Suzan Zeder: Welcome to the Real World

Article excerpt

"My belief is that the most neglected writer's tool in many curriculums is the writer," playwright Suzan Zeder says emphatically. "We talk about craft and we talk about structure and we deal with all these kinds of externals. But just as an actor has to be given specific things to do to discover all of his or her inner emotional resources, a writer needs the same kind of opportunity."

As the first person in the U.S. to hold an endowed chair in Playwriting/Theatre for Youth, Zeder--whose plays for family audiences, including Mother Hicks and Wiley and the Hairy Man, have been performed in all 50 states and in six foreign countries--brings her considerable professional experience, voluble sense of humor and can-do exuberance to her teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. "She comes in with an energy I admire," MFA student Gina Ojile says of Zeder, "an energy for her subject matter and an energy for her students that is not seen very often."

"When I first started teaching playwriting," Zeder recalls, "I taught it the way I was taught it--everybody writes a play and then you bring it to class and everybody tells you what they would have done if they had written it. And I've really rejected that."

Instead, Zeder and her husband Jim Hancock, a director and movement specialist who also teaches at U.T., team-teach the first two weeks of her playwriting course and his movement for actors course, combining a battery of body-mind approaches which use visualization and movement exercises to access what Zeder calls the "child space" of the writer. "The child space," she explains, "is that area that's still childlike in its sense of synthesis with original thought and vision, that's got a lot of emotional velocity, a lot of risk, and that hasn't been preconditioned with all those layers of armoring about what your eighth-grade English teacher told you couldn't do."

Zeder was first drawn to playwriting as an undergraduate acting major at Trinity University in San Antonio when she realized that she was "constantly being cast in character roles like the loud-mouthed aunt--but there were more voices in me." Her love of the theatre had begun much earlier, when, at age five, her mother gave her the momentous choice of seeing a Broadway show or having a birthday party. Zeder chose the show--Happy Hunting with Ethel Merman and Fernando Lamos.

"When I got home I had to be put to bed with a fever," she remembers. "And from that time on I never had another birthday party. I would go in with my folks to see a matinee--usually something wildly inappropriate for children, which was a great thing. I think that's probably why I became a playwright who specializes in this area! Because I know what an incredible impact seeing really full theatre at an early age can have."

Zeder says her status as an active new play dramaturg and frequently produced playwright is "absolutely vital" to her teaching. "I think it establishes my credibility because I constantly, on a daily basis, walk what I talk. It also keeps me in touch with how difficult this process really is, because I think it's very easy once you're outside the creative process yourself to make assumptions about what that process ought to be for somebody else."

When U.T. approached her several years ago about joining its drama faculty, Zeder was adamant about establishing a new-play development program at the university. This program, in place since Zeder joined the faculty in the fall of 1991, allows students to work with theatre professionals to create new plays for family audiences in a process that Zeder calls "a melding of the resources of the university and the profession in an almost seamless structure."

The first project the new program tackled was David Saar's The Yellow Boat, the story of Saar's son Benjamin, a talented young artist, and his losing fight with AIDS. Benjamin's drawings were the inspiration for the piece. Zeder and her students were involved from its inception, and Ph. …