Never meet your heroes is how the old adage goes. Be it celebrities, athletes, rock stars or whomever, all of them are people like you and me, and at best, are prone to bad days, or at worst, may be complete clown shoes. Four aspiring novelists discover this when they sign up for lessons with a renowned literary figure in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar.
The four young writers of Seminar gather in an apartment in NYC’s Upper West Side in anticipation of meeting their professor, Leonard. They bicker among each other before he even shows up, because they’re all young, highly educated and feel the need to crush each other and jockey for position in their social clique. When Leonard arrives, he immediately evaluates student Kate’s short story as a “soul-sucking waste of words.” The fact that she’s spent the better part of a decade crafting it doesn’t matter. After reading half a page, he declares it “relentlessly talent-free” and tells her that she knows nothing of the real world. When the other three come to her defense, Leonard counters that if her story were any good, they’d actually hate it because a writer’s natural state is as civilized as a feral cat.
There’s something fascinating about watching a brilliant character being a horrible human being. Leonard claims that his harsh criticisms are a product of teaching “the truth.” He’s obviously passionate about writing, stating every “corner of everything you write is precious, if it isn’t, why would you write it?” So the question is, does he truly believe that his students (or, at least Kate) are talentless? Does he believe that they need “the truth” to grow? Or could he just be a dick? Leonard eviscerating the students produces laugh-out-loud moments, but Seminar strives to be a character study as much as a comedy. And that is what led 2nd Story Theatre’s Ed Shea to it.
“I am always on the lookout for smart, sophisticated comedies, especially by women,” he says. “But it’s not right to label this strictly as a comedy. There are some profound observations about creativity, courage, growth and change that elevate it to something more. And it’s those themes that will allow most audience members to directly relate to the characters and to walk away from the play feeling as if they were given glimpses into their own lives."
When Seminar opened on Broadway in November of 2011, Leonard was played by Alan Rickman (imagine that voice inside your head, criticizing you for all eternity). In addition to his role as artistic director of 2nd Story Theatre’s production, Ed cast himself as the lead. “When I wear two hats in a production, it helps to be in the role of the character who essentially ‘directs’ the action from within the story – the character who calls the shots and sets the tone. I am always at my most artistically fulfilled when directing and acting in a production. It’s then that I am ‘cooking on all four burners.’ I feel my most creatively alive.”
The four young novelists have their own quirks even before they meet Leonard. Kate is the rich girl whose parents own the apartment where the lessons take place. Martin lives in a dive apartment and equates his poor stature to having cred. Douglas shamelessly relies on his famous last name to establish connections within the industry. The quartet is rounded out by Izzy, who lives sex, drugs and writing, writes about what she knows, and freely admits to be in it just for the money.
Meeting Leonard only highlights their characteristics. “Each of the actors cast are incredibly well-suited to their roles. The ‘essence’ of the characters matches the personalities of the actors,” he says on the challenge of capturing character attributes. “It’s said that the right casting is 90% of the battle. If that’s the case, then, given this cast and this play, we’re 99% there.”
Though Seminar is as much character study as comedy, the parts that Ed is most looking forward to bringing to the stage is when Leonard critiques his students. “The scenes with Leonard and the students – when all five characters are on stage at once – are by far the most compelling, exciting scenes. The play rocks during those exchanges. The scenes where Leonard mercilessly critiques the students’ work is the theatrical equivalent of the Christians thrown to the lions.”