Emerson College, Visual & Media Arts Department:
Writing the Short Subject (undergraduate, graduate, professional studies)
Writing the Web Series (undergraduate, professional studies, independent study)
Writing the Feature Film (undergraduate)
Advocacy in the Arts (independent study)
Merrimack College, Theatre Department:
I think a lot about asymptotic curves in geometry- you may recall that these are infinitely long shapes that always approach an axis but never actually touch it. They illustrate the path of any worthwhile pursuit in the arts; our work will never reach some quantifiable “perfection” but we are always approaching it.
The 90 minutes audience members spend in a theater may be the only time they exercise the privilege of turning off their phones and engaging in actual face-to-face communication on meaningful topics. This is especially important as the US engages in a major dialogue about identity politics and inclusion, and as the President promotes a climate-change denying agenda while an ice shelf the size of Delaware is getting cold feet about staying attached to Antarctica. It is especially important for theatre and other forms of expression to rise above the fray and invite the public to engage on these and other topics. My hope as an educator is to inspire young people to use their craft to first explore and express themselves, and then look outward and employ their skills to create positive change in the world.
Being a teacher involves much more than teaching; lessons are not quite as sticky when students are told, lecture style, what to know and how to think. I prefer to guide conversation in my classroom, so that they may be productive and organic, rather than prescribed but shallow. My lessons endeavor to guide students to isolate and practice individual concepts (conflict, subtext, characterization, etc.), so that they may reach their own conclusions about how best to employ those concepts. My assignments guide students to develop their style with respect to notable practitioners of their craft, and then to create work that engages with other areas of knowledge, especially STEM. They walk away from class aware of their potential to engage with audiences who might not typically feel compelled to consider the vital roles that performing arts and other popular media play in the world.
My philosophy boils down to empowering students to progress along their asymptotic curves and thus exponentially empower communities to progress along them as well.
"The Coffee Shop" - 20 minutes. This exercise works best among students who have some experience writing stories (stage plays, screen plays, etc.), or have already written one in class. The purpose is to isolate the concept of characterization, and to illuminate the many ways a character is made compelling and memorable.
Lead students to identify a character from a story they have written, and who they are interested in exploring and enriching. For the purpose of the exercise, this should be a character who would conceivably visit a coffee shop-- so if they're a fish, let's forget for a moment that it would be remarkable for them to go to Starbucks. In the case of a one-off workshop, ask them to imagine they are writing about a memorable stranger they've seen recently.
Ask them to write answers to the following questions, allowing about a minute per question.
Your character enters a coffee shop. What do they order?
What do they say when they order? What is the dialogue?
While waiting for their order, they are distracted by another person in the coffee shop that they notice. Who is this person and why is your character distracted by them?
Moments later, someone else (who they don't see) takes their order and leaves the shop while your character isn't looking. What do they do? (The answer cannot be “nothing”.)
Rewind back to them waiting in line. What are some visual/physical descriptors that introduce your character and hint at the type of person they are? Write in the form of action descriptions (in screenwriting) or stage directions (in playwriting).
What's the coffee shop employee like? Assume that they're a one-off character, and choose details that are designed to highlight, provoke, or influence your protagonist.
What is the coffee shop like? As with the barista, choose details designed to highlight, provoke, or influence your protagonist.
Invite students to comment on the process of answering these questions. It's perfectly fine if it felt awkward, or if they felt like they had to make things up on the fly... after all, writing involves a lot of making things up!
Review the questions, asking students to identify what kinds of information each tells an audience/reader.
Wrap up the assignment, making connections to upcoming assignments. No detail is just arbitrary when writing is fully thought-out; each should succeed in either revealing character or advancing plot.