George Seremba's Master Class in Review
During Fall 2012, Ugandan-Canadian actor and playwright George Bwanika Seremba offered
a Playwriting Master Class through
Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and the English Department. I had met
George briefly when our plays were produced as part of Cleveland Public
Theater’s Springboard event for new plays the summer before, and remembered
George fondly because during a meeting both he and I expressed the desire to
meet and connect with other playwrights.
George’s Master Class presented a perfect opportunity. The
other playwrights involved had previously taken a course with George offered
through Cuyahoga County Public Library, and their plays were in the finishing
stages. Deb Magid’s play, The Secret Life
of Birds, went on to a reading at the Dramatists Guild Friday Night
Footlights in New York this past March. As we workshopped her play, John Orlock
from the English Department was also on hand to guide Magid in how to engage
the audience, where to “begin” the story. What engages the audience? I thought
back to seeing Next to Normal when it
began on Broadway; the first scene of the mother manically putting together
twenty baloney sandwiches for school lunches dragged me in. Every lunch-making
parent can relate to this. I was hooked. Orlock helped Magid find that same type
of “hook” in her play about two musician sisters and the love story/mystery
they’d held onto for years. Orlock guided her to where the play “truly” began
by searching for that hook.
Other playwrights included: Cornell Calhoun III, Craig Webb,
Mikala Little, Mike Hammer, Vickie Williams, and Sheila Sullivan-Branch.
Williams’s play went on to be produced at Cleveland Public Theater Big Box.
Calhoun’s play, Two Trains, went on to
the Washington DC Black Theater Festival while another play of his, Blue Silk, was featured in the Eugene
O’Neill Playwriting Conference.
George was a constant, quiet inspiration in the workshop. He
did not “teach” as much as guide the writers to peer into their plays from
various angles. The workshop was collaborative and the responses from other
playwrights as “the audience” for each play were greatly beneficial; after
workshopping a piece, though, it was George’s calm, artistic response that
often resonated with the writers.
George commented on whether characters worked as narrators,
how scenes were broken up, and what elements of the stage lent more interest to
each piece. My own play, These Fine
Little Arts, which had morphed from a short fiction piece to a performance
piece to a play, is moving back to fiction as I work under author Francesca Lia
Block to pull more from the story. Hearing sections of the story out loud with
the assistance of theater students from CWRU was instrumental in deciding
whether this piece “worked” as theater or relates to readers more as fiction.
Block’s and others’ responses to the piece as fiction were much stronger than
the response to it as read, though I do plan to pursue it as a performance
piece; I’m not ready to give up the chance to see it on stage just yet. As a
play, it incorporates poetry and fairytales to tell the story of a woman still
searching for her sister after many years.
The Master Class ended with a Sunday afternoon reading of sections
of each play. Some of the playwrights brought actors from Karamu and Dobama,
and theater students from CWRU were also available. Hearing each piece out loud
let the characters come to life. Calhoun’s characters, already colorful and
interesting, took on a brighter edge with his actors. The quiet resilience of
the sister in Magid’s play came through on stage. It is much easier for a
playwright to “hear” whether the dialogue is natural, whether it flows, when
actors add their voices.
The class, while giving us the opportunity to
work on and hear our plays, also presented us with the opportunity to connect
with other writers and other genres. Working with other writers energized me and allowed me to see my work through other lenses while also
having the opportunity to see what stories others were telling. The Master
Class was an invaluable experience.
Elise Geither's Prom
for Angel has just been produced in the eighth annual playfest, “Queer
Shorts 8,” in Madison, Wisconsin, with an additional performance at the
Madison Pride festivities in August. Her one-act, Horse Latitudes, continues to see productions around the U.S. and
her monologue, "Stones," was nominated
for a Pushcart Prize this year.
Interview with Jaina Sanga ('97)
Silk Fish Opium begins in 1945 in Bombay, the characters at a nexus of multiple
conflicts, both personal and political. What drew you to the historical novel?
What difficulties did you find in writing it?
As a graduate student at CWRU in the 1990s, I read some
of Salman Rushdie’s novels and was struck by the protean depiction of history
in his work. His novels are all grand in
vision and scope. What I learned from Rushdie is that politics and history
matter. You can write a simple love
story, but if you set it in a politically charged moment in history, it becomes
more complicated, and ultimately more interesting.
The notion of conflict is integral to novels. Whether on a large scale such as the
subcontinent’s Independence and Partition, or the subtler, internal struggles
of a character, the depiction of conflict and its resolution generates the
narrative arc of a novel. Yet, during
the process of writing Silk Fish Opium,
I didn’t actively think about conflict generating elements that should be
inserted here and there. The main thing
I was concerned with was telling the story in an efficient, imaginative
way. In fact, the main difficulty arose
in trying to posit varying conflicts – of class, religion, politics, history,
the effects of the Raj and so on – in a true and organic manner that would
continually propel the narrative forward.
Moreover, the issues surrounding a Hindu-Muslim
romance are complex even in today’s India. While there has been substantial advancement in people’s thinking, the
sense of the ‘other’ still prevails among many families. It has been more than fifty years since
Partition, yet India and Pakistan have not reconciled their differences. While I was interested in exploring the
historical dynamics of this conflict, the difficulty also lay in capturing the
mood and aesthetic of the 1940s while still resonating with contemporary
Continue reading Sanga interview here.
Alum ('83) Shelley
Alum ('71) William Heath's novel Devil Dancer has just been published.
Students working on translations in David Young's class at Breaking Genre: A Writers Conference on June 1st on the CWRU campus.
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