Stop writing for zombies: Teaching students to create for contemporary audiences

by Jacqueline Goldfinger

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for Stop writing for zombies: Teaching students to create for contemporary audiences

(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

A young Hispanic student hangs out shyly near the door of my classroom after the first day of class. As I exit, she whispers to me, “Professor, can I write a bilingual play with the Rio Grande as a character? I tried in my last workshop but my teacher said that it wasn’t real theater. I shouldn’t use Spanish because nobody would care about the play and that the river isn’t a real character. I know it sounds stupid but I think I could do it.”

Two playwrights meet at a public master class that I’m leading. Both graduated from well-regarded theater programs. They are laughing and discussing how they read the exact same plays in their contemporary American theater course. They graduated 20 years apart.

I’m mentoring an undergrad playwright who has endured three years of rigorous theatrical training. He can’t name one playwright under the age of 50 who has world premiered a play within the past five years except Sarah Ruhl who “is cool but we don’t really read her work in-class. I like her essays though.” His contemporary touchstones are Williams, O’Neill, and Hansberry.

All of these situations are real.

All of these situations are terrifying.

All of these interactions are common in my experience as a travelling teaching artist.

Why are we encouraging students to write plays for audiences that are dead? Who do we think that their work will be connecting with in the future, the zombie subscriber demographic? Would a student painter only be educated in the aesthetic of Picasso and his contemporaries? Would an emerging graphic designer only be trained in wood block print and never touch a computer? Would a young architect only visit the Colosseum, Great Wall, and Eiffel Tower? No. That’s ridiculous. Teaching artists in other disciplines look at me with incredulity when I describe the limited engagement my students have with actual contemporary theater and theater makers. When I began teaching at one well-known institution, I was the first professor to introduce students to any work post-Vogel’s 1997 How I Learned to Drive; a piece that I love and have taught but is almost 20 years old.

We seem to be intent on intentionally stifling young voices by limiting their exposure to what is possible in the Now of theatrical space.

Please don’t freak out. Or do. Maybe it would make the discussion more vibrant and that would lead to more productive results. But this is no baby with the bathwater situation. I am not suggesting we excise well-regarded, well-known texts from our syllabi. They are a vital aspect of an artist’s education. Our Mozart. Our Cage. Occasionally, our Bieber. (What? You never read a play that, no matter what your teacher said, you absolutely knew was terrible in any decade?)

But too often an over emphasis on well-established texts leads to an absence of today’s texts and theatrical viewings in colleges and universities. As a result, we are only exposing our students to ideas, aesthetics, and forms that audiences have often already absorbed and moved beyond.

Audiences come to theater for many reasons but the core of their experience is connection – with stories, with characters, with each other, with an experience, with an intellectual idea, with living, breathing, exuberant energy. Otherwise, they’d just stay home and watch Netflix in their pajamas for $8 a month. And we don’t write for dead people. For audiences that lived in the ‘40s or ‘70s; even if an audience member was alive in the ‘40s, they are a different person today than they were at that time. We should be training students to create for the Now person. For the vibrating soul.

Let’s leave the O’Neill, the Mamet, the Wilson, the Greeks, Shakespeare, even the Sheppard (whom I love more my luggage) in the literature classes, in the theater history classes, in the script analysis classes. Let’s keep our playwriting workshops and contemporary theater classes current, vibrant, electric with possibility.

Let’s commit to encouraging young creators to engage with the today’s American theater scene; before creating our syllabi, let’s take a look at what’s world premiered within the past 5 or 10 years and emphasize those works and then supplement our syllabi with recommended reading/viewing lists of older work.

I have an odd affection for zombie audiences but I’m not encouraging my students to rip out their hearts and devour their souls for them. What would be the point?

Jacqueline Goldfinger is a playwright, dramaturg and teaching artist. She teaches theater at the University of the Arts and the University of Pennsylvania. She co-founded the Philadelphia-based emerging playwrights lab The Foundry with Michael Hollinger and Quinn Eli. She’s taught from coast to coast at programs as diverse at McCarter Theater, UCSD, the Disquiet Conference (Lisbon), and PlayPenn. Her new comedy, Trish Tinkler Gets Saved, will premiere at the Women’s Voices Festival in DC in conjunction with Unexpected Stage Company this fall. Visit her online:

Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.

  • Carla Milarch

    Totally agree. I’d say the problem extends well past the classroom and into the professional development process as well. How many staged readings have you seen of a work that is challenging/groundbreaking fail to move forward because it was initially read at a professional theater for an audience of “typical” theater-goers (read: white, privileged, aging) who didn’t respond to it? If we’re going to be developing new work by a diverse range of playwrights who can push the boundaries of form, we need also to be curating the audiences who respond to it, bringing in younger audiences through aggressive audience development. As long as the audiences that consume the work skew toward a certain demographic, the plays they greenlight with their ticket sales will skew that way too.

    Carla Milarch
    Artistic Director
    Theatre Nova
    Ann Arbor, Michigan

  • Jacqueline Goldfinger

    Yes! And thanks for producing new plays that appeal to wider audiences. There’s no point in writing plays if they aren’t going to be produced. If you’re ever in Philly, let me know. First drink is on me. Jackie

  • Tiffany Bartok

    This article should be thought-provoking for many teachers throughout the country, no matter what subject they teach. The problem is that modern system kills student’s creativity instead of developing it. Sounds terrifying, but it is truth. I communicated with many young people, who told me similar stories. There are criterion and grades and that’s all, sorry also tests that have become the central figure of educational system. That’s why modern students prefer applying to online essay writer for confidentiality who will please all demands and requests. Ok, the paper will be perfect but what about the learner’s mind?

  • Jackie

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Tiffany!

  • Anaa Angel

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  • Masha Kardash

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  • JohnnyDepp

    For a moment I got scared that there is only one sixth-grade student. Thankfully it’s not that bad. But I do understand why some of them are concerned. The fewer students they have the harder it gets to stay on the same level. However, everything seems fine right now so it’s a false alarm. Right now I’m about to finish my 642-447 Pass-4sure and start my teaching practice. It would be a shame if there would be no students to teach. And private schools are not an option, I don’t feel like teaching there at all.

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  • Paul Thompson

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  • Tim

    I want to add one rule:when you speak to an audience ,between the complex themes it is better to tell a joke to the audience. It will not allow them to fall asleep. Another rule which I use in life – if you want to write the essay – it is better to offer in

  • Arthur

    Thank you sooo much for the article. I love, love, love theater and this is one of the reasons why I hate summer because nothing is staged at this time of the year. I am sure there are not many summer lovers among theater actors just as well due to it to be off-season. Many though do some other job apart from playing so… Thanks again for the article and here, assignment writers from this website will help you to solve problems connected with writing essays

  • Latisha Clark

    I am certain there are relatively few summer sweethearts among theater on-screen characters pretty much also because of it to be off-season. Much appreciated again for the instructive article

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  • Viktor Nassermann

    don’t touch zombies. They’re cool and cute

  • Sophia Rosenberg

    Yeah, students = to zombies :D , what a putrid teacher you are? Beter play in online casino games –

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