In Defense: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to this Form

Converting a TV Script to an MFA Play—a tale about defending a Master’s Thesis.

by Jacqulyn West, Nonfiction Editor

In order to graduate with a Master of Fine Arts degree, you have to write, complete, and defend a thesis. Your committee guides you through the process of writing, and finally spends about an hour interrogating your work, at which point you answer their questions in order to defend the choices you made, and ultimately, the quality of your work.

Since the Arkansas Writers Workshop allows candidates flexibility in choosing a genre, these can look widely different from one another. These reports are based on my observations at the defenses of our upcoming graduates.

First up is Shua Miller, Arkana Scriptwriting Editor, who is the first in our program to write and defend a script for his thesis.

We gathered in a conference room on the third floor of Thompson Hall, the building where most of our Writing courses are conducted. The wide room is filled with long tables arranged in a U shape surrounded with big office-style armchairs.

Shua sat at the end of the left side of the U – the hour’s hot seat. His committee lined the outside to his right, and the audience took the other side of the room, filling the remaining seats on the opposite side. Many of us had completed our teaching and classes for the day, and came for the comedy we were sure would ensue. We were not disappointed.

Originally, Shua intended to write a TV series with an ensemble cast about some misadventures in a small Arkansas town in order to complete his MFA and create a script that could be filmed with the help of some talented folks across central Arkansas. That did not work out, but the descriptions of what he had planned had me laughing out loud only a few minutes into his defense. I won’t give any spoilers, just in case that opportunity manifests in future.

Shua’s thesis advisor insisted that the work he completed for the MFA would need a defined end point, but Shua didn’t want to end his TV show after only one season. Back to the drawing board, where he decided to table the TV idea and instead write a play to complete his degree.

Meanwhile, the November 2016 elections obstructed that plan. Shua says he heard from and about many outraged artists who couldn’t make art following the presidential election, and after some days of sorrow, rage, and reflection, decided to use his response to fuel yet another new trajectory for his work.

Shua thought a master’s thesis should be a little confusing and theatrical, but still had that quiet voice inside reminding him that simple is good, and encouraging him to use the skills he developed as a graduate student in writing, but the first draft of his play came out too pretentious. He actually created more work for himself by trying to make the work complicated instead of following his instinct to simplify, an instinct that had been honed by his coursework.

But how can classes about poetry and fiction inform and improve play writing?

Shua says they all tie into each other. From poetry, he learned an economical focus on images, and used that economy in constructing concise informative dialogue among his characters. Prose taught him how to describe efficiently by using fewer but better words. Both forms helped him understand pacing, diction, and word choice. Now he writes to find the musicality and rhythm of how his words can best fit together.

The play, tentatively titled “Stamp of Hope,” depicts an angel and a demon working in the bureaucratic behind-the-scenes offices of hell. This appeals to me in a serious and personal way because I was an administrative specialist for a university English department before coming to UCA to join this program. I already like this play.

“The things we imagine when we think of hell—fire and brimstone, tortures and flames— those things are like an amusement park. But someone has to do the paperwork in the office to make sure those things run. That’s what this play is about.”

I’m laughing through tears and squirming in my seat.

“This vision of hell is more like science fiction than traditional or Biblical depictions.”

I’m nodding so vigorously that my chair is squeaking.

“Most of all, I don’t want my audience to feel like I’m telling them what to think through the characters or the action.”

I’m wishing I had the means to produce this play, because I know there are people like me who would empathize, sympathize, and laugh – like me – through relatable tears. People who, like Shua’s unusual creatures – including the human office manager – are doing with their time, how they interact with each other, and their own internal struggles, and still manage to find hope in the most desolate of places and situations.

While some defenses can be intense grilling sessions, this one felt more like a conversation, dashed with smart office humor and enough humility to make it accessible to just about anyone on a scale from demon to angel.


Jacqulyn Harper West is a poet of unfinished parts who prefers writing nonfiction. Her heart is in classic country music, especially the Bakersfield sound, and her scholarship ranges from feminist explications of her hometown’s cultural heritage tourism sites to code-meshing and hip hop as texts in first-year and creative writing pedagogy.
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