Seminar: One-Act about writers & writing

Went to the Ahmanson Theater in the Music Center of downtown Los Angeles to see Seminar starring Jeff Goldblum last night. It’s a one-act play (1 hour 45 minutes long; no break–pee before you go) about writers and writing so I found it particularly interesting. Four writing students hire an instructor (Jeff Goldblum). They meet at the 9-room, $800/mo., rent-controlled apartment of Kate who has been working on a short story referencing Jane Austen for six years because “people keep telling me they like part of it”. She shows her story to the instructor, an aging, alcoholic, satyr, who demolishes it, calls them all names, and leaves. Kate is devestated. The other three try to console her but it’s no use. The next session it’s Izzy’s turn. Izzy–the gorgeous girl– intends to write a sex bomb and pose nude for the cover herself. She pulls her top up to show her breasts–perhaps to keep the cheap seats awake through all the talk-talk-talk. Worked on my husband. Also brings home the point that sex sells. Always. The two young men in the class fall in love with her, assuring her that her work is wonderful even though it’s evident that their interest is sexual, not artistic. The teacher also claims to like her work and they leave to have a drink and an affair to the dismay of her male classmates. Douglas is next. He’s been to all the best writing workshops, the best colleges, and has an uncle in the publishing business. The teacher says Douglas’ work is artsy but shallow and he should go to Hollywood; he’d be a hit there and make a lot of money. Douglas’ pretensions are punctured. Martin the last student refuses to let anyone see his work. He’s scared; he doesn’t want his dream of being a writer to be destroyed. So Kate offers to show some pages by a transvestite, Cuban, ex-gang member to the group. She claims that she’s going to sell the remaining sessions to this friend if the teacher likes the pages. Of course, the teacher does, and, of course, it turns out that Kate wrote the pages. The class thinks the teacher is a liar, a feeling compounded when Douglas tells them that his uncle told him (in confidence) that the teacher had been accused of plagiarism. Well! Martin visits the teacher in the middle of the night to demand his course money back only to find Kate fresh from the teacher’s bed. He accuses her of hyprocisy and she says the teacher freed her; he got her to write something new for the first time in six years. She points out that the teacher was right about all of them and leaves. Martin stumbles on the teacher’s work while the teacher is out of the room and is captivated by the prose. He doesn’t understand why the teacher won’t show his work to anyone. “Because I have no skin,” the teacher says and confesses his history. The plagiarism accusation was untrue but followed him forever. He didn’t have the correct writers’ “pedigree” (education, connections, etc); he allowed himself to sink into academia and other rent paying jobs. He says Martin has real talent and offers to be his personal editor, his pocket Mephistophales. They succumb to the lure of art and go to work.

I thought Seminar was a thoughtful, funny, scathing indictment of class, sexual politics, and the writing industry. The playwright, Theresa Rebeck, points out that writers like other writers’ work–unless it’s good, then they try to destroy it. Criticism has become a blood sport: “Everyone thinks it’s so cool and fun to be mean to artists but if we weren’t here there would be nothing but anarchy and immorality and chaos. We are the soul of the culture and people can just f***ing be nice to us once in a while.” Of course, maybe people wouldn’t be so mean if artists’ self-importance weren’t so pronounced. But no matter how devastating the criticism and abuse, the artist keeps going–even if nobody gets to see the result. Rebeck covers a lot of territory well. She made me laugh and gave me lots to think about. I recommend it.


About Barbara Schnell

I've dedicated my life to full-time employment avoidance. I've been an actress, renovated a 1921 California Bungalow, set a cash-winning record on $25,000 Pyramid, and came in last on Jeopardy. I live in Los Angeles with my patient husband and two cats.
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