It’s January 2022 and I’m talking to Julian Blank about something that happened over a decade ago. At the time, Blank was a high school student and a self-described “youth at the edge.”
“I was a 15- or 16-year-old-kid who’d never had discipline or rules at home,” Blank says. “And my parents didn’t take me seriously, therefore I didn’t take them seriously. I still don’t take them seriously.”
Then Blank became involved with PlayWrite, a nonprofit that teaches playwriting to at-risk kids at alternative schools and organizations throughout the Portland area. It’s a defiantly unfuzzy operation — its instructors are called “coaches,” not teachers — and it was exactly what Blank needed back in 2006-2007.
“I was going through stuff as a teenage human being in this world, and it was a very hopeful place to find myself because there were cool adults giving a heck about me,” Blank says. “They believed in me and what I could write. They really pull stuff out of you.”
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series
“Pulling stuff out of you”: in essence, that’s the mission of PlayWrite. Founded in 2003 by Bruce Livingston — whose extraordinary career includes teaching in Iran during the late sixties and up until the 1978 revolution — PlayWrite set out to teach the craft of playwriting to struggling students, including those coping with abuse and trauma.
The organization’s mission is to create “a safe space for participants to explore themselves in a new way – to build a story that’s never been written before.” Through the PlayWrite process, youth write their own one-act plays using non-human characters that represent their own emotions and life experiences. The culmination of the workshop is a live performance of the plays, featuring professional actors directed by the playwrights themselves.
A New Era
Now that Livingston has retired from PlayWrite, the organization faces a future without the man who coach and program manager Victor Mack, an acclaimed actor and director in his own right, calls “my Yoda, as far as this kind of work goes.” But to understand what PlayWrite could be, it’s necessary to look at what it has been—and what it means to the people involved, both students and coaches.
That’s how I came to spend time talking with Blank, Livingston, Mack, and board member Sherry Lamoreaux. The conversations were separate — although Lamoreaux was present when I spoke to both Livingston and Mack — but together, they painted a clear portrait of an organization built on a unified belief in the healing power of creativity and excellence.
Livingston, who studied anthropology at Reed College and the University of Chicago, took a methodical approach to PlayWrite. His meticulous vision dictated that students write about nonhuman characters, like animals and objects—not for the sake of cuteness, but because he believed they would give rise to greater truth, a conviction that Mack embraced wholeheartedly.
BRUCE LIVINGSTON: The reason for that, the virtue of that is that it’s much easier to tell the truth through a nonhuman character than through a human character. It gives you some distance.
VICTOR MACK: I am a disciple of Bruce Livingston. I met him 10 or 12 years ago. He was this tall white dude, bushy hair, kind of a hippie-esque man with his Birkenstocks and everything. We hit it off from the beginning.
BRUCE LIVINGSTON: Building the program was one piece. The other piece was training coaches to work with those kids appropriately. And here’s where actors make great coaches — because actors, by training, know how to read the emotional state of the people they work with. And that is a key piece of the PlayWrite process.
VICTOR MACK: The biggest tenets at PlayWrite are the four Rs — respect yourself, respect others, respect the process and respect the environment, the room that we’re using, wherever we’re holding the workshop.
BRUCE LIVINGSTON: The coaches work with the students for two and half hours a day, they’re face to face and the fluctuations in emotional states are dynamic and ongoing. So in order to make this stuff work, the coach has to be pushing the student, yet at the same time be very sensitive to when that student is getting close to falling apart and going over the edge so the coach can pull back and manage those stakes.
Livingston says that PlayWrite students will write plays that are metaphors for their own experiences. As a result, the plays can often be poignant — like one told from the perspective of a punching bag, which was written by a student named Cristina and performed by Victor Mack.
VICTOR MACK: Bruce — that tricky Bruce, he’s a tricky one — he handed me the monologue. It’s about this punching bag—this dark-brown leather punching bag. And I said, “Oh my, a metaphor, and a Black man doing this monologue about a black old punching bag.” Bruce has been wise about the way he connects people to projects. He’s got an eye for that.
JULIAN BLANK: I wrote a play about a chipped ceramic bowl and a canyon, which oftentimes can be looked at as a really big bowl. The two characters were ex-lovers, but in different relationships, and there was still a lot of love between them. You know how that can be — full of mishaps. I think the symbolism was something of a sort of emptiness — like both of these things can be empty, but they have room to fill with love or something along those lines.
VICTOR MACK: I always find that three-fourths of the time, a human-made object is one of the characters.
JULIAN BLANK: It means something to me. It’s something that was important to me then. I’m 16 years away from it, so there have been times where I’m like, “God, that was embarrassing! How did I ever write such a cheesy play? About a bowl and a canyon? Come on.” But I’m happy with it.
Livingston always insisted that PlayWrite coaches adopt a compassionate, but unsentimental approach. The coaches deliberately avoid learning the details of the students’ personal lives and maintain a singular focus on helping them improve their craft—which Blank describes as effective, if exasperating.
JULIAN BLANK: I genuinely got frustrated a few times.
BRUCE LIVINGSTON: The workshops basically work in the following manner—we spend the first hour doing group work and then the second hour and a half is one on one. But the very first thing we tell the kids is, “We will never ask you to do anything we’re not going to do. We’re in this together. We respect you, but we have certain expertise that you don’t have and we will help you build yours. We will push you. You will come to dislike us and hate us. There will be conflict between us, but we will always be here for you and we will keep showing up day after day, no matter what.”
VICTOR MACK: At first, I thought, “Oh my god, they’re so hard on these kids!” They would push them and push them and push them and I didn’t know how I felt about that. And that was the biggest hump I had to overcome. Personally, I think these kids are ultra-resilient because of the environment they’ve been brought up in. And not that we want to exploit them, but they’re not going to break is the point that I’m going to make and that I’ve learned from these senior coaches. Don’t be afraid to challenge them. Because what you can get at the end is all worth it.
JULIAN BLANK: At PlayWrite, they respected me; I respected them. They took me seriously, therefore I took them seriously. But I got pretty grumpy sometimes when they would push me, where they’d be like, “What’s at the heart of that? What’s really there? What’s the ‘why’ here?” And I was like, “Dudes, I don’t know! Give me a break!” They were very encouraging, but I know that I got grumpy and frustrated because nobody had ever really pushed me before. So it felt kind of good.
When the students complete their plays, they are performed by professional actors who are directed by the students. For Blank, who would go on to serve as a PlayWrite board member for four years, directing was a delight.
JULIAN BLANK: Being somebody who loved film and plays and literature at that age, it was really good to direct actual damn good actors and see the work that I put on the page come out. Honestly, I was being taken seriously by the writers and everybody, so at that point, it got kind of easy to direct them.
SHERRY LAMOREAUX: At the end, when the actors perform the play, the playwright is in the director’s chair, on the stage with them. So they’ve got this communication continuing to happen, this oneness. And then when it’s over, the director/student gets off the chair, stands with the actors, and they bow and everybody’s clapping. And this might be the first time in this kid’s life that they’ve had that experience of being cheered on.
JULIAN BLANK: I have a pretty unique relationship with PlayWrite and I have a pretty unique trajectory as well with them. I don’t know if anybody did all the things that I did. It affected me differently. They helped usher me into adulthood in a way that was so helpful and when parents weren’t there to do it. Surrounding myself with cool people made me feel a bit cool myself.
Watch one of the PlayWrite performances.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity from three conversations.