Theater is Life

Professor George Nelson talks about successful playwriting

Written by Sarah Ostler Hill

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Watch an Interview With George Nelson

Few could have guessed that the freshman football player, looking to fill a general education credit with a morning class, would not only choose a theatre arts course, but also end up making it his profession. Professor George Nelson now teaches BYU students how to perfect their playwriting skills and consults with teachers around the world showing them how elements of dramatic structure can help them better engage their students in the learning process.

“Proper elements of theatricality create the perfect learning environment,” Nelson says. “Theatre is a representation of life in a microcosm. Theatre helps people experience things they normally wouldn’t, takes them places they’ve never been, and allows them to see the consequences of choices and decisions.”

The class he took was on educational theatre taught for the first time by returned professor, Harold Oaks. Nelson says he learned principles that have been part of his life and research ever since.

Theatre as a Tool

The combination of dialogue, action and the audience members’ imagination sets theatre apart from film. Film is a realistic medium, Nelson says, easily jumping from location to location. But theater depends on the members of the audience to transport them to the worlds the play is representationally exploring.

Film reveals the carbuncles live on the screen while theatre fosters them in our minds. “I trust my imagination and where I can go,” he says. “I don’t need to see a carbuncle on someone’s nose to know they live in the slums.”

Nelson references a story in which Brigham Young once said if he were in charge of civilizing a savage people, he would first construct a theater. Nelson uses this philosophy in working with counselors and teachers at schools with at-risk youth.

Educators inside and outside of prisons also use Nelson’s materials, both in the United States and abroad. Nelson uses theatrical techniques to help people rethink their behavior. The national average repeat offender rate is 75 percent, but for those who use Nelson’s program that number is around 17 percent.

“People think that learning is boring and a waste of time,” Nelson says. “But theatre helps them learn without even realizing it. Suddenly they’re thinking and internalizing. Theatre makes that transformation because it makes learning exciting again.”

He teaches teachers and playwrights the same foundational principles: audiences and students will only engage when the subject matter connects with their values. Students don’t learn anything they didn’t think is important and audiences will not spend their time and money on plays that don’t ring true or elevate their thinking.

It is also critical to create an authentic story in order to connect to an audiences’ self interests. “Truth is the key in both worlds,” said Nelson. “We must teach and write about the truth and we only have the power to do this when we teach and write about what we know.”

One of the best ways to ring true to an audience is to move with the Spirit. To his playwright students, Nelson demands that their writing bear their testimony to the world. He emphasizes that it doesn’t have to be a gospel-related topic but it has to be something that they know to be truth.

“Without knowing it, society has an insatiable appetite for entertainment that lifts,” Nelson says. “Why did films like ‘The Princess Bride’ or ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ do well, despite Hollywood’s criticisms? Because they dealt with people trying to find their way in the world. It resonated with the public.”

He pushes students to write about topics that may seem difficult but teach that life is worth living. For example, Nelson has a student who has written a musical about a third-generation single mother who is trying to give her son a better life and to break the cycle of generational poverty.

The fact that the people in the play are not LDS means there is a huge likelihood that people of all faiths will be able to relate to the struggles of the characters and engage with the musical.

Nelson acknowledges that a lot of things coming out of Hollywood are not uplifting. He believes that having better playwriting students will lead to more wholesome entertainment.

“We can share our message and not have to feel compelled to write what other people may want us to do,” he says. Then, not missing the opportunity for a good pun, adds, “We can set our own stage.”

When Nelson was assigned to head up the playwriting program, he was tasked with turning it into the top program in the country. He’s taking it even further with the goal to be the best internationally.

To do so, Nelson went to a conference in Switzerland where directors were talking about the absence of plays about boys growing up. They discussed writing a play that explores what it means to be a man. Nelson thought, “We can do that. We understand that. There is much we know through the light of the gospel that can be powerfully shared through a theatrical medium.”

Teaching the Writer

The formula for becoming a successful playwright is relatively simple. It begins, Nelson says, with the obvious: writing.

“If you want to be a writer, write for at least two hours a day,” he says. “Most people say they want to be a writer, but they want to achieve that goal without the discipline necessary to develop the real skills.”

A lot of students come without the understanding of the genre or structure, Nelson says. And the biggest problem a playwright has is the editor in their head, which causes them to freeze up and constantly erase what they’ve written.

“I try to teach beginning playwrights to shut that editor off,” he explains. “Let the brain go. Write without editing.”

Nelson’s major job is to help students trust their instincts. In time, he teaches them to write and edit but they need to get a draft on paper.

While Nelson can teach and encourage writing to a certain extent, he acknowledges that talent plays a part of the formula for success.

“I can have a great desire to dunk a basketball and play above the rim, but if I can’t jump very high it’s not going to happen,” he explains, perhaps remembering how relatively small he was when he played football for BYU. “Some people, as much as they want to be, aren’t good at acting or writing or directing.”

Nelson helps students find their niche and works from there to develop it. Some students may not have the talent, but if they have the desire and determination, he finds that these students excel where talent alone won’t.

“It’s hard, but the students thank me later for telling the truth,” Nelson recalls. “This is not a hobby field. If you want to be a professional, then you need to be more than a hobbyist.”

Leading by Example

Besides teaching playwriting, Nelson also directs student pieces. He uses this role as a teaching forum, showing students what it looks like to have their work actualized and explaining what principles of directing apply to the play at hand. Once students see their work on the stage, they begin to understand how to improve their writing.

“For a theatre student at BYU, the stage is the laboratory,” Nelson says. “Students need to understand that. So do our audiences.”

This year, Nelson took the writing program to a new level and assisted in producing the first annual Microburst Theatre. Seven beginning playwright students wrote 10-minute plays and mounted them in the Nelke Theatre. The uproar of the audience was exceptional, but the real value was to the playwrights who got to work on this play in a powerfully supportive environment. One of the productions has since been invited to the KCACTF Theatre convention in Los Angeles in February.

Most recently, Nelson directed a student’s play that went on to win a prestigious national award. Ariel Mitchell’s “A Second Birth” tells the story of a girl in Afghanistan who has been raised as a boy to improve her family’s social standing and must, when she comes of age, return to being a girl so she can marry. Mitchell’s play won the 2013 Harold and Mimi Steinberg National Student Playwriting Award at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

“We didn’t set out to win an award,” Nelson says. “But this award has been won by two previous Pulitzer Prize winners. It’s kind of the stepping-stone to the Pulitzer. When you win this award, people expect some amazing things from you.”

Students who have talent, don’t know they have talent, or are even looking to fill some general education credits so they can attend afternoon football practice should look into BYU’s playwriting classes. With the goal to become the best program in the country, Nelson is poised to lead his students there, helping them earn playwriting awards and recognition along the way.


Watch George’s Video Interview

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