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Winter Edition
Volume 98, Number 3

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Devin Thomas '09
Lost in thought while seated in Miller Auditorium, Devin Thomas '09 dreams up his next theatrical production.

“Did you know ‘playwright’ was spelled that way?”

Exploring the art of stage drama helped me to find my identity as a writer and a college student

Wouldn’t it be great to go back in time and edit all the things you say in a single day? What if life could be fixed with a touch of the BACKSPACE key or a stroke of the pen? I ask myself these questions a lot. You see, I’m not very astute (try as I might): I forget names; I misuse words; I blurt out things that I don’t really mean. And so, as a writer, I deal with these things in the only way I know how: I write. (That’s right: I don’t try to fix myself. Leave that to the psychology majors. We’re English majors. We’re fraught with angst and questions of existential purpose. You’ve heard of Hemingway, haven’t you?)

So I took these questions, dressed them up in characters, and put them on paper. This time, though, I tried something a little different: I wrote a play.

What comes to mind when you think of a play? Shakespeare? Death of a Salesman? That time your mother made you play a shepherd in the church Christmas pageant? Those are probably the things that came to mind before I took a playwriting class with Helen Walker, associate professor of English at Messiah College, last year. (Although, to be fair, I played a wise man in the Christmas pageant—the one with the frankincense.) Like any good English class should, we started with reading: Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry, Equus by Peter Shaffer. A good start, but I was possessed by a desire to read more: A Streetcar Named Desire, Six Degrees of Separation, Steel Magnolias, The Odd Couple.

Then, we wrote. At first, we flexed our dramatic muscles with single-scene writing and character sketches to be performed in class. By the end of the semester, I’d written a one-act play about Harry, a clumsy, awkward smart-mouthed writer who (in a frighteningly coincidental parallel with his creator) blurts out inappropriate things. Harry wants desperately to revise his life in the same way that he revises his fiction. Motivated to change by a sudden breakup with his girlfriend, Harry examines the way that revision can make things better—and, perhaps, at times, make things worse.

It was as though I’d suddenly tapped an unknown vein in the art of creative writing—unknown to me, at least. I’d never before considered the technical complexity of playwriting: in addition to forcing your thoughts, your ideas, your words into a strict form—that of character names and stage directions and parenthetical denotation of mood and movement—a playwright must consider his or her creation of stage pictures, visual images translated from the page that culminate in emotion and theme. A playwright must consider the beats, plot points in the play that move the action toward a climax. There is a focus on minutia essential in playwriting, an attention to detail and a dedication to form and content even beyond that required in poetry or prose. A playwright doesn’t just write words that produce an indelible and lasting image in the mind’s eye, as the poet or the fiction writer; a playwright must choose his or her words so as to create an indelible and lasting image on the stage. A playwright translates words into movement in a way that fiction and poetry can’t. A play—a good play—lives, converting words into breath and flesh.

Playwriting was the first college-level creative writing course I’d taken, a 300-level journey through the complex art of creating drama. Needless to say, I was scared. Being one of two first-year students in a class populated with experienced, “jaded“ seniors, I felt like a goldfish exploring the Sahara desert—way out of my element, in a class far beyond my mediocrity as an author of high-school-melancholy-“woe is me”-poetry and the occasional short story about adolescent isolation and teenage ennui. High school doesn’t translate to college, and I felt an insane desire to impress these far more educated seniors with my dashingly sophisticated writing skills. I stumbled into a solid peer editing group—three seniors whose knowledge and perspectives were encouraging and immeasurably helpful. I was relieved. We had fun joking about the workload of the course—“There are no deadlines for this class!” we often said (and it was true!)—and, shock beyond shock, actually learned something: “Did you know ‘playwright’ was spelled that way?”

At the end of the semester, we premiered our plays at a performance in Parmer Cinema. A friend from the class—a senior, a talented writer I had come to know and respect—came to the show. After my play, he leaned forward to me and said, “You’re going to make a good writer some day.” It was like I’d just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. “Thanks,” I said, beaming.

It’s maudlin, I know, but it taught me something very important: there’s something about playwriting that is instantaneously gratifying. You sit down and listen to your words brought to life by men and women gifted with the ability to interpret and imbue. If a scene doesn’t work, it shows. If a joke falls flat, you know it right away. And you go right back to the drawing board. (I had a particular quip in my play, something about Barbara Streisand and Stephen Hawking, that got zero laughs during the run-through. I changed it before the performance. As a Messiah professor once said, "There’s nothing more motivating than the threat of public humiliation.") I think that’s why I’m so drawn to plays, to working in the moment. A playwright stands in the center of the exchange, the place where literature meets life. And that, to me, is an appealing way to write.

Devin Thomas '09

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