Theatre912 has brought Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar to Seattle. Using the intimacy of the Assembly Hall at Trinity Church to great advantage, Director Paul O’Connell gives the audience the sensation of examining the dynamics of these characters with the same close attention they want their writing to receive.
Sometimes during this writing seminar the characters actually talk about the writing. The bulk of the time though, the men are struggling for dominance in the group space and the women compete for their own ranking order in the private spaces. Jealousies, betrayals, lies, put-downs, and accusations ensue. With all that distraction, true listening and supportive comments are rare. But, that would be a different seminar.
Who are these writers who plunked down $5000 to attend this seminar with a reputedly talented writer and editor? The four students are more or less friends, competing for sex and honors among themselves. Randall Brammer is Douglas, the current hot member of the group who just published a story in Portland’s Tin House and is getting rewrite suggestions for a piece that might appear in the New Yorker. Brammer does a great job of practically overflowing the hall with the champagne fizz of his excitement.
There’s something irredeemably sexy about success, and Monica Finney infuses the role of Izzy with a palatable sense that this character’s sexual radar is always scanning for her next flirtation target. Samantha Camp as Kate and the other female in the cast naturally is on to Izzy. While Izzy stalks her next prey, Kate is simultaneously jealous and repulsed by it, especially as she tries to get Martin (Michael LoSasso) to admit his attraction for Izzy.
The opening scenes establish for us who the students are, and with musical fanfare Leonard (Jeff Berryman), the seminar leader arrives. Rebeck has made Leonard a type of hybridized Hunter Thompson crossed with Ernest Hemingway character. After a couple of novels he has found steady work reporting from war-torn countries in Africa. The use of a different kufi (bill-less hats common in Muslim countries) for each of Leonard’s scenes is a subtle costuming detail by Mishka Navarre-Huff that lends legitimacy to the character without directly pointing it out.
Lawrence makes pronouncements like “the world we live in no longer exists” and “writers are about as honest as feral cats.” He’s just talking to fill time; he’s just taking private students to fill time. When the students take turns challenging his dominance, he swaps them away claiming he’s offering the “truth” they have hired him for. There’s no edge or boundary to where he will attack. But for all his gonzo-gusto bravado he, too, has aspirations and tender spots he protects at all costs.
This distorted version of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop style of criticism is not the only way to go. Tom Spanbauer has run his Dangerous Writing Workshops in Portland out of his home and at retreat facilities on the Oregon Coast for years. Over forty of his students have seen their work get published. His seminars focus on the words in the work: what’s there and does it communicate to the emotional and physical depths of the reader? When he comes to town for a reading his students turn out in support and the room is thick with love.
Ultimately, the writers in Seminar continue with their craft and struggle on to write well and find publication in the teeth of this rough handling. They find their spines. And that’s Rebeck’s ultimate point.
Seminar, by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Paul O’Connell, produced by Theatre912. Trinity Assembly Hall, 608 8th Ave. All performances “pay what you can afford.” Friday and Saturday at 8, Sunday at 2. For more information visit theatre912.com. Closes August 3.