Theater Preview: ‘Seminar’ takes a smart, funny look at writers’ lives

Doctors come from medical school, lawyers from law school. But where do writers and other creative artists come from? Increasingly, we study our craft at colleges, graduate schools, and a vast network of workshops and conferences.
Of course, no schooling is a guarantee of artistic success. Those who can afford it sometimes seek out master classes like the one imagined in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy “Seminar,” a 2011 Broadway hit. Middlebury Actors Workshop’s production of the play will open at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury on April 21.
The seminar, more like a boot camp, is led by Leonard (Roy Cutler), a renowned novelist and ruthlessly cruel teacher. Leonard’s main teaching method is to ridicule every student’s work, character and motives. His students, who have paid $5,000 each for the privilege of having their hearts torn out and stomped upon, have different responses. Izzy (Aryana Sedarati) sets out to seduce Leonard. Kate (Lida Benson), who hosts the seminar in her family’s palatial Upper West Side apartment, finds a way to both prove herself and get back at Leonard, after his crushing dismissal of the story she first submits.
Doug (Jack DesBois) uses his considerable intellect to fight back, while Martin (Sam Finn Cutler) protects himself by refusing to show Leonard his work at all.
All four of the students try to protect and help each other out, with a series of comical encounters and shifting alliances. Eventually after weeks of Leonard’s tough-love scoldings, all four students get their money’s worth when Leonard finds a different way to launch each of them into their careers.
Playwright Theresa Rebeck, also a screenwriter and novelist, knows the world of writing workshops well. She taught for many years at Bennington College and is a regular at the Dorset Theater Festival.
IN A REHEARSAL of “Seminar,” a play about aspiring writers seeking help from a master novelist, Martin (Sam Finn Cutler) and Kate (Lida Benson) discuss their challenging mentor. Photos courtesy of Aryana Sedarati
Because the play calls for four 20-something characters, director Melissa Lourie reached beyond MAW’s mainstay group of veteran performers. She held out-of-town auditions by Skype video hookups, which she found surprisingly good for evaluating remote acting talent. Lida Benson is based in the Washington, D.C., area, Aryana Sederati in New York. Sam Finn Cutler, a Vermonter, is also pursuing his career in New York. He is the real-life son of fellow cast member, Roy Cutler.
Middlebury Actors Workshop will present Theresa Rebeck’s comedy “Seminar” at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, April 21, 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m., and April 23 at 2 p.m. Tickets $22 at townhalltheater.org, or call 382-9222.
“Seminar,” by Theresa Rebeck; directed by Melissa Lourie; sets by Joel Wollum; costumes by Tia Anechiarico; lighting by Jess Krol; stage manager, Gwen Zwickel; props, Elsie Sutton;  sound technician, Josh Cote; tech assistance, Charles Barstow; board op, Skyler Franklin; graphic design, Donovan Andrews; program, Jeff Olson.
WITH: Aryana Sedarati, as Izzy; Sam Finn Cutler, as Martin; Lida Benson, as Kate; Jack DesBois, as Douglas; Roy Cutler, as Leonard.

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