Date Your Work

Although I’ve been a longtime Lighthouse student and intermittent member, I’d always found myself strangely intimidated by Lit Fest. Not only are there so many options spread over two weeks, but the really cool-sounding workshops all require an application and a writing sample. Does this mean I have to actually finish something? I wondered every year. And make it good? I resigned myself to a Master Workshop-less existence of unfinished short stories and scattered scenes from a YA novel that I could never seem to cobble together. And I’d certainly never be able to finish (okay, start) a play that had been bouncing around in my head for the past several years. I contented myself with being a hobbyist.

And then Daniel Goldfarb happened.

Not only was I thrilled that Lighthouse was offering a Master Workshop in dramatic writing, but Daniel had an incredible resume: area head of playwriting at NYU, a member of the 2017-18 Tony Nominating Committee, a writer for Amazon's series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and the author of several hilarious plays. (Seriously, read his work. He’s fantastic) This man not only appeared to have a wealth of talent at his fingertips, but he also taught at one of the best theater schools in the country. Artists are wonderful, but teaching artists are even better.

I started writing the play, I finished writing the play and then, much to my fledgling playwright surprise, I was accepted into Daniel’s workshop. And then it was on.

My workshop was made up of a diverse group of screenwriters and playwrights with a wide-ranging variety of work. We had comedies and dramas, thrillers and mysteries, fantasy films and sitcom pilots. Daniel walked in the room with specific, incisive notes for each work and suggestions for all of us of a few published plays or films that were reminiscent of our work. “Take a look at A Doll’s House, Part Two, by Lucas Hnath,” Daniel told me. “Your play was a little reminiscent of that show.”

Not only did Daniel guide us in working and revising our various scripts, but he was able to connect our work to other commercial ventures and help us figure out where our scripts might fit within the industry. He never dictated changes in anyone’s work, just asked very precise questions and made some suggestions.

He recommended that I add a bit more material for a particular character. He thought a screenwriter in our class might flip-flop the first two scenes to strengthen the start of his movie. Another playwright was advised to eliminate an entire major character. Some notes were easy to take, some a little more challenging, but each of us walked away from the first half of the week with enough quality feedback to make some incredible revisions to present during the second half of the week.

I added another scene for my underwritten character and she finally started to pop. The screenwriter flipped his scenes, added material, and suddenly his screenplay had me hooked. That other playwright eliminated that “extra” character and her protagonist instantly got more interesting. Small changes yielded huge results.

My favorite piece of advice that Daniel gave us was to take our plays out on dates. Love this idea, love it. My play and I have been on so many coffee dates since Lit Fest 2017. We’ve revised by a creek in Ashland, Oregon, we’ve written new scenes at Tattered Cover, we’ve cut out some swear words while I ate pizza, then put them back in a week later at Starbucks. I got to know my play well, became friends with it. In theory, our plays aren’t dead things that are destined to live only on paper. They’re little embryos that are meant to one day live on stage. We should get to know them.

Jessica Austgen will be part of our Local Playwrights' Slam on February 18 as part of the DCPA's Colorado New Play Summit. Applications for Lit Fest 2018 Master Workshops (including dramatic writing workshops with Daniel Goldfarb and Alexandre Philippe) are due March 15.