By Stephen Gregg
I love theatre teachers.
There are obvious reasons. I love their enthusiasm as they do a really hard and really important job. I love that they’re invariably easy to talk to, and funny. But there’s a bigger reason that I love theatre teachers, and to explain it I’m going to talk about a play that I wrote a long time ago.
In the late ’80s, I had submitted a play called Sex Lives of Superheroes to a program called Plays in Process. I have no idea what Plays in Process was. You can’t even Google it. It’s gone from the earth. All I know is that at the time it was the most important thing in the world, and I was checking the mail every day. And when the decision arrived, the envelope was tellingly thin, a form letter probably containing the words “wish you luck.” But along with the letter, out slipped a short, handwritten note. It said, in its entirety:
Dear Mr. Gregg
Just a personal note—I loved the script, and even though it’s corny to say it, I laughed out loud about fifty times while reading it – I stopped to call several friends to read them the Maji speech. I plan to tell people about the script. Keep me informed about future work.
It was signed, Tony K. And the K was for Kushner.
Over the years, I’ve had fantasies about running into Mr. Kushner at a cocktail party, mentioning my name, and him saying, “Steve! I’m so glad to finally meet you!”
I have no idea what I was reading or watching in my mid-twenties that made me think that cocktail parties would be a part of my later life. But to explain the bigger problem with my cocktail party fantasy, I need to tell a different anecdote, a story within my story.
About four months ago, I was working with a high school that was producing my new play, Crush. I was only going to be at the school for a couple of days and so on this day I was the de facto director while the real director sat to the side.
After we ran a scene, I asked an actor a question, the way one does. I thought I had made it clear that I was asking the question of the character but, somewhat unforgivably, I had not. In front of the entire cast and crew, the young man answered my question not as the character might, but as himself. The question was, “when you arrive places, are people glad to see you, do you think? ” And his answer was, “… I’m not sure. Maybe not that much.”
That night, I was having dinner with the director —David Hastings, who teaches at Olathe South, in Kansas —and he told me that after the rehearsal, he had taken the actor aside, and told him that he was glad he was there, that everyone in the play was, and that he was doing a great job.
David’s low-key intervention reminded me of the real reason we love theatre teachers. It’s because of the encouragement that they give to young artists or, bless them, to young people brave enough to attempt an unfamiliar art form in public.
Which brings me back to Tony Kushner and the note he slid into that envelope. The note is dated April 29th, 1989. That’s four years before Angels in America. I hadn’t heard of Tony Kushner. I don’t think most people had. He was in that phase of a playwright’s career when you work for a nonprofit and part of your job is to send sad letters to other playwrights
The story of the note he wrote to me isn’t a story about me at all. It’s a story about Tony Kushner and the generosity of spirit that infuses his plays. Kushner would not remember me today in part because, I guarantee you, he has written many, many of those notes.
I didn’t save that note because it came from Tony Kushner. In a way, it didn’t. I didn’t realize that until years later what I had.
But I did save it. It meant a huge amount to me.
It’s easy to underestimate the asymmetry of encouragement. Praise is a lever; you push and the other person rises disproportionately.
I still remember my own theatre teacher’s reaction to the first play that I wrote. Mickey Prokopiak had had his Acting II class read the one-act without telling them who’d written it. Then he told me how they’d reacted. I don’t remember the conversation well; I was too excited. But I remember that he used the phrase “incredibly enthusiastic,” and that two-word phrase has stayed with me for thirty five years. It’s part of why I’m a playwright.
Creative life, like life in general, is full of thin envelopes. You’re constantly being wished luck in your future. You have to be resilient, and part of what gives you resilience is having those people in your past who promised you that you could do this.
Often, those people are theatre teachers, the people who taught you the craft in the first place.
And by the way, the Crush story ends happily. That young man is the lead in the play, and the play’s going to be on the main stage at the International Thespian Festival this summer. So if you’re at Lincoln and you see him, don’t tell him that I told you this story. But do tell him that you were glad to have seen him.
Stephen Gregg’s one-act play This is a Test, which launched the genre of large-cast high school one-act plays and became the most-produced one-act play in the country for 13 straight years. His other plays include Small Actors, One Lane Bridge, S.P.A.R. and The New Margo. HIs full-length play, Crush, will debut on the mainstage of the International Thespian Festival this June. Gregg teaches himself to write plays, one tweet at a time, at @playwrightnow