Archive for February, 2010

On Electives and Grad School in General

February 26th, 2010 by Colleen Hughes '04

It’s scary, but I’m already thinking about what electives to take this summer since registration begins in March. After early May, I will be finished with the four playwriting workshops that make up the most important part of the degree, and all I’ll have left are my electives. We need to take four of them, but I’ll be transferring in a graduate English course I took at UMass Amherst last year (I am now mentally adding “go to the Graduate Studies office to pick up a course transfer request form” to my to-do list). If I can get the three remaining electives completed during the summer session, I could be done in time for September graduation. I know that I definitely want to take a dramatic literature class called Pulitzer Prize-Winning Plays in the first summer session. The other two options in that session are Literature of the Middle Ages and African-American Literature, so I’d have to pick one of those as well. I think the only class in the second summer session that we can take is called Linguistics in Literature. I haven’t made any definite decisions beyond the Pulitzer class though because I’ve heard that another theater professor is supposedly going to teach a class that just hasn’t been posted yet, and I’ll want to take her class if it does end up being offered because I hear that she’s great.

All this planning over electives has been causing me to think about a lot of the differences I’ve perceived in undergrad vs. graduate classes. I got to see my HC roommate Jen again this past weekend, and we were talking about this because she has her MA in Political Science and had noticed a lot of the same trends I had in just my one UMass English course. We both sort of went into grad school expecting the classes to become even more specialized. For an undergrad English major, for example, a lot of the core classes are things like “Readings in 20th Century American Literature” and other broad survey courses. Then the upper-level courses and seminars are where things get more specialized, like the ones I took on just Emily Dickinson and on Shakespeare’s Tragedies. I was expecting graduate classes to be more like those seminars, really focused on one topic that you would study in depth, and Jen had been expecting the same thing from poli. sci.

To our surprise though, the typical grad school courses we’ve encountered have been very much like broad survey courses. My class I took at UMass was on 16th Century Lit, and the BU summer courses sound similarly broad in scope. It seems like once you’re in grad school, the point is to give you a strong foundation in a wide topic and then allow you to dig deeper into one particular area of that topic for your own personal research. It sort of lets you personalize the class to some extent and expects more independent work and study from you. In 16th Century Lit, for example, we read multiple texts every week, and then I did my presentation and paper on Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, going deeper and beyond what we had discussed in class.

Graduate courses also almost always seem to include an in-class presentation as part of the grade too, I’ve noticed… which makes sense as a way to help prepare PhD students for future conferences and teaching jobs. My Tuesday workshop this semester includes a presentation as part of our requirements. Mine is scheduled in April and will be on Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. I read his Waiting for Godot and Endgame in Ed Isser’s Modern Drama class at HC and loved them both, so I’m actually looking forward to my presentation.

I think Holy Cross definitely left me well prepared for the different types of work encountered in grad school. I know I was very much prepared as far as the workload is concerned (I’m thinking back to long days huddled in Dinand, Rehm, or even the science library and long nights in front of my computer writing papers), and the classes I took at HC also helped me realize where my passions lie so that I’m able to explore them independently in my graduate classes. I knew right away that I wanted to do my playwright presentation on Beckett because I’d learned at HC that I love his style (I will admit though, that I knew from undergrad experience that I was not a fan at all of The Faerie Queene, but since I joined that course during add/drop, all the presentation topics on works I liked such as Dr. Faustus had been claimed already). It is definitely a confidence booster to know that even when I finish the playwriting workshops and have to move back into the intimidating realm of academic writing, I do have a really strong foundation and am more than prepared to handle the work.

A Pile of Notes and a Guinea Pig

February 22nd, 2010 by Colleen Hughes '04

I’m a little behind on my blog updates, but this one will be long to make up for that. I feel like it’s been forever since the day I workshopped my completed first draft. We had no class last Tuesday because BU had Monday off and then followed a Monday schedule on Tuesday, but I’ve had plenty of work for that class to keep me busy in the meantime. We have to read a book called Backwards and Forwards about how to read and analyze scripts from a theatrical rather than strictly literary point of view. It is such a great book for anyone interested in theatrical production. Although it’s about how to read a script rather than how to write one, it’s so helpful to see how a script is constructed and what elements need to be there in order for something to work well on stage. And I could see it being equally as helpful to directors, actors, or designers. Plus it uses Hamlet for the majority of its examples, and that is one of my favorite plays of all time (yes, I am being the stereotypical English/Theatre double major nerd right now).

We also, for this coming Tuesday’s class, need to write a monologue, which is something I have very little experience with. We’re supposed to think back to a time in our lives when someone hurt or betrayed us, and write about that moment from the other person’s point of view. As in, write about the hurtful experience from the perspective of the person who hurt you. It gets you thinking about how to convincingly create characters who are mean or even villainous and what might motivate them to behave the way they do.

Last Thursday, I met with my professor before class to discuss my play and the workshop from the week before. We talked about how to focus on tightening up some areas in the next draft, and she also suggested a potential plot twist that may complicate the situation near the end of the play more. I’m still trying to mentally play that situation out and see if it might be something that would work. I agree with her that a more complex situation would be much more interesting, but I just have to figure out how it will work. She also gave me back a copy of my script with notes written all over the margins. The wonderful process known as revision has officially begun. The celebration and sense of relief from finishing the first draft is always short-lived, because soon afterward it becomes time to start ripping things apart, moving scenes around, tightening up dialogue, removing or adding entire scenes… you get the idea. “Writing is rewriting,” as that saying you learn in your first Creative Writing class goes.

Last weekend though, I did get to take a little break from my work and celebrate the fact that my first draft was done and successfully workshopped. My Holy Cross roommate, Jen Baker ’04, came to visit me over the long weekend. She’s also been very busy recently too, so we haven’t had as many opportunities to hang out, even though she only lives an hour or so away. On Monday, a few hours before she was going to head back home, we drove to a pet store so that I could pick up some food for my two cats. The store had a display full of little guinea pigs, and they were so adorable. I love animals, but obviously with two cats a small animal is out of the question (not to mention too much work). Jen, however, did not have any pets. She thought it over while we picked up my cat food, and not long afterwards she became a proud owner of a new pet guinea pig. Jen was with me when I adopted both of my kitties last year, so it’s fitting that I was with her when she brought home her new pet. Her name is Blossom, after one of the icons of our 80s childhood. Below is the only picture Jen’s been able to take of her—guinea pigs can be shy and withdrawn when they first come home to a new environment—and a photo of my two cats too just for fun (their names are Oskar and Marmalade… no 80s references there). Now it’s time once again to focus and think about what I want to write my monologue on.


First-Draft Workshop

February 12th, 2010 by Colleen Hughes '04

The workshop for my full-length play was yesterday. I’m still trying to mentally process everything. There’s something terrifying about hearing your entire brand-new play for the first time. I felt like I wanted to cry afterwards—not because I thought the whole thing sounded awful or because I was afraid of negative feedback, but because it was just such an emotionally draining experience to hear months of writing read aloud like that.

I finished my draft Wednesday night. It came in at 74 pages. Ideally I’d like to add ten more pages or so over the course of revision so that it’s closer to 80–85. I think I was so eager to be done that around page 70 I was just like, “end it NOW” and got to the conclusion a little too quickly. One of my classmates and I were both scheduled to workshop our plays on Thursday, and we were nervously emailing each other the night before about who we thought would go first and whether going first was better or worse.

Our professor ended up telling me that I was scheduled to go first when we got to class Thursday afternoon. I had six actors and then a seventh to read the stage directions, so it was a pretty big cast. My play, as I said before, is about a family in Somerville (where I grew up) and all of their problems sort of spiraling into a confrontation in the days leading up to Christmas. The professor told the actors to not be afraid to jump right in at a high level of intensity, and the reading began. The professor stopped the reading a few times to ask the actors to try reading something a different way or to give notes along the way, and once it was done, we talked about it more in depth.

She likes to start off every feedback session by asking the playwright, “What did you learn?”  And I’d learned a lot. But it’s hard to formulate words to answer that question when the reading is still swimming around in your head. I have a fight scene shortly before the end of the play, and we talked about how a scene isn’t necessarily a climax because violence erupts or weapons are drawn, which, to use her example, happens regularly in a play like Romeo and Juliet, but rather because there is a great emotional shift that occurs in the characters. So the true climax of the play is occurring in the scene following the fight, and the fight is the scene which “tightens the screws” and sets up the climax/makes it inevitable. And while I think that’s what I’d wanted to have happen when I wrote the draft, it’s good to have it spelled out and in my mind when I go to revise those scenes and make sure that that is how they are functioning. I also have a very long and dialogue-heavy scene towards the middle of the play, and we talked about how to go back through that scene now that I know what the intentions and desires of each of the characters are, and make sure in their talking to each other that they’re always going after what they want. That way even though no one is actually doing anything, “action” is still occurring. And we talked about how one of the characters seems to be trying to “wrestle the play away” from one of the others, but that I can’t let that happen. My classmates also had some really great feedback and positive comments. And the actors seemed to have a lot of fun with the script, which is good.

My professor is really great and has been taking the time after everyone’s workshops to write them detailed notes about the draft, including suggestions for reading that might help them figure out their own work. Once I get those notes, we’ll probably set up a time to meet one-on-one to talk about it further sometime before my next workshop date. So I’m completely mentally exhausted, but overall it was a very productive week. It’s great to be done with that first draft, but the first draft really is only the beginning. There are many rounds of revision still ahead of me.

First Workshop of the Semester

February 10th, 2010 by Colleen Hughes '04

This has been such a busy week, and it’s only Wednesday. In my last entry, I mentioned how stressed out I was about having a ten-minute play due Tuesday as well as a completed draft of my full-length due tomorrow. My mid-week mindset is much calmer than how I felt last Friday, when I wasn’t sure how I’d get everything done plus deal with what turned out to be a particularly busy week at work. To make matters worse, I developed a migraine sometime on Friday, and it literally lasted until late-afternoon on Sunday. This happens to me every once in awhile, and it’s probably at least partially triggered by stress. So needless to say, I got no writing done all day Saturday or Sunday morning/afternoon. Luckily, I finally started to feel functional again Sunday around dinnertime, and coffee plus a burst of productivity led me to write twenty pages that night. The downside—I missed the entire Superbowl. But the writing had to get done. And then I wrote another ten pages on Monday night for my ten-minute play. Thirty pages in 24 hours, plus a ten-hour work day.

Tuesday in class I finally got to show my “overheard conversation” exercise, which was the first time something of mine had been read in either class this semester, unless you count the short “play you’ve been avoiding writing” exercise we did on the first day. We’ve been seeing a couple of people’s scenes in class every week since they were due, but we didn’t get to mine until yesterday. I was nervous because I hadn’t looked at it since I printed it out weeks ago. The conversation I had overheard was a brief exchange about a girl who was working on Disney websites, and one thing she mentioned was that her boss kept telling her that the websites needed more “magic.” So for the dramatization, I did this ridiculously over-the-top satire of a Disney boss and his young eager employee whom he feels does not incorporate enough “magic” into her web designs. Complete with a talking Mickey Mouse stuffed animal. It was just something silly I did in an attempt to try out a new style, and I was afraid it would be too “fluffy” of a piece, but the class really liked it. And I got some good ideas on how to take it even further and strengthen the ending. It was funny though, because my professor had been starting off the discussion on every piece by saying, “Well, what was strong about this one?” and, even though I knew she’d been saying that each time, I was so nervous that I actually heard, “Well, what was wrong about this one?” and had this initial moment of “oh no, this one didn’t work out at all.” I felt so much better once I realized I’d misheard her. We didn’t get to all of the ten-minute plays that were due that day, so I’ll be showing that one during our next class.

That positive experience in Tuesday’s class is giving me some encouragement about tomorrow. I’m still really nervous, but it’s nice to have that boost of confidence before heading into my full-length workshop. I spent last night reading through what I’ve written so far on my full-length and making some minor adjustments, and tonight I need to write an ending scene. We’re in the middle of a snowstorm today, so I’m trying to gear myself up for a long night of writing by romanticizing the “curled up on the couch with blankets and a cup of cocoa” angle of it. I’ll write again later this week with an update on how my workshop goes.


February 5th, 2010 by Colleen Hughes '04

As I mentioned in my first entry, there will be times when I am stressed out of my mind. The first of those times this semester is upon us now. I have a ten-minute play due on Tuesday next week, and then I am scheduled to present the complete draft of my full-length for the first time on Thursday. I have no idea how this is going to happen. I always manage to get things done though. Last semester, I had a really rough time in October because at work we were in the middle of production on the biggest issue of the year for the journal I work on, I had to work at the box office of our theater every Friday through Sunday, and I had plays to write for both classes. And I got through that, so this should feel easy in comparison. Yeah. That’s what I keep telling myself.

I have also been feeling the pressure to take my work to the next level this semester. We’ve been starting to see everyone’s completed full-length drafts for the first time these past couple weeks, and it’s been crazy to see how far they’ve come along. In the first semester, we saw mostly isolated scenes from people’s full-lengths, and seeing the entire thing all at once really lets you see the shape the piece has taken on and how much everyone has advanced. It’s not like anyone is cutthroat or competitive (everyone has been nothing but supportive), but seeing my classmates’ work evolve like this has been showing me what is possible with my own work. I’m excited to finally see my entire draft on Thursday. I’m also scared out of my mind. Close to half of it will be brand-new stuff that the class hasn’t heard before, and some of the older scenes have not been read in class since October. I’m a nervous wreck. But I have to push the nervousness aside for a few days and, you know, actually get the finished draft written first. Then I’m allowed to nervously obsess over hearing it out loud.

So I will be doing lots of writing this weekend. I have to figure out how to end my full-length, and it’s been killing me. And I have to write a ten-minute play at some point too. But it should all be done by the next time I blog. That is both comforting and scary to think about.