In Print

To Be a Playwright by Janet Neipris

Author, teacher, playwright, Vineyarder

By Brooks Robards - August 31, 2006

"To Be A Playwright," by Janet Neipris. Routledge, 2005. 241 pp. $17.95

Award-winning playwright Janet Neipris, a Vineyard summer visitor since 1965, has published a book about her craft called "To Be a Playwright." Based on lectures Ms. Neipris has given in places as disparate as the University of London and the Beijing Film School, it masquerades as a handbook for playwriting students but becomes far more.

"To Be a Playwright" reads like a memoir as much as a manual. I have known Ms. Neipris for 10 years, but it isn't merely friendship speaking to say she will entice any kind of aspiring writer as well as those who simply enjoy reading about her craft.

She begins with an anecdote about the neighborhood where she grew up outside of Boston. The place was full of graveyards, Memorial Day celebrations, and second-generation immigrant children like Leonard Bernstein who grew up to become famous.

Only three books sat on the shelf at home when Ms. Neipris was growing up. Aldous Huxley's "Point Counterpoint" belonged to her father, a shoe salesman; "The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam" belonged to her mother. The third, "One Hundred and One Famous Poems," was the one Ms. Neipris memorized, poem by poem.

After her father died, she stopped commuting to Tufts University and moved into a dorm, arriving on public transportation with a single suitcase in hand, which evidently did not please her mother.

"Every night I put my money in the telephone slot in our dorm, called my mother, and every night, for a long time, she hung up," Ms. Neipris writes. Such early experiences merely stiffened her resolve and gave her the perseverance, discipline, and self-reliance she needed to become a successful playwright and teacher.

"To Be a Playwright" has broad appeal not simply because of its author's storytelling skills, but because of a generosity of spirit that has also made her a successful teacher. In addition to authoring well over a dozen plays, Ms. Neipris has taught dramatic writing at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts for many years, serving as both professor and department chair.

Her generosity enriches the instruction of would-be playwrights and the rest of us with personal experience written in a conversational style laced with humor and anecdote. Because most of the book's 16 chapters are drawn from lectures created for other occasions, Ms. Neipris occasionally repeats herself, but as any experienced teacher knows, repetition serves to reinforce the message.

Adept at applying the appropriate aphorism, Neipris advises in "The 12 Habits of Successful Playwrights," "Preserve your energy for your work." But first come the so-called habits: "1. Get up; 2. Make a pot of coffee; 3. Sharpen pencils; 4. Feed your animal. If you don't have an animal, buy one..." Such humor serves as the velvet glove that graces a firm hand, disciplined and demanding like that of any good teacher.

"Character," Ms. Neipris suggests, "is defined by what a person does not say." And dialogue, of course, is the playwright's fundamental tool. The important task of rewriting must address problems like underwriting, lack of clarity, weak individuation and overwriting. She recommends dealing with one problem at a time.

Ms. Neipris often draws on the wisdom of others in the highly collaborative world of playwriting. She describes how Tina Howe, author of "Coastal Disturbances" and another Vineyard visitor, likens the revision process to starting with a giant plastic exercise ball and ending up with a BB.

"To Be a Playwright" offers the reader a raft of illustrations from Ms. Neipris's own work, and the quiet evidence of her learned background in its references to the work of many other writers. She has degrees from Tufts, Simmons College, and Brandeis University.

Ms. Neipris devotes an entire chapter to showing the reader how her play about China, "A Small Delegation," went from a germ of experience recorded in her journal to a full-fledged work in progress that was produced and eventually named one of the best plays of 1999.

Another chapter collects advice on writing from other successful authors, along with the bracing comment for perfectionists, "There is always something wrong - accept that fact and move on."

The final chapter in "To Be a Playwright" balances a blunt assessment of the price a commitment to writing entails with its joys and rewards. "To be a playwright means we have the freedom to fly," Ms. Neipris concludes. "And that freedom is spectacularly precious."

Whether you actually harbor dreams of writing a play or just want to see what it entails, you will find "To Be a Playwright" a pleasure to read.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.