local music venue. At The Moth, all attendees—MFAers included—are invited to put their names in a hat. Those whose names are drawn have five minutes to tell a true story live onstage, to be judged by four criteria: they must be on time and on topic; they must be a story—with stakes and a beginning, middle, and end—and they must be true.
By the end of the week, all MFA students will prepare their own story for the MFA Program’s own (noncompetitive) storytelling open mic , which takes place at the Brown Hotel on Friday evening, May 29. In honor of its Mothy inspiration, we’re calling it “The Flame.” Graham Shelby hosts, and a cash bar will be available.
For both the Moth StorySLAM and the Flame open mic, the theme is ADVENTURE. Students are encouraged to begin thinking now about an adventure-themed true story from their own lives (not the life of a friend or family member) to share with an audience. Stories should be told, not read. The Moth website offers storytelling tips, including the following:
Have some stakes.
Start in the action.
Steer clear of meandering endings.
No stand-up routines, no rants, no essays.
Know your story well enough so you can have fun!
The Moth is a non-profit organization that features people telling true stories from their lives, onstage, with no notes, Powerpoint, or cheat sheets. Moth StorySLAMs are held in eighteen cities around the country. Louisville’s Moth has close ties with the Spalding MFA program: Playwriting student Tara Anderson produces, and hosts include alumni Erin Keane and Graham Shelby and current CNF student Ashlee Clark Thompson.
Dramatic Writing Students Attend a Performance of Yank!
Playwriting and screenwriting students and those participating in a dramatic writing workshop will attend a musical-theatre performance, giving them the opportunity to study an example of the craft and discuss the effectiveness of a particular script and production.
Yank! A WWII Love Story addresses a type of romance not publicly discussed in the war years. The play is being mounted by Pandora Productions, a Louisville theatre company that features plays addressing LGBTQ issues. Dramatic writing students and faculty will attend a performance on Saturday, May 23.
All of these events ask students to think about structure, dialogue, language, and story through the lenses of playwriting, screenwriting, and live performance—stretching themselves in new ways that will enrich their writing no matter what their chosen form.