Thursday, January 5, 2012

A writer's review of "Seminar," on Broadway with Alan Rickman

Last week I saw Theresa Rebeck's play, Seminar, on Broadway. Yes, it stars Alan Rickman, and I put his name in the title to lure you here and offer a picture of him to please you. But this post is not about Alan Rickman, or about any performance in this particular production. It's about the characters in Rebeck's play.

The premise is that four young writers have pooled their money to hire a has-been best-selling novelist as a fiction coach. Rebeck carefully distinguishes the four students and the teacher into five types of writers:

1) The spoiled rich girl, stymied by lack of urgency, who just needs a push
2) The slick boy wonder, benefiting from nepotism and too smart for his own good
3) The sex-pot who steams up the page and sleeps her way to success
4) The recalcitrant snail of a genius, hidden in his shell
5) The mysterious, misunderstood pro, trying to protect his wounds with a prickly skin

Now, I know a lot of writers. I know journalists and novelists and scholars. Writers of picture books, YA, sci fi, and erotica. Teachers and students, young and old, male and female. Those with multi-book deals at Penguin and those who've never published anything.

But I don't know any of the five writers in Theresa Rebeck's play. I understand that, in fiction of all genres, it is useful to condense and stylize characters. But what Seminar glosses over is a sense of the individual work it takes to be a writer, the constant internal push a writer must give him/herself to keep going. I longed for an acknowledgment of how the creative engine is stoked by each writer in his or her individual (and often rather insane) way. Instead, all we see are stereotypes with their prose already on the page.

Seminar is a good play, but it could have been great (and a funnier comedy) if it had shown more truth about writing.


  1. Sounds like an interesting one, even if they didn't capture who a writer really is. I've never seen a Broadway play, so I'm a wee bit jealous despite its shortcomings :) Oh, and I don't personally know any of those writers, either.

  2. I don't know any of them, but wouldn't it be fun to be a combination of them? I'll take being a mysterious, rich genius who steams up the pages and uses her smarts to gain success.

    Too much? Probably, but it'd be fun!

  3. Good luck becoming that combination character, Ellen. Then, at the end of your storied career, you can write a fascinating one-woman show about it.

    Thanks for stopping by, Jess. Hope you get to see a B'way show someday.

  4. Super observations, Anne. But it WAS Alan Rickman who drew me in. :D

  5. For a moment, while you were describing the characters, i thought you were talking about The Breakfast Club. I love that movie, but there are no writers in it. :)

  6. You're right. Those stereotypes are ... getting stale. I don't know any of them either.

    On another note, I read this from someone recently (Julia Cameron, I think) who advises writers to 'leave the drama on the page.' According to her, it's better if we remove the frustrations and anxieties and conflicts in us (writers) and put them all on our pages (for our characters) instead.

    Perhaps that's why we writers won't make quite as brilliant characters as our characters do. Perhaps that's why sometimes people feel the need to put few stereotypes in some movies and plays so that the audience can better identify them or 'catch' their drama quicker. (Not that I like this. Usually, the films I like which portray characters more honestly are those that don't do well in the box-office. But then there are also one or two who manage to burst through delightfully.)

    Sorry for this rather-long two-cents ... :) On yet another note, I haven't seen a Broadway show yet. When I visit America. Soon. Soon.

  7. Pardon me, have something else to add (there's something about this post that's encouraging all these thoughts ...):

    Perhaps we writers WILL make as brilliant characters as our characters do ... if it were a longer piece of work - like a novel or a telemovie. Our honest juice tends to seep out slower (or we are just not that identifiable with the audience who only has 2-3 hours to spend with us) so maybe we'll make great appearances in longer works?

  8. These stereotypical characters reminded me of The Breakfast Club. I know as writers we are supposed to avoid stereotypes, but sometimes they make for great comedy.

  9. Claudine, thanks for all your thoughts (far more than two cents' worth!). As I said in the essay, stereotypes have their place. But Rebeck uses them to the exclusion of anything that feels real or unique.

    And Kelly, you're the second person to say this sounds like the Breakfast Club. But that's just the point: it sounds like a tired Hollywood cliche, not like what should be cutting-edge theater. That Broadway ticket cost ten times the cost of a movie, so I expect a heck of a lot more.

  10. Anne,

    This was an interesting post. I loved Claudines thoughts on this subject! I don't know any of these characters in person either but figured it was because my life is pretty "boring" in itself! Those characters might all be sterotypical, however I still enjoy reading about them or watching them on the big screen.

  11. There's little as disappointing as a promising premise that's wasted on cardboard characters. That, along with the ticket price, make for quite a bummer =(
    But then again, there's Alan Rickman =)

  12. Guess sometimes seeing a production, movie or otherwise, can give us encouragement. Encouragement to keep going, and do our best to not do what they did.

    I am new at all this so I was excited when the local library had a local authors once a week in August. One book I bought was from an author whose third book had just came out. I bought the newest one. It was encouraging to talk with him at the library, but I never got past the second chapter. He is not self published, but I wonder how the MS got past the editor. The book did in fact encourage me to not do things he had done. A lot of them were basics.