Opening Night: Writers seeking a leg up in Seminar at the Kitchen Theatre

May 15, 2014 by Mark H. Anbinder

From one point of view, we're all writers. We send postcards when we travel. We compose pithy Facebook updates to amuse or inform our friends. We tweet.

Some of us are (or at least fancy ourselves) more serious writers, as a hobby, as a vocation, or even, for a lucky few, to make a living. Articles, research papers, creative writing. When it comes to creative writing, the difference between the hobbyist with the stack of short stories and half-finished novels and a published, or even famous, writer can sometimes come down to luck or timing, but for many, it's about finding the right mentor to shepherd, encourage, edit, and open doors.

The cast of "Seminar" at the Kitchen Theatre. Photo by Dave Burbank provided.The cast of "Seminar" at the Kitchen Theatre. Photo by Dave Burbank provided.That's what the would-be writers in "Seminar," now playing at the Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca's West End, are looking for: that spark, that "aha" moment, that shove that will take their writing to the next level. The play, by Theresa Rebeck, follows four young would-be writers who score a rare opportunity, one of just a few spots in a writing seminar led by a noted editor.

Of course, Leonard, the noted editor, was himself a promising writer and teacher until his career was derailed, and the character's venom practically sprays off the stage. Played by Brian Dykstra, a Broadway actor who's graced the Kitchen's stage several times before, Leonard is a convincing jerk who metaphorically tears up the writing of the hungry students who've come to him for encouragement.

"The path to success is not clear," says Sarah Scafidi, an intern at the Kitchen Theatre and an aspiring artist herself. "In some careers, just getting the proper education and doing well on a test is all you need to qualify for a stable job." That's not true in the arts, though, as was driven home as her senior year of college ended and the questions came. "What are you doing next? How are you going to survive in the world? No one mentions that, as an artist, those questions will follow you for the rest of your life."

That's what the younger characters in "Seminar" are just figuring out as they interact with each other and with the teacher. Dana Berger and David McElwee play old high school friends, Kate and Martin, who've reconnected and believe in each other's writing. Matthew Bretschneider's character, Douglas, has a famous last name and knows how to use it, and Alex Sunderhaus plays Izzy, who's ready and willing to take advantage of the connections at her disposal to get her career going. Martin can't stand Douglas, but Izzy's happy to let him help get her foot in the door.

"Writers in their natural state are about as civilized as feral cats," Leonard quotes early on, and the play gives us plenty of opportunity to see these five feral cats interact and intersect. The elder writer talks of his adventures and his travels, even vanishing for two weeks for a trip to Somalia, and we can't help but wonder if he's actually on the road, like Jack Kerouac, who comes up frequently, or just trying to impress his students, as Walter Mitty might.

We learn a lot about each of the characters over the course of the roughly hour-and-a-half performance, and we get to change our minds about them, as the characters themselves seem to. The cast, making its collective Ithaca debut with the exception of Dykstra, does a fine job of filling the stage with these evolving personalities. It's not a complicated story, but it's told well, under the direction of the Kitchen's resident director, Margarett Perry.

Tickets for "Seminar" are still available for this Friday and Saturday night's performances, and Sunday's closing matinee, at kitchentheatre.org or from the Kitchen Theatre Box Office at 417 West State Street or 607-272-0570, with student and senior discounts available. Friday night's show features an actor talkback after the performance. The final show of the Kitchen Theatre's 2013-2014 season, Judy Tate's "Slashes of Light," opens on June 14th, with previews beginning June 11th. 

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