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Teaching Artist

Date: Nov 26, 2007


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"I probably have been to every one of your schools doing theatre," Danny Hoch said this fall to a group of 50 or so New York high school teachers in a midtown union hall as part of a professional development seminar run by the Theatre Development Fund's education department.

Today it was the teachers' turn to be taught by Hoch, the acclaimed writer/performer of such Off-Broadway and international stage hits as Some People, Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop and Till the Break of Dawn. But, as he performed excerpts of his work and explained his writing process, Hoch was careful to remind them that his theatrical art is not an ivory-tower pursuit far removed from the daily life of the public schools.

"I'm not some ethereal playwright who writes deliciousness," Hoch said memorably. "I was one of your students."

Indeed, Hoch attended LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts before he took the world by storm with his artful, urban-inflected monologues. When he casually performed a few of his memorable solo pieces for the teachers, he wasn't just helping to illustrate how they might using theatrical writing and performing as teaching tools; he was also returning to his roots, in a way. Before and after he started performing in traditional theatre spaces for paying audiences, Hoch has plied his trade in all varieties of spaces--including jails, hospitals and schools. And not only does he break down barriers between types of venues and audiences, he also does his best to obliterate the line between performance and teaching.

"My theory is that as a teacher, you're committing the act of theatre every day," Hoch said. "And as actors and playwrights, if we're doing our job right, we're educating."

After outlining how his playwriting approach both resembled and differed from classic models, Hoch had the teachers break into groups and collaboratively write theatre pieces on various topics relevant to New York high schoolers, from body image issues to peer pressure, then at day's end perform them.

Hoch's work proved ideal for such an exercise: As he put it, he writes "theatre that's jampacked with a lot of issues," and the point of the day's training was to show the teachers a way "to write about heavy issues, social issues, without it beating people over the head. Storytelling is really about the human beings; it's not about, 'Check out this cool new plot I invented.' "

Hoch revealed that one of his favorite techniques is circumlocution--literally, "talking around" the main subject. In Hoch's case, this often takes the form of a hilarious or angry rant about something immediate, as in the case of one of his best characters, Blanca, a high-strung Latina intent on finding her missing shoe but clearly having some issues with her gay roommate and her own fickle boyfriend.

"What's the point versus what's the plot?" is one way Hoch put it, showing how the "plot"--what actually happens in the scene--is often only tangentially related to the point of the scene, or the themes and concerns that are at the forefront in the character's mind. "The way a person is interrupted tells you as much about a subject as what they have to say," Hoch pointed out. Putting it another way, he added: "What we don't know is revealed in what we say we do know."

Another way Hoch keeps his work from being too easily classifiable, he said, is his pursuit of ambivalence and complexity. "I'm looking for ironies that are not resolveable--irreconcilable ironies. Like in my play Till the Break of Dawn, the heroes are the most imperfect people."

One problem that faces much ethnically identified or issue-based writing, Hoch said, is that even as it challenges dominant stereotypical representations, it doesn't always offer humanity in all its complications. "Even when write our 'own' people," Hoch explained, "we write them with one or two dimensions."

To the common playwriting and acting question, "What does the character want?," Hoch responded: "I like to leave it open to many wants; the character becomes much richer that way. And then I look at, How do those different wants conflict with each other?"

He said that the questions he often asks when he starts to write are variations of the typical who/what/where/when specifics.

"Why is this day different from other days? Why is the character there and not some place else? Why is the character there at that time and not another time? What did they to do get to this point?"

Believing that "we get to know a character by reaction--theatre is all about behavior," Hoch then asks himself: "Who else is in the room, and what are those other people doing there? What gets in the way of what the character wants? I like it when they get in their own way." These parameters get Hoch running: "Once I answer all these questions, the themes come out organically."

That's how he usually works, he explained--letting characters' voices lead him to his themes. But he admitted that his next major play, commissioned by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and set to premiere next January, has been consciously centered around the themes of gentrification, economics and class. It's possible, he explained, to start with a theme--the A story--but making it theatrical is about finding the B, C, D, etc. stories that distract the characters (and the audience) from a monotonous, single-minded focus on one topic.

Separated into work groups, teachers decided on broad themes like gender relations and standardized testing; these were their A stories. To fill in their subsidiary stories, teachers kibitzed about everyday things that might drive characters' rants or monologues, from the troubling (a clandestine trade in firearms) to the annoying (one teacher told of the widespread practice of students storing their cell phones at the local deli for a nominal fee, making these banned-from-campus items accessible before and after school).

The resulting playlets and monologues were performed with gusto. By day's end, all the New York City public school teachers in attendance were equipped to offer the same invigorating teaching tools to their students. As Hoch encouragingly told his students-for-the-day, "There is no bad playwriting today."