When the house lights dim on March 15 for the Philadelphia premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s 2011 play, Seminar, it will have a special significance for Scott Schwartz. Schwartz, who is directing the production at Philadelphia Theatre Company, started his career, after graduating from Harvard in the mid-1990s, as the artistic director of the American Experience Theater, a not-for-profit summer theater organization based in Haverford.
To say he has come a long way since then would be an understatement. Schwartz has become one of the most in-demand theatrical directors in the nation, with Broadway shows like Golda’s Balcony, a one-woman play about Golda Meir, starring Tovah Feldshuh; Off-Broadway successes like Bat Boy: The Musical and Tick, Tick … Boom!; a position as associate artist at Houston’s Alley Theatre; and a long list of other national, touring, regional and international productions.
While Schwartz’s success was by no means preordained, a case could certainly be made for his having theater in his blood. As the son of Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked and many other productions) and actress Carole Schwartz, he jokes that his career path “was probably determined when I was in the womb — it felt like a foregone conclusion, to be honest, although if I had chosen something else, my parents would have been supportive.”
But once his high school theater teacher let him direct some plays, the 40-year-old says, “I knew that this was what I wanted to do.”
It’s a good thing he loves what he does; otherwise, it could make the six months a year he spends directing productions away from his New York home a long slog. In fact, one of the things that appealed to him about Seminar, he says, was that the production was so close to New York.
The main attraction for him, though, was the opportunity to work again with playwright Rebeck. Rebeck, who has written numerous plays, including Poor Behavior and The Family of Mann, as well as creating and executive producing the television show Smash (about the Broadway musical scene), asked Schwartz to come aboard as director of the Philadelphia production while he was directing the premiere of her 2012 play, What We’re Up Against, at the Alley Theater. Schwartz was already familiar with Philadelphia Theatre Company: He and producing artistic director Sara Garonzik had worked together a few years ago, when he staged a reading for her at the theater.
Not that Schwartz needed much persuasion to take the gig. “I love Theresa’s work,” he says. “It’s fun and rich; the characters are specifically drawn, and the language is so compelling to me.”
Seminar is devoted to language, specifically the language of the writer, both on and off the page. It is a fast-moving, fierce and witty work about four aspiring writers who have paid $5,000 each for the privilege of having a published author/writing teacher relentlessly ridicule his pupils’ work. It’s a study on the fear of failure as well as the fear of success, on the search for truth on the page and in the soul. As an exploration of what it means to create and seek validation for that creativity above all else — including relationships — Seminar appealed to Schwartz because of its dissection of the creative struggle.
“It’s personal to me, because I work in the creative arts,” he explains. “To do a play that explores the idea of truth and that values it, as tough as that can be, was appealing.”
Seminar will appeal to anyone who has ever entertained the notion of writing the next Great American Novel. You will either come out of it convinced that you can do it, regardless of whatever slings and arrows are hurled at you, or you will heave a sigh of relief that you can simply enjoy the sight of others than yourself suffering for their art. l
Philadelphia Theatre Company
Through April 14