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Playwright Cheri Magid says one of her goals is to demystify the creative process by being accessible to students.
Writing for the stage—for a comedy, drama or even opera—is a work in progress for playwright Cheri Magid, who says she always revises and refines a script as actors perform it in workshops and interact with her.
That creative process benefited both Magid and University of Delaware students during the 2018-19 academic year, when the new Susan P. Stroman Visiting Playwright Series brought her to campus as a visiting playwright.
The assistant professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts spent time at UD during fall and spring semesters, working with student performers on an opera and a play she was developing and sharing insights into her writing process. Funded by a generous gift from Stroman, an award-winning Broadway director and choreographer and a UD alumna, the initiative will continue in the fall when another visiting playwright comes to campus.
"Any play is active," Magid said. "You can't know how it works until you see it performed. In some ways, the writing process is just one big experiment."
Her latest experiments took shape during several visits to UD in which student actors read her play aloud as she looked on and discussed it with them in preparation for rewrites. A different group of student performers followed the same kind of process with an opera for which Magid, in collaboration with a composer, was writing the text.
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Theatre professor Allan Carlsen (left) narrates Magid's play, as student actors (at table, from left) Zachary Jackson, Henry Moore, Sydni Rambo, Nico Galloway, Michael Malaszczyk and Jonathan Bass read it aloud.
"Cheri is someone who makes things happen, and I
think we were extremely fortunate to get her here for our first year,"
said John Ernest, the Judge Hugh M. Morris Professor and chair of the
Department of English. "She connects with students, and the students
were deeply involved with her work here."
Magid's work with the
departments of Theatre and Music expanded the visiting playwright
initiative's reach beyond the English department and enhanced the
opportunities for students and faculty to share the experience, Ernest
"We had an amazing collaboration with Music and Theatre,
which brought together a lot of creative energy on campus," he said. "I
couldn't have hoped for more than that."
The play that Magid
worked on at UD was a particularly good example of her interactive
writing process, she said. She had written a draft of The Virtues of Raw Oysters, a comedy set in Brooklyn in 1894, in 2010 and then put it aside but never found time to get back to it.
the time she looked at it again last year, she said, the play clearly
needed updating, especially in light of issues raised by the #MeToo
movement. She was especially enthusiastic about having University
students read the play aloud, since the work's main characters are
around 20 years old.
"Being able to hear the play read by actors who were that age was incredibly valuable to me," Magid said.
student actors, all recruited by Allan Carlsen, assistant professor of
theatre, because of their stage experience, said they also valued the
opportunity. Carlsen worked with the students during the readings,
providing the play's narration as the actors read their parts while
seated at a table, with Magid and a small audience looking on.
"As an actress, it was very rewarding seeing Cheri incorporate my input as well as my castmates' into her updated versions" of The Virtues of Raw Oysters,
said Sydni Rose Rambo, a sophomore majoring in neuroscience. "I would
recommend an opportunity like this to anyone with a passion for
Her fellow student actor, senior Nico Galloway, called
the series of workshops "a terrific opportunity" for all the
"The chance to see a play evolve over the course of a
few months and have a small influence on this process has been
enlightening and inspiring," he said. "As an actor it was great to hear
about the specific reasons behind each character's actions and get
critique from the playwright herself.
"I would highly recommend this type of experience to any actor/director/writer in the making."
one of Magid's early visits to UD, she said, Carlsen told her about the
Department of Music's Opera Theatre. She contacted Blake Smith,
associate professor of voice and opera and the Opera Theatre director,
and began collaborating with him and his students on a second writing
She and composer Milica Paranosic brought their opera-in-progress Penelope
to UD, where some of Smith's students sang it in a workshop and then,
as part of the Opera:Now contemporary opera program, performed its world
premiere on campus in March. With an all-women cast, the experience was
especially powerful for students, Smith said.
"There are many
more women training to be opera singers than men," he said, "but there
are considerably more parts for men in the standard repertoire. …
Exposing our students to Penelope, and to bold and empowered women, was inspiring."
addition to the benefits that student performers might gain from
working directly with a playwright, Magid said she thinks the program
helps all students broaden their outlook.
"Having a playwright, or
any writer or artist, on campus and in their classrooms demystifies the
artistic process for students," she said. "If they can have a dialogue,
it makes the writer and the creative process accessible."
The visiting playwright program will continue in the fall, said Ernest, who has invited Kyle Bass to fill the role and help shape the specific activities of the program's second year.
Stroman very generously left the details to us, but I know that she was
looking for something that would inspire students the way she was
inspired when she was a student," Ernest said. "Cheri and everyone she
worked with here really delivered on that and showed us the
possibilities for the future."
Bass is the Burke Endowed Chair
for Regional Studies at Colgate University and associate artistic
director at Syracuse Stage. A recipient of two New York Foundation for
the Arts Fellowships, for fiction and for playwriting, he is the author
of numerous plays and screenplays.
He is drama editor for the journal Stone Canoe
and has taught playwriting in Syracuse University's Department of
Drama, theatre courses in the Department of African American Studies and
playwriting at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and has been on the
faculty of the MFA Creative Writing program at Goddard College since
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of Cheri Magid
Published June 14, 2019