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Award-winning Playwright Teaches his Art to W&L Students

It’s quite possible that students taking the playwriting course at Washington and Lee University this fall could find themselves eventually competing against their professor.

In October, Chris Gavaler, visiting assistant professor of English, won the outstanding playwright award at the Pittsburgh New Works Festival for the fourth year in a row for his one-act play “Vows.”

This semester, for the first time in three years, W&L is offering a course in playwriting. Students are studying the art under Gavaler, who normally teaches literature, composition and creative writing. “This is the first time I’ve specifically taught playwriting so I’m having a lot of fun,” he said. “We are focusing on the one-act play and are progressing to a 30-minute format.”

Gavaler used the 30-minute format in his award-winning plays. “I find the story ideas I come up with fit the 30-minute format perfectly. Ten-minute plays don’t give you a lot of room to get moving before your time is up. A full length 120-minute play is a radically different creature,” he explained.

“This is a very strong class of students, so I’m considering having them submit their plays to festivals, specifically the Pittsburgh New Works Festival,” he said. The festival is dedicated to fostering the development of original one-act plays and debuts a dozen works each year produced by a different theater company.

“There are definitely some student plays that are strong enough, and I think that by the end of the semester all the students could have something worth submitting,” said Gavaler. It would be an absolute delight if one of my students did well.”

The students will have some tough competition from Gavaler, who said he was surprised that he won for the fourth time. “I think this is the 19th year of the festival, and they’ve never before had a winner four times in a row,” he said. “I was surprised because, as much as I like the play, it’s a comedy and my previous plays were part-comedy part-dramas, so I wasn’t expecting to win. I didn’t think a straight comedy would have a chance.”

His play takes place in a church, where a sister in law and brother in law meet to discuss the affairs their spouses are having. During their conversation they realize that their spouses are having an affair with each other.

Gavaler said that a major part of the playwriting experience is handing over the play to a producer and director, and then seeing it performed for the first time when you sit in the audience. “It’s definitely a strange experience,” he said.

“When I go to Pittsburgh, I haven’t seen the dress rehearsal. I sit down in the audience, the lights go up, and then people I’ve never met walk on stage and start saying the lines I wrote. If I were involved with the rehearsal process I would see it slowly evolving. It’s always a surprise to sit down and see what’s going to happen.”

He described playwriting as a highly collaborative art form. “Even though I’ll write the script entirely on my own, once I hand it over it becomes something radically different. Producers, directors and actors can have very different interpretations. It’s the same words but the way in which it’s performed is hugely different.”

Gavaler added that when he writes short stories, which are the majority of his work, he has complete control. “A play on paper is like a musical score, you can look at the notation but you can’t really hear it until it’s actually performed. How a musician performs it can be radically different.”

It’s an experience he is keen for his students to enjoy.