Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of Cheri Magid July 17, 2019
Cheri Magid puts student engagement at center stage
Writing for the stage — for a comedy, drama or even opera — is a work in progress for playwright Cheri Magid, who says she always revises and refines a script as actors perform it in workshops and interact with her.
That creative process benefited both Magid and University of Delaware students during the 2018-19 academic year, when the new Susan P. Stroman Visiting Playwright Series brought her to campus as a visiting playwright.
The assistant arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts spent time at UD during fall and spring semesters, working with student performers on an opera and a play she was developing and sharing insights into her writing process. Funded by a generous gift from Stroman, an award-winning Broadway director and choreographer and a UD alumna, the initiative will continue in the fall of 2019 when another visiting playwright comes to campus.
“Any play is active,” Magid said. “You can’t know how it works until you see it performed. In some ways, the writing process is just one big experiment.”
Her latest experiments took shape during several visits to UD in which student actors read her play aloud as she looked on and discussed it with them in preparation for rewrites. A different group of student performers followed the same kind of process with an opera for which Magid, in collaboration with a composer, was writing the text.
“Cheri is someone who makes things happen, and I think we were extremely fortunate to get her here for our first year,” said John Ernest, the Judge Hugh M. Morris Professor and chair of the Department of English. “She connects with students, and the students were deeply involved with her work here.”
Magid’s work with the departments of Theatre and Music expanded the visiting playwright initiative’s reach beyond the Department of English and enhanced the opportunities for students and faculty to share the experience, Ernest said.
“We had an amazing collaboration with Music and Theatre, which brought together a lot of creative energy on campus,” he said. “I couldn’t have hoped for more than that.”
The play that Magid worked on at UD was a particularly good example of her interactive writing process, she said. She had written a draft of The Virtues of Raw Oysters, a comedy set in Brooklyn in 1894, in 2010 and then put it aside but never found time to get back to it.
By the time she looked at it again last year, she said, the play clearly needed updating, especially in light of issues raised by the #MeToo movement. She was especially enthusiastic about having University students read the play aloud, since the work’s main characters are around 20 years old.
“Being able to hear the play read by actors who were that age was incredibly valuable to me,” Magid said.
The student actors, all recruited by Allan Carlsen, assistant professor of theatre, because of their stage experience, said they also valued the opportunity. Carlsen worked with the students during the readings, providing the play’s narration as the actors read their parts while seated at a table, with Magid and a small audience looking on.
“As an actress, it was very rewarding seeing Cheri incorporate my input as well as my castmates’ into her updated versions” of The Virtues of Raw Oysters, said Sydni Rose Rambo, a sophomore majoring in neuroscience. “I would recommend an opportunity like this to anyone with a passion for theatre.”
Her fellow student actor, senior Nico Galloway, called the series of workshops “a terrific opportunity” for all the participants.
“The chance to see a play evolve over the course of a few months and have a small influence on this process has been enlightening and inspiring,” he said. “As an actor, it was great to hear about the specific reasons behind each character’s actions and get a critique from the playwright herself.
“I would highly recommend this type of experience to any actor/director/writer in the making.”
During one of Magid’s early visits to UD, she said, Carlsen told her about the Department of Music’s Opera Theatre. She contacted Blake Smith, associate professor of voice and opera and the Opera Theatre director, and began collaborating with him and his students on a second writing project.
She and composer Milica Paranosic brought their opera-in-progress Penelope to UD, where some of Smith's students, as part of the Opera:Now contemporary opera program, took part in a concert reading and the opera's first major workshop on campus in March. A video of the Opera:Now workshop can be viewed here.
With Penelope’s all-women cast, the experience was especially powerful for students, Smith said.
“There are many more women training to be opera singers than men,” he said, “but there are considerably more parts for men in the standard repertoire...Exposing our students to Penelope, and to bold and empowered women, was inspiring.”
In addition to the benefits that student performers might gain from working directly with a playwright, Magid said she thinks the program helps all students broaden their outlook.
“Having a playwright, or any writer or artist, on campus and in their classrooms demystifies the artistic process for students,” she said. “If they can have a dialogue, it makes the writer and the creative process accessible.”
The visiting playwright program will continue in the fall, said Ernest, who has invited Kyle Bass to fill the role and help shape the specific activities of the program’s second year.
“Susan Stroman very generously left the details to us, but I know that she was looking for something that would inspire students the way she was inspired when she was a student,” Ernest said. “Cheri and everyone she worked with here really delivered on that and showed us the possibilities for the future.”
Bass is the Gretchen Hoadley Burke Endowed Chair for Regional Studies at Colgate University and associate artistic director at Syracuse Stage. A recipient of two New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships, for fiction and for playwriting, he is the author of numerous plays and screenplays.
He is drama editor for the journal Stone Canoe and has taught playwriting in Syracuse University’s Department of Drama, theatre courses in the Department of African American Studies and playwriting at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and has been on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing program at Goddard College since 2006.