How to Take Free Online Theater Classes from World-Class Playwrights

Speechless workshop in past, non-virtual iteration. (Nicole Henderson)

In early March, even before officials issued the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order, theaters had been suspending shows and shuttering their doors due to the coronavirus.

Within the chaos, a small bright spot appeared on social media. Local luminary and popular playwright Lauren Gunderson announced a playwriting seminar on Facebook Live, completely free, for anyone who cared to tune in. It was the sort of generous act that one might expect from a theater-maker who’s built her career on connecting to audiences through empathy and triumph over adversity. With Gunderson as cheerleader and coach, her videos are now archived and viewable on her public Facebook page.

Gunderson is one of a handful of Bay Area theater figures offering free workshops online. For people whose careers are built on the act of gathering together, creating opportunities for others has been a key part of their pandemic response. Audiences may not know when they'll be able to see another one of their shows in person, but in the interim, learning their techniques is a great way to stay connected to their work—and to our own innate need for the arts to sustain us.

Lauren Gunderson's free online classes offer a window into one of the country's most-produced playwrights.
Lauren Gunderson's free online classes offer a window into one of the country's most-produced playwrights. (Courtesy Lauren Gunderson)

Creating Community

In her one-hour classes, Gunderson steers participants through four informative lecture-style sessions, covering how to write emotion, conflict, comedy, beginnings and endings, and the “business” of playwriting. She punctuates her lessons with personal anecdotes, good-natured “rants,” and a comforting optimism.

What’s more, as the days have stretched to weeks, Gunderson's Facebook feed has become a treasure of community-minded content. She hosts exclusive chats with theater-makers such as Broadway actor Reggie D. White, dramaturg Martine Greene-Rogers, and CalShakes artistic director Eric Ting; there's also a modified playwriting class for teens, and a theater book club.

“For me it's just the act of gathering virtually and creating community that feels good and real and necessary,” Gunderson tells me. “Especially meaningful are the students who have reached out whose writing class or writers groups were cancelled. If I can't make a ton of theater right now, I sure as hell want to talk about theater...as long as we're stuck inside I plan on doing and sharing something theater related!”

Young Jean Lee.
Playwright Young Jean Lee talks prospective playwrights through her process. (Blaine Davis)

Advice and Reassurance

Just a couple of days after Gunderson announced her virtual playwriting class, acclaimed experimental playwright and current Stanford Professor Young Jean Lee offered a one-time, three-hour workshop via Zoom to the first 1,000 people who signed up. The full workshop, which has been posted at Vimeo, gives prospective playwrights a taste of what Lee’s students have been getting for the past year—minus the Stanford tuition cost.

While many of Lee’s renegade works—interrogating death, feminism, religion, race, and privilege—have been created ensemble, she promises her workshop method is one that “works very well, especially for people who are less experienced at playwriting.” Through a measured sequence of writing prompts interspersed with writing time and Q&A, Lee leads her virtual workshop with a refreshing directness.

“The answers to the majority of your questions are going to be either ‘that’s fine,’ or ‘it doesn’t matter,’ or ‘don’t worry about it’ for this draft,’” she assures her virtual classroom repeatedly. “The whole point of what you’re doing today is just to write, see what comes out, see what you can learn, (and) tap into the part of yourself that is not worrying about ‘should’ and ‘what’s the right way to do it.’” It's sound advice for writers of any stripe, and reassuring to have it articulated by as accomplished and daring a writer as Lee.

Anthony Veneziale, co-founder of Speechless, leads a Monday afternoon "play" break.
Anthony Veneziale, co-founder of Speechless, leads a Monday afternoon "play" break. (Emile Bers)

Living in the Moment

Playwrights aren't the only performance-makers reaching out to offer insight into their process. Like many performance companies with an education arm, the San Francisco company Speechless has shifted its usual roster of workshops and class sessions online.

Since 2014, Speechless has combined the principles of effective speechmaking with improvisation, hosting hilarious judged competitions in which participants are challenged to deliver an impromptu speech to fit a PowerPoint of slides they’ve never seen before. A great example of the technique can be seen with Speechless co-founder Anthony Veneziale giving an unrehearsed TED Talk.

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In response to the ongoing shelter-in-place order, Veneziale—also part of Freestyle Love Supreme—has begun leading a free 30-minute Monday afternoon class online to spark creativity and conversation.

Described by Speechless relationship manager Stacie Blanke as being similarly structured to a “fitness” class, complete with a warm-up and a cool-down period, the “Restorative Play” classes are focused less on specific training goals and more on being present and playful in the moment—a useful skill that seems particularly urgent now.