Round House Theatre’s ‘Seminar’ paints a bitter, but realistic, view of writer’s workshop


Leonard (Marty Lodge) and Kate (Katie deBuys) in Round House Theatre’s current production of SEMINAR. (Danisha Crosby)
February 25

Last Thursday evening after work, Stewart Moss, executive director of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, walked up Wisconsin Avenue a few blocks to see the play “Seminar” at Round House Theatre. The organizations agreed to cross-promote the show, which is about a big-name novelist who agrees to lead a private workshop for aspiring writers, and Moss had been looking forward to seeing it.

Walking in, Moss would have gladly introduced himself to anyone who asked. Walking out, not so much.

“I was not going to walk up to anyone and say, ‘I’m the director of the Writer’s Center. Want to take a class?’ ” Moss said. “The play certainly didn’t do any service to writing, and to the narcissistic people that are attracted to the endeavor.”

Which is not to say that he walked out ready to pan “Seminar.” “It was very entertaining,” he said. “I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Moss’s conflicted reaction is typical of many writing professionals who have made the trip to Round House in recent weeks to see “Seminar.” (The play closes Sunday.) It’s possible to leave the show thinking, “Oh, my God, that’s terrible” and “Oh, my God, those Yaddo-rejection jokes are hysterical.” (Yaddo being the name of a prestigious Saratoga Springs, N.Y., estate-turned-artist-colony.)

But Moss is in the business of convincing Washingtonians that they should pay money to have their stories, memoirs and poetry critiqued by experts, so perhaps more than anyone else in town, he had a vested interest in seeing how playwright Theresa Rebeck depicted the sacred space that is a writer’s workshop. And his conclusion is that for better or worse, she was right on. Right about the dangers of never-ending revision, right about the prevalence of sex (between the teacher and the students), and right that many writers have major egos.

The only thing that “stretched my credulity,” Moss said, was that the workshop leader, Leonard, had a change of heart and ended up mentoring his students rather than just haranguing them. (“I can’t get past the first five words,” he spews at a young woman whose first effort is an homage to Jane Austen.)

The vitriolic yammerings of the students and the teacher in the play have surprised many nonwriters who have seen “Seminar.” Stan Wolk, a longtime Prince George’s County English teacher, attended a matinee performance with a talkback, where he says many theatergoers were complaining about the profane and mean-spirited dialogue. Wolk felt compelled to stand and point out that professional writing teachers are not in the business of nurturing their students.

“When I was an eighth-grade English teacher, it was my job to say there was no bad writing,” Wolk said. “My job was to encourage kids. But Leonard is trying to say to them, ‘This is the real world.’ He is not an eighth-grade English teacher. He’s being paid to tell them whether they are good enough to write for a living or not.”

In addition to defending Leonard’s negativity, Wolk was also proud to stand up and announce that back in 1973, one of those eighth-graders he encouraged to keep writing was Marty Lodge, the actor who plays Leonard.

Had Lodge asked Mr. Wolk whether or not he should give acting a go, Wolk would have told him to go for it, but in his heart, been skeptical.

“Marty was a really nice guy,” Wolk said. “He was shy and quiet. I was surprised that he went into the theater, but I was happy to see him. It is nice, as a teacher, to sometimes get to see that you were wrong.”

New Hippodrome leader

Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre will soon have a new president, and in the meantime, the current president has himself a new mentee. After five years at the Hippodrome, the century-old downtown theater, Jeff Daniel is moving to New York to continue working for Broadway Across America, the theater’s corporate manager.

Moving to Baltimore to take his place is Ron Legler, who is president of the Florida Theatrical Association, Broadway Across America’s presenting partner in Orlando. Legler visited Baltimore in January, and although he did not enjoy his first brush with the polar vortex, he did enjoy getting to know the arts infrastructure in the Baltimore-Washington region.

“I’m going to be looking for opportunities to incubate young arts organizations,” Legler said. He pointed to the nearby Everyman Theatre and its new building as a collaborator, not a competitor, and hopes that under his leadership, a former bank owned by the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center (the umbrella name for the Hippodrome complex) that is currently used mostly as an event space will soon be hosting more dance and jazz performances.

But in the decade since the Hippodrome underwent a major renovation, the theater’s primary goal is bringing touring shows to Charm City. Sandwiched between Philadelphia and Washington, the Hippodrome does not enjoy a charmed life when it comes to booking the big shows. Is the theater at the mercy of the Kennedy Center, only able to book a musical six months after its run for a month in Washington?

“We certainly don’t like to think so,” Daniel said. “But Baltimore is a neighboring city to two larger cities. It is really hard for us to say to producers, ‘Hey, give us one week first, before the Kennedy Center.’ But we do try. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we don’t.”

The only show that the Hippodrome “won” for the 2013-2014 season is “Ghost,” the middling movie musical opening April 8. But later this year, the Hippodrome appears to have scored two major coups. “Newsies,” a much higher-lauded, Tony-winning movie musical, comes to Baltimore in December, several months before its scheduled run at the National Theatre. Tony winner “Once,” already on the road and noticeably absent from the Kennedy Center’s 2013-2014 season, is coming to the Hippodrome in September. Both bookings are evidence that all three theaters are in competition, and booking a show first is a big deal.

Daniel pointed out, however, that the competition for shows may be more in the minds of theater presenters than theatergoers. According to his market research, more than 90 percent of Hippodrome attendees are from the Baltimore area, and they are more likely to have also seen a show in New York than at the Kennedy Center.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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