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In Print: it takes a village to write a play

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Save long-distance running, there's no activity so notoriously solitary as writing. Yet, as pages of ads in magazines like Writer's Digest and Poets & Writers attest, there's an entire economic sector devoted to the communal production of scribes: MFA programs, retreats, workshops, even boot camps. But playwright Lisa Rosenthal champions the collective do-it-yourself approach to individual success: form a group where writers can get the benefit of thoughtful critique without conceding authority to someone else, or paying an institution for the privilege.

Largely self-taught, Rosenthal has written seven full-length plays and has had work produced at Stockyards Theater and Circle Theatre as well as on the east and west coasts. Next spring a California company will present her 2003 play Under Our Clothes, and Chicago Jewish Theatre has given an earlier work, Just the Sweet Stuff, a slot in its 2004-'05 season. This month she's publishing The Writing Group Book, her guide to getting the most out of working with other writers.

Rosenthal got a taste of group process in the 90s, when she participated in the Women's Theatre Alliance New Plays Festival, an experience she says was productive but too short-lived. So seven years ago she founded the Playwrights' Collective, inviting classmates from several Chicago Dramatists workshops to join her in an independent writing group.

"We call it a safe haven to develop new work," says Rosenthal. The ten playwrights meet twice a month, devoting each meeting to a single script. They read the play and then critique it, with guidance from the writer about the type of feedback he or she would find useful. The Playwrights' Collective also sponsors an annual festival of new plays (the next one is set for February 21 and 22) and a monthly reading series at the Chicago Cultural Center. "When we started out, many of us were just starting to explore playwriting," says Rosenthal. "Now we're winning national awards." (Last year member Mia McCullough won the American Theater Critics Association's Osborn Award, which annually honors an emerging playwright.)

Rosenthal's conversation about writing often includes the word "we." Almost all of her plays investigate group dynamics: Just the Sweet Stuff considers how four old friends respond to aging, while Under Our Clothes follows the lives of half a dozen women who meet in college. This preoccupation predates her work as a playwright, and sustained her through graduate studies in sociology. Her philosophy of groups may be idealistic--asked about competition within the collective for productions and honors, she says, "I try and practice that what's good for one writer is good for all writers"--but her onstage portraits of them are unsparing, revealing the intertwined elements of affection and rivalry, support and sabotage.

Rosenthal's interest in groups, coupled with her belief that writing success is contagious, moved her to develop The Writing Group Book. By day an editor at Chicago Review Press, she was able to persuade the publishing house that such a manual could have broad appeal, and she was given free rein to include essays by anyone she chose.

In the book Rosenthal and 33 essayists--including fellow Playwrights' Collective member Margaret Lewis--offer nuts-and-bolts assistance on how to start and sustain a successful writing group, how to handle criticism, and how to get a manuscript published. But, Rosenthal stresses, starting a writing group "doesn't have to be because you want to sell a story or get a book published. As a society we're becoming too isolated, and any opportunities to create community, I'm all for that."

Rosenthal and several contributors to the book will discuss their writing process and give tips on how to run a successful writing group at 7:30 PM on Tuesday, September 16, at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark, 773-769-9299. It's free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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