Dear Prospective NTI Advanced Playwright
Dear Prospective NTI-Advanced Playwright,
If you have any desire to become a playwright, the best advice I can give is to enroll in the Advanced Playwriting Semester at the National Theater Institute. It will be the 14 hardest, most intense, most grueling, and absolutely most rewarding weeks you will ever spend in your life.
I chose to come to NTI because I met a program representative visiting my theater department at Belmont University. No one from Belmont had ever been before to the O’Neill (as a student at any rate) and it seemed like a fun adventure. Honestly, I came to NTI having no real notion as to what life would be like when I got there. I figured it would be, more or less, like college, just more focused around theater. So, in the winter of 2013 I left Indiana and prepared for what I thought was going to be a moderately intense semester that would make a better writer and give me a few good stories to tell. What I wasn’t prepared for was the amazing, fully immersive experience that is NTI.
I was thrown into the fire on the first day and never looked back. In playwriting classes we discussed rhythm and voice, structure and format, character and arc. In play analysis we broke down plays to the most fundamental levels, figuring out the basic elements that make a story worth telling. In every class we learned more about the theater than I ever thought was possible. We studied acting, directing, movement, mask, droznin, yoga, Tai Chi, and just about every other theater-related subject you can imagine. My theatrical vocabulary expanded to include playwrights and styles I never knew existed. I saw shows on Broadway and across New England that I would have never dreamed of seeing. I was exhausted by the end of day two, but I loved every minute of it. I loved everything about the O’Neill and NTI and took everything that I could and funneled it back into my writing.
You see, when I came to the National Theater Institute I was trying to be Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, and John Patrick Shanley all at once. I didn’t have a voice. I was just copying other people’s voices and hoping no one would notice. But NTI broke me of that. I finally figured out how to speak for myself and not just rip off other people’s voices. It taught me how to be a playwright.
Even now, after coming to work in Hollywood, I still carry the lessons from NTI with me wherever I go. Despite “selling out” and writing for TV, I still carry the writing lessons that NTI’s instructors, professional playwrights Marcus Gardley, Kia Corthron, and Donna DiNovelli taught me. When on set, I don’t complain at the end of a 10 hour shoot day because I remember that great art requires a massive amount of man hours. And even though most out here on the West Coast don’t recognize NTI by name, what they do recognize is the work ethic I took away as a result of the training I received.
Simply put, NTI will push you past what you thought was possible. But you will come out on the other side a better writer, a better theatermaker, and a better artist.
"I still carry the writing lessons that NTI’s instructors, professional playwrights Marcus Gardley, Kia Corthron, and Donna Di Novelli taught me."
Dear Prospective NTI-Advanced Playwright,
In my undergraduate, liberal arts education I was exposed to a variety of different aspects of theater, which was integral to the discovery of my passion for writing plays. Since this discovery happened towards the end of college, after I graduated I wanted to enter a more focused environment where I could ardently pursue my new found love of writing for the stage. I didn’t want to apply to graduate school right away, so I thought NTI would be a great place to challenge and stretch my voice as a writer, and a great testing ground to see if an MFA in Playwriting was right for me. That being said, I would encourage anyone to apply to the Advanced Playwriting semester if they feel strongly about playwriting. You don’t have to wait until you’re out of undergrad like I did, and in fact, most people don’t. If you love writing plays, you will gain much experience and wisdom in a very short amount of time.
NTI is all about collaboration, which was the main draw for me. While I learned a great deal about the craft of playwriting, producing my work, and a whole host of other important information on how to be a professional playwright, a lot of what I learned at NTI is how to work with other people; a skill that is crucial to working in the theater. NTI gives you very limited time, sticks you in situations you may or may not be entirely thrilled about, and pushes you to be the most prolific you’ve ever (and may ever) be, and it’s all to the benefit of your growth as a human and artist. Since you and the other artists become such a tight-knit community, you will most likely stay in contact with your peers long after NTI is over. Now when I am asked to self-produce for a festival, I don’t fret about finding actors or a director. I know exactly who to call, and I know they will drive 5 hours to be there if necessary.
Along the lines of human connections, NTI also introduced me to a whole host of working professionals in the field of playwriting, some of whom I still keep in contact with. There was only one playwriting professor at my college, so while we were lucky to have similar aesthetics and mesh well as people, NTI expanded my knowledge of the broader world of playwrights. We got to take classes with three different playwrights, all with varied backgrounds, and we also had multiple opportunities to network with a whole host of other playwrights and those on the literary end of the theater world. When we attended the Humana Festival, our assignment was to go to a party and network. It was not a simulated experience; it was a real room full of live theater professionals. You will not find this amount of opportunities in the insular collegiate world.
While at The Humana Festival, I had the chance to meet one of my favorite playwrights Will Eno. I was nervous about introducing myself to him, but that only propelled me forward. This was a unique opportunity and one I would not have again. NTI’s motto is Risk, Fail, Risk Again, and while that applies so completely to our creative work, there didn’t seem to be any way I could fail by taking the risk to talk to a man whose work is of profound importance to me. So, I spoke to him. Recently, I happened to meet a well-known playwright at my physical therapist’s office because as it turns out, he is her best friend from middle school. I felt a little unprepared to speak with him while I was sweating and doing push ups, but I thought back to meeting Will Eno, and remembered that this specific situation would not happen again, and that sweating or not, I would talk to him. You never know who you will meet and where, and that if they are a playwright, chances are they will be friendly.
I wrote things at NTI I never previously thought imaginable. We did many creative exercises that pushed my imagination to new heights, and a number of more organizational exercises that helped me sequence my ideas into a dramatic format. We wrote short plays, long plays, musicals, monologues, “bad plays”, and saw a plethora of live theater. I loved writing a new scene and being able to workshop it with the directors and actors the next day, and towards the end of the semester I got to focus solely on workshopping two of my plays over the course of two weeks. Sometimes being a writer can feel a little lonely, but not only were we playwrights asked to also act and direct each week, keeping us involved in the community as a whole, we also formed our own little writers’ community within the larger group. Sometimes we would get together and write and other times we’d write alone. No matter what, there was always another person a one minute or less walk away from you willing to take a quick tea break, or help you work out a creative issue.
I will end with a story I read the other day. There was a woman who trained for the Iditarod and was determined to win. She was in first place until the last fifty miles when another racer surpassed her. She was so tired, she did not know if she could go on, but somewhere inside of her, she got the strength to get off her sled and run the last fifty miles, surpassing the other racer, and coming in first like she had wanted. While NTI was not a marathon in the traditional sense of the word (although one could call a long day of Droznin a marathon of sorts), it often felt like we were seeing just how far we could push ourselves to create theater. There were points towards the end where I was so exhausted, that I thought I literally could not type another sentence, but somehow I found it in me to get off the proverbial sled and run the last fifty miles.
Being a playwright is not an easy path, but NTI never made a promise that it would be. What NTI did do was push me to be the best, most creative and confident version of myself, allowed me to be a part of a community that valued my individuality, and set me up to succeed as the professional I now am and will continue to be. I will never regret my time spent there.
"Being a playwright is not an easy path, but NTI never made a promise that it would be. What NTI did do was push me to be the best, most creative and confident version of myself, allowed me to be a part of a community that valued my individuality, and set me up to succeed as the professional I now am and will continue to be. I will never regret my time spent there."