Emory Report
October 27, 2008
Volume 61, Number 9



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October 27
, 2008
Playwriting major takes center stage

By carol clark

Nick Surbey is only 21 but he has already made theater history. He started his junior year this fall as the first – and only – playwriting major at Emory. “I don’t feel lonely,” he says, explaining that playwriting is a collaborative art, and theatrical activities are booming at Emory.

For two years, Surbey was an undeclared major. He took classes in theater studies and the English department’s Creative Writing Program, but the major he wanted was not listed in the catalog. Meanwhile, Jim Grimsley, senior writer-in-residence in English, began team-teaching playwriting with Lisa Paulsen, a lecturer in theater studies and director of the Playwriting Center at Theater Emory.

“Being able to enter into collaborative relationships is a vital and important part of being a playwright,” says Paulsen, explaining the aim behind joining the forces of two departments. “We wanted the playwriting courses to span everything from coming up with an idea and the solitary act of writing to working with theater artists to develop a production, then taking it all the way through to opening night.”

The success of the team-taught courses, which have waiting lists, inspired the move to develop an undergraduate playwriting degree program at Emory — a joint major between English/creative writing and theater studies. The new major won approval and debuted this fall, making Emory one of only two schools in the country offering a cross-disciplinary B.A. in playwriting.

Surbey had been waiting in the wings. He declared his major of playwriting the same day it officially became part of the curriculum.

“I love language and creating a story,” says Surbey, who wrote and staged his first play while in the 10th grade at the DeKalb School of the Performing Arts. During his freshman year he wrote “Bang,” about an American woman who flees some unspoken trauma in the U.S. only to die in Hiroshima during the atomic blast. He has spent much of the past year working on “Labyrinth,” an absurdist tale that revolves around a baby with four arms and four legs.

Students from Emory’s Starving Artists Productions have helped Surbey stage readings of the play, so he could revise and refine the work. Public readings will begin Oct. 30.
(For details, visit: http://www.students.emory.edu/sap).

Emory students interested in creative writing and the theater have enormous resources to draw on. Theater Emory brings professional theater artists to the campus, while the Playwriting Center commissions and develops scripts with major playwrights from around the country.

The Creative Writing Program Reading Series hosts leading playwrights — like Theresa Rebeck, Nov. 10–11 — and the biennial “Brave New Works” event has developed more than 100 new works, many of which have been produced in prestigious American regional theaters and abroad. “Brave New Works” has also helped launch the careers of talented Emory alumni and students, like Lauren Gunderson, whose play “Leap” was produced by Theater Emory in 2003.

“We want to help find and develop new voices. It’s exciting for the University, and for the American theater, to have 19-year-olds writing plays,” Paulsen says.

Plans call for promoting the new playwriting major nationally, although Paulsen says that the program is expected to remain small, to provide a tailored experience.

Surbey, who is also busy writing material for this February’s “Brave New Works,” describes majoring in playwriting as thrilling and frightening. “My parents are both grounded in the business world, and they have kindly tried to guide me in new directions, with better job prospects,” he says.

“I’ve laid awake a few nights over it,” he adds. “But I want to do something that I really love. I’ve decided I need to give this a try. If I don’t, I’ll just go through life wondering if I could have been a playwright.”