This May, the Writers’ Program is offering a brand new course called From Page to Stage–More than Just Spoken Word: A Four-Day Workshop, led by the dynamic teaching duo of Amy Friedman and Laurel Ollstein. The class is designed for writers who can’t imagine being in front of an audience–as well as performers who wish to hone their writing techniques.
Laurel and Amy shared some thoughts with us about their new class and the process of performing one’s writing, also known as “spoken word.”
Writers’ Program: What was the inspiration for your new class?
Amy and Laurel: Both of us have participated in Spoken Word performances, a burgeoning movement that engages and infuses with energy both those who have read or performed their work, and their audiences. These events feel, in many ways, as intimate and inspiring as Gertrude Stein’s 19th century literary and artistic Paris Salon and Natalie Barney’s “Fridays.” James Wolcott put it beautifully in describing the ways writers have, throughout history, stepped out of their solitary dens:
“Happily, there are botanical outbursts in American culture when writers parole themselves from the solitary grind, gravitate toward like-minded spirits, and loosely affiliate to form circles, movements, schools, bands of influence, even salons.”
Many people performing at Spoken Word events struggle with their performance—tucking their head into the page, nervously stumbling over beautiful language. We understand that a few acting techniques can help these writers do honor to their words. Conversely, some extraordinary performers out-perform their words, and we understand that some of these performers will reach new heights when their work begins to sing. In fact, we’ve worked with each other, and as a result, we’ve both expanded as artists.
Writers’ Program: What experience do you want students to take away from the class?
Amy and Laurel: The culmination of the workshop (two full weekends, with a solid week of work in between) will be a public performance where each participant will have an opportunity to be a part of a Spoken Word evening (and where everyone can show off to family and friends). Those writers who feared the whole idea of reading in front of an audience will learn how to become comfortable, and performers who wondered about the quality of their work will gain confidence in their work, and the evening’s performance will be great fun, if just a beginning.
Writers’ Program: What would you say to those students who might be terrified about performing their work (and talking about their life experiences!) in front of an audience?
Amy and Laurel: Two things. First, fear isn’t a bad thing. We both feel a little bit afraid each time we put new work out there—both on the page and on the stage. Fear can inspire and exhilarate. That said, we will be there to guide each of the students at every turn, and no one is required to say or do anything—that which must remain private can remain private.
Writers’ Program: When you say “spoken word” to people, often the genre that comes to mind is poetry, although this class focuses on personal essay. What is it about the personal essay that you think lends itself so well to being performed?
Amy and Laurel: Everyone wants to be understood, and most of us have stories inside us that we long to tell. Also, the popularity of this form seems to reflect our desire to feel a little less lonely. These “true” stories are everywhere—in memoirs and comedy routines, in diatribes and speeches, even in philosophical treatises. We hear them on radio and on TV, read them in innumerable specialty magazines—from tennis magazines to gardening journals. The beauty of the personal essay is that it offers room for all kinds of stories and voices, from the naïve to the sophisticated, offering room for contradiction, pure appreciation, biting commentary. As Philip Lopate (editor of The Art of the Personal Essay) puts it, the personal essay reveals the pleasure of “a mind finding its way through a dangerous thicket.” And we’ve all been lost in that thicket.
Every time our students attend a spoken word event, they come away with the same feeling—the sense of the magic of language and story, the feeling only live performances can inspire. Again and again we’ve seen their hearts and minds soar.
Writers’ Program: What kind of student would do well in this class?
Amy and Laurel: Can’t think of a “kind of student” who wouldn’t do well since the form itself offers so many different kinds of stories and since we will be guiding everyone—those more comfortable with writing and those more comfortable with performing and those who are discomfited by both—through the process. Even those who have never written an essay and haven’t imagined performing will learn how to do both.
Writers’ Program: Anything else you’d like students to know?
Amy and Laurel: We will have a great time! We promise! But be warned: By the end of the class, you’ll be hooked on the form.
There are still spaces available in From Page to Stage–More than Just Spoken Word: A Four-Day Workshop. While no performance background is required for this course, a letter describing your interest in the course and your background in both writing and performing is required for consideration into this course. Please email this to firstname.lastname@example.org by April 20. You will receive a phone call from the Writers’ Program with further instructions on how to enroll. For more information, contact (310) 825-9416.
Mae Respicio is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (Onsite) and Screenwriting (Online).