Playwright Ancowitz '98 muses about theatre, its purposes

by Joseph Peters | 11/18/97 6:00am

At first glance, Kyle Ancowitz '98 looks rather quiet and reticent. You would not think that he could carry a conversation unaided, much less get up on stage and act.

But, as with most things, appearance is deceptive.

Beneath this reserve lies a strong passion for the art and science of drama, as I quickly discovered after a few words with him in Collis Common Ground.

It had been several weeks since the last production of Jay Hanlon's "Millennium Class," in which Ancowitz portrayed Cambridge, an angst-filled '00 in his senior spring who is "under a lot of pressure and starting to get depressed."

Ancowitz himself, however, did not seem to share his character's mood -- if anything, he seemed too busy to be depressed.

"When I finish one project, I'm always looking forward to the next," he said. "Right now, I'm working on a new play and applying to make it my senior thesis."

This prompted the question I'd been wondering about -- why do you write plays?

"Well, I get hunches ... sometimes I get a line or image that I want to share and want people to see. For example, the idea for 'A Hundred Days' came to me from a Buddhist koan I read," he said. "I had a few ideas that fermented for a little while, and then I went on to write."

"A Hundred Days" went on to win the Eleanor Frost Competition and was performed in the spring of 1997, along with two other prize-winning plays.

"It was the Frost Competition that really compelled me to write the play," Ancowitz said. "I was in London at the time on the Drama FSP, and, when talking to Jo [Weingarten] '98, we found that we each had these ideas for plays and really pushed each other to write them."

This latest success came as a pleasant surprise, but, considering Ancowitz's long involvement with drama, should not have been entirely unexpected.

"I worked backstage in plays in Monterey (California) during high school and worked and performed at community colleges. This made it easier -- that is, I think it's helpful for a playwright to have both a director's and an actor's point of view in mind," he said.

Then came Dartmouth. "I continued with drama mainly because I was curious about playwriting -- I took the class sophomore fall and experimented with different things, like working scenery and directing. Directing is, I think, the most fulfilling experience in drama," Ancowitz said.

"There are so many possibilities -- so many ways to conform the presentation to your imagination by controlling the looks, feels, sounds ..."

But how about the other means of communication like prose and poetry?

"Well, plays are a lot like poetry," he continued. "In fact, playwrights were at first described as dramatic poets."

But apparently what separates plays from other media is that "there's another dimension -- you know it's going to be realized. You have to deal with the limitations and possibilities of the real world as well as your imagination."

What about film? Have you ever thought about screenwriting?

He leaned back in thought, then slowly said," No, not seriously -- I haven't thought about it. Not to be snobbish, but I prefer theater; to me it's more memorable and powerful."

This power, for Ancowitz, stems largely from the potential for novelty.

"Plays are generally more adventurous -- you have a better chance of seeing something new," he said.

The direct nature of the audience -- actor relationship seems to appeal to him. In speaking about his "Millennium Class" role, he noted that, "It was good for me, because I almost never act. I'm usually stiff and nervous, but this time I tried to be fluid and creative."

But Ancowitz does not feel that success is necessarily defined by the response of the audience

"A production's very likely to be successful when there's a sense of esprit de corps -- everyone involved gets along well, works well with each other, and there's very little animosity or contention backstage," he said. "I define success by interaction -- when it's fun and exciting and you feel like you're making steps by being creative."

This is an experience Ancowitz feels that everybody should try at least once. "I wish everyone across the college would come down and devote time to working on a show. They'd really learn something; there's something for everyone to learn." He offered similar advice to people interested in the theater. "Come in and do all sorts of things -- work tech, scene shop ... if you're interested in playwriting, sit down somewhere and really write."

So what do you plan to do after your senior spring?

"Probably work in theater for a year to decide if I want to go to grad school. Maybe go overseas. There are different ways to go, especially if I go to grad school."

Given all that you know now, would you do anything at Dartmouth differently?

He reflected a bit, then, "No, I don't think so. I don't think I spent as much time as I wanted learning about other things, but on the other hand I don't think my focus has been narrow. In writing, directing, and acting I've had the chance to explore different facets of life; learned to manage time, to deal with stress. I've even learned from my failures. I wouldn't want to undo all that."