Sometimes the traditional approach to writing works the best. Although cutting-edge media may favor streamlined dialogue and plots heavy on action, if aspiring writers want to make it in Paul Lim's Kansas University playwriting class, they have to learn proper form and storytelling technique, essentially unlearning what they may experience through movies, TV and video.
"In the beginning playwriting class, one is forced to write traditionally in time, place and action so that they create old-fashioned well-made plays," Lim says.
And it works very well, with plays and individual performers often advancing their projects into regional and national theater competitions. Each year, four new students get a chance for a staged reading in the English Alternative Theatre program in what's called the Final Four Competition.
It's almost unheard of for a program to offer brand new writers a chance to hear their words spoken by actors, so EAT is taking the lead in showing what a University writing program can do.
This year's Final Four starts Friday. Two plays are staged against each other on Friday and two different ones on Saturday, with the audience voting on which play advances each night. The two winners are staged again on Sunday evening, with the audience selecting the eventual champion. This forum allows playwrights to obtain feedback from actors and viewers.
But the rules remain relatively simple. The writers must follow a certain structure and learn basic storytelling.
"Each play has to take place in a 24-hour period, with one setting and with one triggering action that causes all the action that follows," Lim says. "For students that cut their teeth in film, it's hard to do. They bring the influence of movies and TV, but they must learn to write stage-worthy pieces."
But in this media age, ideas are often shaped on the big screen, and some of that influence trickles on to the stage. This year's plays revel in broad, dark physical comedy, ala something the Farrelly Brothers might create for Jim Carrey, and violent and sexual relationship stories that are not afraid to be controversial.
On Friday evening, "When It Rains" by Chace Ramey competes with "Running With the Big Dogs" by Nathan K. Gonzales. Both are comedies. "When It Rains" concerns a young man's sudden "cold feet" before his upcoming wedding, with the expected disastrous results occurring.
"All hell breaks loose," Lim says.
In "Running With the Big Dogs," An elderly neighbor goes to the apartment of three young men to lodge a noise complaint, but then suddenly dies. Since the three young men were engaged in some less-than-civil conduct at the time, they try to dispose of the body without involving the police.
"It's very dark, but it's also a very funny comedy," Lim says. On Saturday night the mood switches to heavy drama. In "The Waiting Game," by Joanna Davis, three 20-something characters discuss their sexuality and their relationship with one another.
"There are gender issues involved traditional roles are no longer clearly defined and this is about what they are going through in their lives," he says.
The final play is "Thresholds" by Sean Stacey. The title refers to pain thresholds that two former lovers inflict upon each other after they meet at a high school reunion and resume their volatile relationship.
"It's pretty heavy stuff," Lim adds. "Where these young people come up with their ideas I don't know. I don't tell them what to write or not write, and I'm always surprised with the things that are important to them."
This year's competition differs from the past in that it's staged in a reader's theater format, as opposed to simple staging with actors trying to move about with scripts in hand. With only a few rehearsals, Lim thought it was better to concentrate on the words and just convey the idea of action through a narrator.
"In the past, I didn't concern myself with plays that required too much physical action. But last year I got a lot of physical comedies and contemporary relationship stories, so I changed the format to a reader's theater, and I have a narrator supply the needed stage action," he says.
Lim's methods certainly produce results. In the past few years, EAT has had a 10-minute play staged in a national competition, and one EAT actress went on the next year to win a national acting competition.
This year, "Bunnies" an original EAT production by Michael O'Brian, has advanced in the American College Theater Festival. It's one of six plays that will be performed in April at the prestigious Kennedy Center.
Lim could not be happier with how the program is working to produce quality plays and actors.
"I'm so proud of my kids," Lim says.