Apr 07, 2014 05:17PM, Published by Kerigan Butt, Categories: Arts+Entertainment
(Editor's note: This article first appeared in our Spring 2014 issue)
During recent rehearsals for his play,
“Dear Chuck” at the West Chester Studio for the Performing Arts,
Los Angeles-based playwright Jonathon Dorf – who grew up in nearby
Broomall and graduated from Marple Newtown High School – sat down
to discuss his early influences, his writing career and what advice
he would give to beginning playwrights.
Where did you grow up?
For a hot minute, I actually lived in
West Chester. I attended Westtown Friends for nursery school, went to
Glen Acres Elementary School for first and second grade, and then I
moved to Broomall.
During your formative years here, can you point to anyone who may have influenced you as a writer?
I had this teacher at Marple Newtown
High School whose name was Tom Williams. At the time, I was high
school newspaper editor, began to write poetry and short stories, and
was beginning to write music lyrics. In my junior year at Marple,
Tom told me, 'Well, you've written everything else. Why not try
writing a play?' There was a one-act festival, an Tom was a liaison
in getting one of my plays to one of the student directors. That is
what launched me as a playwright.
Who were some other teachers and mentors you have had?
I had another teacher at Marple named
Barbara Georgio, who was always very enthusiastic about my work. At
Harvard, I had a professor named William Alfred. I took his
playwriting class several times. Later on, after I moved to Los
Angeles to attend graduate school at UCLA. There, I had a teacher
named Leon Katz, who was another shot in the arm for me. Some of my
influences also come from my colleagues. Ed Shockley and I ran the
Philadelphia Dramatists Center together back in the 1990s. He's
always been inspirational, and has been able to provide help when
I've needed it.
Every creative person has a moment when they see their work crystallize, when they decide that what had once been a mere talent becomes a passion. What were those moments for you, and where were you at the time?
The first moment I had was when my first play was performed at Marple Newtown. It was a play called, “The Storm,” a bad Eugene O'Neill rip-off, but people liked it. The second moment happened while I was at Harvard. (My teacher) William Alfred sent me the final notes on plays I had written called, “Bench,” and “Ben.” He wrote in the notes that “Bench” was transitional, but with 'Ben,' he wrote that I had kind of hit it. He wrote that I had an 'atomic load of talent. Take it slowly and carefully.'
The third moment began happened about
seven years after that. I do a lot of writing for young people now.
It started when I received these commissions to write plays for young
people at Choate Rosemary Hall Summer Arts Conservatory. Right around
the same time, the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia commissioned
two plays for me, to tour to schools. Suddenly, I was writing these
plays for young people, and it seemed like it was something I was
fairly good at.
It has been said that you can't teach writing, that you can only encourage it. In addition to writing plays, you also teach. What is your approach to teaching and what do you want to get out of your students?
I spent six years teaching drama at the
Haverford School in the 1990s, taught graduate school at Hollins
University in Virginia, and now do a lot of teaching on-line. I've
discovered that you can't teach talent, but you can mentor people and
help them to avoid some of the pitfalls that you've notice a long the
way. There are technical things that you can teach in writing, like,
for instance, understanding the importance of punctuation in writing
plays. Writing dialogue is understanding rhythm, and plays are like
pieces of music. What I try to teach is for people to have a certain
understanding of that music. It's not so much teaching as it is
steering. My job is to nudge people in the right direction.
For new playwrights who are looking to produce their first play, what advice do you give them?
I suggest that new playwrights get
together with actors and invite them over for a reading. Whenever I
have a reading for a new play, I tell my actor friends that when they
come to my apartment, they will be well fed. Get the actors together
because even though a play may not be on its feet, you get to hear
the words, which will get you on the path. The second piece advice
is to start with a short play. It's hard to write a 90-minute play,
but ten-minute play is basically about one thing, and you can write
one in an afternoon.
What writers do you admire?
I think Edward Albee's work is amazing,
and “Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff” is a classic play. Tom
Stoppard's “Arcadia” is just genius. I think Harold Pinter is in
that same cloth, as well as Tony Kushner. Sheila Callaghan is another
playwright I admire. She writes really daring, bold plays.
Dinner guests, living or not.
I would definitely want (my teachers)
William Alfred and Tom Williams there, because both have passed away,
and I would like to have a moment with them. I'd like Leon Katz
there, because it would be entertaining to see them all around the
table. I like politics, and I would love to have Barack Obama there.
I would like to have a filmmaker there, as well as the members of
Steely Dan. I would also like my parents in Broomall to attend,
because they're awesome and they should get the opportunity to hang
What's your favorite spot in West Chester/Chadds Ford?
I have always enjoyed the downtown,
historic area of West Chester. I like small towns with atmosphere. I
also like the still-wooded areas in the Westtown area.
What food is always in your refrigerator?
I love cheese, so I'm always well
stocked. I'm a foodie, so I always have some artisan goat cheese and
organic Gouda varieties on hand.