The play’s the thing

Bryna Turner was a poet with a problem.

The writer thought her heart belonged to stanza and verse, which she used “to express things that were going on while keeping them mysterious,” she says. But Turner increasingly felt herself drawn to the theater—and thought she would never have a place there.

“People would suggest playwriting, but it seemed so hard,” says Turner. “Poetry was so personal, and playwriting seemed to have so many layers; there was so much going on and so many moving pieces.”

She circled around the subject, studying acting and sound design at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and trying her hand at theater criticism. But even as a director, Turner felt that her point of view was getting lost.

“The directing process was really about figuring out what I was trying to say,” says Turner, who is a second-year MFA playwriting student at Mason Gross. “I thought, maybe I have to write the words myself.”

Her fellow classmate in the playwriting program, Will Goldberg, came to the craft in a roundabout way as well, starting off in poetry and short fiction.

“I figured I’d become a novelist because that was the only career that was creative but intellectual enough for my parents,” says Goldberg, who had acted when he was younger and “thought about theater all the time.”

At the encouragement of an English teacher, Goldberg began writing plays as a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, becoming fascinated by the “pure, physiological reality” of seeing actors perform and audiences react.

In their search for graduate programs, both students found their way to Kathleen Tolan, the new head of the playwriting program at Rutgers. She quickly won them over.

“She was clearly so smart, and so immediately insightful about my work in a very personal way,” Goldberg says of Tolan. “I just thought, ‘This is a match here.’ ”

Tolan, who took over the playwriting program in 2013, sees herself not only as a teacher but as a mentor who will push students to “follow what turns them on, because that’s where you’re going to thrive and where your work is going to really flourish,” she says.

“I’m interested in people who are adventurous and are interested in experimenting—whatever that means to them,” Tolan continues. “That’s something we want from our playwrights—an interest in getting under the surface of things, exploring life, and telling stories that they feel need to be told.”

In December, Turner and Goldberg told two of their stories in the Theater Department’s Playwrights Festival, which each semester presents staged readings as well as fully produced plays by MFA students. Under Tolan’s leadership, professional directors have been added to the crew of each production.

“The playwrights are collaborating with directors who are very active in the field, so they’re getting that engagement and mentorship,” Tolan explains. “Coupled with the work of Mason Gross design and acting students, they’re able to have a play go from a thought on a page to a full production.”

Turner says her play, The Stand-In, based on Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, was “what an ideal production should be—it was both what I imagined and what I never could have imagined,” thanks in part to an innovative set design that sat audience members on the stage and used the theater’s existing seating as the set.

Goldberg saw his play, Macduff, an adaptation of Macbeth, realized by a cast and crew who “delightedly jumped into the entire world” of Boston, his beloved hometown.

“Everyone involved in the play was really invested in my work and was excited to do it, and explore it, and tear it apart,” says Goldberg. “That makes me, and what I do, a lot better and more interesting.”

In addition to writing workshops and classes in literature analysis, writing for television, and directing, playwriting students see as many productions as possible, which, Tolan says, “enriches our experience of what a play is.”

Thanks to Tolan’s professional connections and relentless networking, students also have access to meetings with established playwrights and literary managers, which allows them to pose questions about the writing process and learn about play submissions and life as a working artist.

“Kathleen wants to make sure that we get a good grounding in New York theater, which is big and complicated and full of locked doors,” Goldberg says. “Putting things together myself would have been a huge struggle for years.”

For Turner, the trips to nearby New York City continually inspire her own work as a playwright, reminding her of her purpose in the theater.

“It’s revitalizing—I felt like I had just come back to life,” Turner says of recently seen plays by Sarah Ruhl and others. “Theater can do that—that’s why I’m here, that’s why I’m doing this.”

Posted February 2015. Photos by Larry Levanti.