Aaron Sorkin on Writing for Theatre and Teaching His Craft

Special Features   Aaron Sorkin on Writing for Theatre and Teaching His Craft The Oscar-winning screenwriter and playwright talks his new MasterClass, how his Farnsworth Invention became a play instead of a movie and the one thing in theatre he is still dying to do.
Aaron Sorkin
Aaron Sorkin Courtesy of Master Class

Likelihood is when you hear the name Aaron Sorkin, you don’t think theatre. You think hit television series like The West Wing or The Newsroom, award-winning films like The Social Network and A Few Good Men. But the master of drama got his start in theatre—musical theatre, in fact.

Sorkin graduated from Syracuse University’s Department of Drama with a B.F.A. in Musical Theatre in 1983. Sorkin first experimented with writing as a playwright; his first play, Removing All Doubt, was staged at his alma mater in 1984. Before A Few Good Men catapulted Sorkin into the Hollywood limelight, it was a stage play at the Music Box Theatre in 1989. In 2007, he made another visit to Broadway with his play The Farnsworth Invention, starring Hank Azaria.

But Sorkin is more than just a writer, he is a mentor and a teacher. He believes in nurturing young talent—as evidenced by programs like his “Sorkin Week” for select graduating seniors at Syracuse and, now, by his new screenwriting course for MasterClass.com. The MasterClass series gives users the opportunity to learn from the experts. Christina Aguilera coaches singing, Dustin Hoffman teaches acting, Serena Williams improves your serve, and as of July 26, Sorkin unlocks his keys to writing. Through a series of videos, Sorkin outlines his writing commandments, invites students into the writer’s room and even walks through the writing of a West Wing episode.

Playbill.com talked to the writer about his new class (which he based on his experience at Playwrights Horizons), his infatuation with the theatre, his upcoming stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the one thing in theatre he is dying to do.

What made you want to teach a MasterClass?
AS: I’ve enjoyed teaching actual non-virtual students over the years going to colleges and high schools and doing master classes, and when MasterClass.com came to me and asked me to do this I said, “Well keep talking. Tell me more about it.” As they were talking about it, and then we started working on ideas together, it sounded like something that I’d like and something that newer writers could get something out of.

What was it like to design a curriculum for the camera?
AS: The part that was talking to the camera I’d say was designed mostly by the MasterClass guys, David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen. I had said that I also wanted to do something with writers. We came up with the idea to recreate a writer’s room, and then I thought it would be just fun for everyone to break a West Wing episode together.

When you set out to design this curriculum and teach this course, what is the one thing that you hope students take away that would make it worth putting all this together?
AS: I preach throughout the MasterClass, and frankly every day like on a street corner: intention and obstacle. That’s the drive shaft of drama, and if you can come up with a strong intention and obstacle then you’re more than halfway there. There’s that, and then there’s confidence. Writing is something you do by yourself, so if you can spend some time with other writers and hear them talk, you can come out with a sense of confidence.

I designed [my course] after the Playwrights Horizons playwrights unit that I was a part of back in the mid-1980s. André Bishop had had a playwrights unit at Playwrights Horizons that had developed Wendy Wasserstein and Peter Parnell and a whole bunch of terrific writers. The idea was that they were gonna go on to Broadway and make room at Playwrights Horizons for the next group of people who came up, but that generation of writers never left Playwrights Horizons; they just loved it. André had felt that [the theatre was] losing sight of their mission. So he wanted to get the playwrights unit started again. There were five of us in that playwrights unit, and I was really impressed by how well it worked. I didn’t think if you put writers together in a group anything really good can happen, but—at least with these particular writers—none of us wanted to write the other person’s play. Everyone would come in every Monday afternoon with pages, and we would read them out loud, and we were supportive, and we would give feedback. Peter Hedges called it playwright’s therapy. So I designed this [class] after that.

You may be teaching screenwriting, but you got your start in plays, you were a Musical Theatre major at Syracuse. In your early video lessons you mention that timing is different across mediums, but in terms of the writing: how would you compare writing for the stage versus writing for the screen?
AS: For me, it’s not as different as it might be for other people because when I’m writing for the screen I’m still writing a lot of dialogue. My last movie, Steve Jobs, took place in three rooms. I’m always more comfortable writing a play. They say that when you bring home a new puppy you’re supposed to get a crate that’s just big enough for the puppy to be able to turn around but no bigger because that gives them a sense of security. I’m the same way with walls. The more sprawling the thing is, the less comfortable I get. So for me there isn’t that much difference. The difference is that with a play you can’t direct the audience’s attention with a camera, you have to do it with language.


Hank Azaria stars in The Farnsworth Invention.
Hank Azaria stars in The Farnsworth Invention. Photo by Joan Marcus

You’ve done adaptations, as well. Is there a difference going from a play to a film like A Few Good Men versus a film to a play like The Farnsworth Invention?
AS: Well let me clarify [what happened] with Farnsworth. What happened was: I wrote the screenplay, sold it to New Line [Cinemas], and I’d been wanting to write a new play for a long time. The night after I sold it, I happened to be in a hotel room and unable to sleep and thinking about the fact that I hadn’t written a play in a long time and realized that—the software I use is Final Draft, and there are different settings for 30-minute teleplay, 50-minute teleplay, screenplay and stage play... I’d never even used the stage play format on Final Draft and wasn’t sure if I knew how it worked. So like I said, I couldn’t sleep; I had insomnia. I went to the computer, brought up Final Draft and went to stage play just to kind of test it out, wrote the first couple of pages of The Farnsworth Invention as a play and suddenly realized that I was liking it much more as a play then I had as a movie, went back to New Line and said, “Any chance you would give that back to me?” And they did. That’s how that worked.

As for turning A Few Good Men into a movie, I remember everyone saying to me, “How are you going to open it up? How are you going to [expand it]?” A Few Good Men was my first screenplay. I’m nervous with anything that I’m writing, but I was particularly nervous about that so I kept thinking “How am I going to open it up?” And after many months banging my head against the wall trying to open it up, I just said, “You know what? I’m not.” This thing takes place in a courtroom, this thing takes place in offices, every once in a while I can see a scene moving outside, but other than that I just wrote the story.

You inject theatrical references, little nuggets here and there, and for a theatre nerd like myself that’s really exciting. What are you hoping to achieve, if anything, when you drop those nuggets in? When Jeff Daniels quizzes his intern on the Pulitzer Prize-winning musicals…
AS: They’re generally musical theatre references. [Laughs] I’m really not trying to prove anything or send any message, I’m just trying to have some fun and establish the kind of nerdiness of the character. I’m trying to make nerdiness sexy.

I think it’s working. With the breadth of your work across television, film, theatre, where is the place of theatre in your heart?
AS: There is no place I would rather be than in a rehearsal room, rehearsing a play with tape on the floor. There is no place I’d rather be than pacing the back of the orchestra of a theatre during previews. And there is nothing I’d rather be doing than writing a play.

My parents took me to see plays all the time. I grew up first in New York City and then in Westchester right outside New York City. My parents took me to plays all the time and then when I was old enough to take the train into the city myself I would second-act everything. I apologize to all of those producers and playwrights whose second act I stole. If after the train ticket I had $5, there were some shows back then you could get a rear balcony seat for $5. I just remember Shenandoah being one of them. To me the greatest piece of real estate in the world is 45th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. When The Farnsworth Invention was at the Music Box just like A Few Good Men was, every night during previews I would always take a moment to step outside and look up and down the street and see: There’s Stoppard’s new play Rock ‘n’ Roll, there’s the revival of A Chorus Line, Les Miz is next door. I would look up and down this street and feel about it exactly the same way I did as when I was a kid. One of my first survival jobs working in New York was working 1 Shubert Alley folding Cats t-shirts.

And now Cats is back.
AS: I was surprised it took so long.

Back in 2010, there was talk of you writing Houdini as a musical. Would you revisit that? Would you write another musical?
AS: Definitely. I love musicals, and I would love to write the book to a musical whether it’s Houdini or something else, I’m dying to write the book to the musical.

If you were to write a musical, do you envision yourself writing just the book?
AS: Just the book. I actually have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Musical Theatre. It’s what I studied in college. So I know just enough about lyric writing to know that it is its own very difficult art form to know that I would never attempt to try.

What can you say about the stage play adaptation, To Kill a Mockingbird, you’re working on? What are you most looking forward to? Have you and Bartlett Sher ever collaborated before?
AS: No, we haven’t. So I’m really excited about that. I’m a big fan of Bart Sher. It’s been fun having early meetings with him about the play. Right now, I’m in the process of writing it. This is an unusual one. Generally, with a play there isn’t underlying material. But not only is there underlying material with this, it’s one of, if not, the most beloved novel—at least in this country. So right away you’re aware that everyone coming into the theatre has read this book, they’ve probably seen the movie, too. There’s not much upside. They can hate you for ruining their childhood, or they can remember how great Harper Lee is, but that’s about it.

So if there’s not much upside…
Well, the upside is I get to be in a theatre, and I get to be there with Bart Sher.

READ MORE ABOUT WHAT TO EXPECT FROM SORKIN’S TAKE ON TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

To register for Sorkin’s Master Class visit MasterClass.com/as.

Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.

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