Young Playwrights Urban Retreat

By: Bradley Hayward

In the summer of 2001 I spent a week in the heart of Manhattan, taking part in the YPI Urban Retreat — a week long playwriting intensive offered by Young Playwrights Inc. Founded by Stephen Sondheim in 1981, YPI has given thousands of young playwrights the opportunity to experience, first hand, just what it takes to develop good theater. At the time of the retreat, I was 20 years old and thrilled to meet a dozen other playwrights my age. Up to that point I had not met anyone who shared my ambition for playwrighting, so it came as quite a shock when I mentioned Terrence McNally’s name and someone else in the room had an opinion. I was immediately struck by the talent of our entire group, which encouraged me to work hard and learn as much from them as possible. It was an extraordinary week of writing, lectures, dramaturgy, and performances.

With John Weidman, after a performance of Contact. YPI Urban Retreat 2001.

With John Weidman, after a performance of Contact. YPI Urban Retreat 2001.

One of the highlights of the retreat for me was attending a performance of Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby, starring the incomparable Marian Seldes. Ms. Seldes is a rare breed — a theater legend with the enthusiasm of a novice — and she was kind enough to participate in a talk back with us wide-eyed scribes after the performance. She could not have been more receptive to our questions, although I do recall her insistence that we get to the point.

YOUNG PLAYWRIGHT: May I ask you a question?
MARIAN SELDES: You just did.

I was enamored with her colorful stories about her theatrical experiences, both past and present, yet her commanding presence was so intimidating that I became tongue-tied when my opportunity to ask a question arose. She quickly recognized this hesitation, ran her fingers through her wild mop of gray hair, and said something about the best questions being those unasked. I regret not having the words to express how overwhelmed I was by her brilliant performance (both in the play and the talk back), but looking back I realize that I learned more from her ability to divert attention from my humiliation to her technique than any question I might have asked. Most of all, I will never forget her genuine interest in where we came from and what we had to say, as if she was auditioning years in advance for the plays we would go on to write in the future. There was not a hint of condescension in her voice (which is more than I can say for some of the other professionals we met), and she treated us as contemporaries, which gave me the confidence to believe that a career in the theater was indeed possible. Her words stuck with me for weeks after the retreat; so much so that I ended up writing her a note, thanking her for her time and expertise. Much to my surprise, a postcard bearing her signature arrived in my mailbox shortly thereafter. Addressed “Dear Playwright,” she thanked me for my letter and expressed the hope that our paths would cross in the future.So do I, I thought. And still do.

I learned a great deal that week, both about the craft and business of playwrighting, but the biggest lesson did not come until years later. Deep within a box hidden in the back of my closet, I discovered the journal I kept with me that entire week in New York City. Scribbled in the margins were some notes I had made for one of our class assignments. We were asked to take in our surroundings and write down anything that made the “scene” unique. I wrote about some shadows being cast in two separate directions, stretching out for what seemed like miles on either side of me. Pasted beside these notes was a photograph of myself, seated on a dirty bench in front of the World Trade Center. Little did I know when I wrote those notes that the towers behind me would come crashing down a few short weeks later. It was at that moment I finally understood the true meaning of our assigned task: it’s a playwright’s responsibility to capture moments that would otherwise be lost in time forever.

I’ve stayed in touch with a few of my fellow young playwrights over the years. Some have continued to write, others not. Plays have been written, produced. Books completed, published. And back in 2001, none of us could have foreseen how websites, blogs, and even Twitter would give us a very public platform to express our points of view. I’m grateful for every day that I’m able to work as a professional playwright, and I can’t help but believe that getting my feet wet that week in New York gave me the courage to eventually dive into the pool, head first.

As for Ms. Seldes, I’m still holding my breath.

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