Saturday, February 09, 2013
Seminar: A Look into the World of Writers
By Holly Dennis
Writing isn’t easy, but you may not have known that it could be this hard. Seminar, a work by Theresa Rebeck, opened last week at City Theatre in Pittsburgh. In the show, Kate, a student in Leonard’s writing seminar, shows him a piece that she has been working on for the past six years. After the first sentence, Leonard tears the work apart, criticizing not only the piece, but also the author who wrote it. As he personally insults Kate’s character in front of her and a group of her peers inside her own apartment, the audience can’t help but feel sorry for her. It’s hard to imagine someone being so cruel. However, that’s when you realize that that is the point – Rebeck is showing us what it’s like to be a writer, to have your work publicly scrutinized and hope lost, but you keep on writing; you do everything you can, even things that may seem crazy, because you still believe in the chance that one day you’ll write something really good.
The story begins with Douglas (Andy Bean) discussing the “interiority and the exteriority” of the writing location from which he has just returned. From his pristine style with bold color choices and his continuous dropping of names, it is obvious that he is a person to know – he may not be the most intelligent, but he has connections. Drinking in every word that comes out of his mouth are Izzy (Nadia Gan) and Kate (Rebecca Harris), the two females in the production. To the men onstage, and to the audience, Izzy is clever and sexy, occasionally coming off as ditzy, while Kate is the feminist Bennington grad who doesn’t take risks in her writing. Then, there is Martin. He is a breath of fresh air, seeing through Douglas’ speeches on literature, correcting him when he gets authors’ names wrong. He is smart and sarcastic, but insecure, which is seen in the fact that he won’t show his work to Leonard. As I mentioned before, Leonard (Daniel Gerroll) is the head of the writing seminar that each of these characters has paid $5000 to partake in. He was once a great writer and is now a skilled editor. He travels a lot, fools around with younger women, and, in the seminar, relentlessly critiques the four writers’ work.
Seminar takes us on a journey. We are introduced to these characters and, through the reading of their own work and their reaction to their peers’ work, we begin to understand who they are and where they come from. Rebeck shows us what it’s like to be a writer, but she also takes us on a journey of relationships between these four characters. She makes a connection between their struggles in their writing and their struggles with those around them. As each one has their writing critiqued by Leonard, his or her character becomes relatable because they show more insecurity. After Leonard tells Douglas to “go to Hollywood,” he breaks down over the fact that Izzy isn’t interested in him. When Kate is told that her writing is boring, she eats ice cream and cookie dough to make herself feel better, to which Martin (Charles Socarides) humorously notes, “Wow, women actually do this.” Leonard likes Izzy’s work, mostly because it talks about sex, but that’s when we see that Izzy isn’t ashamed use all of her assets to become a writer. And finally, just as Martin is insecure in showing his writing to Leonard, he is also insecure in his feelings for Izzy. Eventually, she takes control and they form a relationship based on sex.
These transitions occur as the structure of the play goes back and forth between Leonard’s seminar, and the writer’s interactions after he leaves, usually involving the consumption of alcohol. They form bonds with each other, but aren’t afraid to state their opinions. Eventually, tensions rise in Kate’s apartment, culminating in Martin’s confrontation of Leonard, who responds in an unexpected way. Beneath Rebeck’s witty dialogue is a deeper reality of the struggles of being vulnerable as a writer, and as a person.
It is easy to see why City Theatre chose to put on Seminar this season. This year they are “dedicated to a full season of all new work” and in general “City Theatre’s mission is to provide an artistic home for the development and production of contemporary plays of substance and ideas that engage and challenge a diverse audience” (City Theatre). Because Seminar was still on Broadway less than a year ago, I had the impression that they probably stayed true to most of the original production choices. The production choices from last year are still fresh and engaging and, because there’s not much need for experimentation, I believe it the play has stayed true to Rebeck’s original intentions. One thing that can be noted, however, is the performance by the actors. Some individual performances were up and down but the cast worked well off each other and was engaging as a group. I was not convinced by Nadia Gan’s performance as the sexually driven Izzy – it felt a little forced. As for Rebecca Harris, if I hadn’t been distracted by her age in comparison to the other actors, I would’ve been drawn in completely to her portrayal of Kate, struggling for acceptance and discovering her own voice. She didn’t look like she fit in with the age group of Martin, Izzy, and Douglas. But, once I acknowledged that, it was easy ignore it and focus on her wonderful performance. Andy Bean’s portrayal of Douglas was comedic but also insightful, and Charles Socarides as Martin was delightfully sarcastic, but his transition in his relationship with Leonard is not to go unnoticed. Finally, Daniel Gerroll played Leonard with the perfect amount of ruthlessness and bitterness that didn’t make his eventual transition unrealistic.
So, writing is hard. That is the point that Seminar makes. On a deeper level, the play brings up questions about what lengths writers will go to become successful in their careers. By the end of the play, it seems as though everyone has sold out – switching their original moral standing – but is also on his or her way to success. The ending invites the audience to think about the gender dynamics throughout the play and ponder what Rebeck’s overall message is – does a man’s critique of a woman’s work encourage her to make more drastic decisions? Or is this the result of a wake-up call from a person of either gender? I encourage you to see this production and decide for yourself.
Holly Dennis is a first year dramaturgy student at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.