Instructor explains the art and craft of playwriting

The Master of Arts in Theatre program at the University of MissouriKansas City offers many outlets, both academic and artistic. Some students choose a focus centered on playwriting, or supplement their theatre history studies with playwriting classes. Instructor of playwriting Frank Higgins, whose play Black Pearl Sings! was one of the top ten plays produced in the 2009-10 season, aims to provide those who take his class with the tools to make their work both personal and producible. Higgins states that the most basic goal of his teaching is to “help people discover how to make themselves better writers,” and to realize that, whatever the subjective approaches to how one writes, “there are objective tools to work on.”

Frank Higgins photo credit Dr. Felicia Londre
Frank Higgins

He compares the work of the playwright to that of an architect: creativity is important, but the structure must stand. The etymology of the word playwright is essential, “Yes, it’s an art, but it’s also a craft,” Higgins says. “Picasso invented Cubism, but prior to that he could paint a portrait that was recognizably you.” This is the crux of Higgins’ teaching, and what Master of Arts students interested in playwriting can expect. Students learn to “break past their insecurities and find the approaches that tend to work,” as Higgins puts it, benefitting from his expertise in the professional field.

Many students have found success as playwrights following in Higgins’ footsteps. Stephanie Demaree (MA 2014) says, “Thanks to Frank’s class, I can now call myself a published playwright.” Higgins recommended Demaree for a writing commission with a local middle school, and that play, Gran’s Guide to Stop an Ogre (Also Works for Witches and Bullies), was subsequently published by Pioneer Drama. Her play Teacher’s Lounge received a workshop production at UMKC. Demaree also competed in Kansas City’s Project Playwright competition, coming in second to another former Higgins student Cynthia Hardeman.

Hardeman concurs that Higgins’ teaching provided clarity of focus. “I’d always written stories but once I sat in Frank’s class I knew that all along, I had been writing plays.” She says. “I can’t help the bias, Frank and his playwriting class changed my life and I’m forever grateful to him for recognizing and nurturing my talent.” Her play Truth Stands has been produced in several cities across the country. “Practically every opportunity I have had to see my work produced has been through Frank’s class,” Demaree says. Hardeman elaborates that Higgins “not only taught but showed in his actions that theatre is all about making connections and collaborating with others. He introduced students to the local community theatre process.” Higgins also has dozens of students and former students who have produced work for Kansas City Fringe Festival.  Two students, Nick Sawin and Andrew Hagerty, have had ten-minute plays selected for readings at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Region Five, with Sawin’s advancing to the national Kennedy Center Festival in Washington D.C.

Hardeman concurs that Higgins’ teaching provided clarity of focus. “I’d always written stories but once I sat in Frank’s class I knew that all along, I had been writing plays.” She says. “I can’t help the bias, Frank and his playwriting class changed my life and I’m forever grateful to him for recognizing and nurturing my talent.” Her play Truth Stands has been produced in several cities across the country. “Practically every opportunity I have had to see my work produced has been through Frank’s class,” Demaree says. Hardeman elaborates that Higgins “not only taught but showed in his actions that theatre is all about making connections and collaborating with others. He introduced students to the local community theatre process.” Higgins also has dozens of students and former students who have produced work for Kansas City Fringe Festival.  Two students, Nick Sawin and Andrew Hagerty, have had ten-minute plays selected for readings at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Region Five, with Sawin’s advancing to the national Kennedy Center Festival in Washington D.C.

Story by Andrew Hagerty