Seminar by Theresa Rebeck opened the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre Winnipeg’s 2015-16 season. Four aspiring writers, Martin, Douglas, Kate and Izzy, pool their money to engage an established novelist for a 10-week master class.
The ensemble of the young quartet worked well. Sparks flew as the relationships among them shifted and as Leonard, their teacher, reacted to their writing and their personas.
The opening scene, in Kate’s apartment, allows us to glimpse the quartet spar with words, the passion that unites them. Martin, nephew of a famous playwright,appears as a parody of serious students of writing. His arrogant use of terms such as the interiority and exteriority of the landscape, his description of the trees and shrubs he has passed on his way to the apartment as balanced for growth, and hints about a possible publication in “The New Yorker” place him in the realm of those who seem to prefer to talk about writing, rather than working at writing. Martin challenges him and mocks his words, trying to gain the support of Izzy and Kate.
When Leonard arrives for the class, he asks to read a piece of writing. Kate steps up, handing him a piece in the style of Jane Austen on which she has been working for 6 years. Leonard stops at the semi-colon, rips her work apart and leaves the class.
Each week another member of the quartet presents work; Izzy’s work is praised; Martin is told to go to Hollywood and Douglas rejects Leonard’s scathing remarks about his friend’s work. When Martin comes a week later and announces to his fellow students that Leonard had been accused of taking the words of others, Douglas then has the courage to reveal his words. Leonard cannot remember having read the first chapter of Douglas’ novel, the piece he had submitted to gain entrance into the seminar. Douglas and Leonard joust before Leonard reveals a hidden part of himself, becoming honest perhaps for the first time during the play.
Creating works of art is a lengthy process; refining that work also requires time and effort. Leonard’s remarks after a superficial reading of his students’ work, dismiss their creative processes. He acts on the assumption that telling his students the hard truth is the best approach to teach them how difficult the task of becoming successful writers is. His students would prefer him to comment on their talent and let them know he values their work. When they do not accept his remarks, he begins to attack their character as well as their writing. They begin to wonder about the class but also about the profession they have chosen.
His remarks call into question the narratives they have constructed of who they are. All of us construct narratives of ourselves; these narrative slip and elide depending on contextual influences. Why should it be any different for the aspiring writers? When they begin to question the each others personal narratives, shifts and cracks appear in the faces they present to the world. They begin to tell each other little lies, stretching and reshaping the truth to fit their own purposes. Even Leonard undergoes transformation when confronted by rumours of plagiarism and false memoirs.
Rebeck’s exploration of serious themes, such as personal identity and creativity did not come alive for me, despite the efforts of the actors and some good dialogue.