Arts & Culture

Glimpses of screenwriting

4 min read

N.Y. artist opens window on his craft during workshop

When Roland Tec was at Harvard, he used to swim at the Adams House pool. Last month, he was back in the pool, which has since been converted into a theater, to discuss his artistic career.

It was an appropriate venue for him. An established New York-based writer, producer, director, and composer, Tec ’88 used the myriad characters imagined by a group of 10 Harvard students to explore how to craft a compelling story for film. The discussion was part of a January intensive workshop in screenwriting for undergraduates, sponsored by Harvard’s Office for the Arts (OFA).

For the course, senior Riva Nathans examined the life of 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Based on his journals, Nathans, a Dunster House resident, developed a play around Kierkegaard’s relationship with his family. She took the two-day seminar to help improve her writing.

“I figured I should go for every dramatic writing opportunity I can get at Harvard, so I went for it,” said Nathans, a neuroscience concentrator who hopes to pursue a career in theater and film and possibly in science as well after graduation. “J-term allows people to experiment,” she added.

Tec helped the students to explore a more realistic form of dialogue, examining subtle ways of having their characters communicate with one another. He urged the students to make their characters hint at their feelings or agendas, instead of speaking their minds directly.

He also encouraged the students to have their characters periodically say nothing.

“Pauses are a really important tool. Every time there is a pause on stage, it belongs to someone. What we mean when we say that …  is that [one of the actors] puts the pause in the conversation,” said Tec, who added that a gap in dialogue can heighten a scene’s tension or emotion.

Later, he examined the “descriptive act,” a dramatic technique used to reveal aspects of a character in the absence of words.

“Jack and Jill were in a relationship, they were a couple, and now they are broken up,” said Tec. “You want to come up with some visual clues … a sentence or two that tells us that in purely visual terms.”

The students let their imaginations roam.

“Jack throws Jill’s clothes out the window,” one student offered.  “Jill changes her Facebook status,” said another. “Jill uses her key to get into Jack’s house, and she burns down his bed,” quipped another.

Tec’s own journey from Harvard to stage and film came by way of music. A music concentrator while at Harvard, he founded an experimental opera company in Boston after graduation and caught the movie bug when he was asked to score a film. His films include “We Pedal Uphill,” a look at the life of various characters after the 9/11 attacks, and “All the Rage,” about a gay lawyer who finds romance with an unlikely partner.

Tec said a top-notch producer is able to “break down the script,” or determine how many locations the script calls for and how many days of shooting will be required.

Wearing his writer’s hat, he said he never considers his scripts truly finished, because he continually tinkers with his work. The trick, he said, “is learning to force yourself to stop.”

Above all, Tec urged the students to take advantage of opportunities at Harvard to get involved with theater projects and to connect with people who share their artistic visions.

“If you find a person that you enjoy collaborating with,” said Tec, “hold onto them.”

Harvard’s January intensives are brief courses and seminars that offer students a chance to experiment with the arts and interact with professionals without the challenge of juggling a full academic schedule.

OFA students also could take a ceramics seminar, a workshop on watercolors, and a course on the fashion industry. There were other arts intensives in January, supported by Harvard’s Office of Career Services, the Office of the Associate Provost for Arts and Culture, the American Repertory Theater, the Department of Music, the Office of the Dean of Arts and Humanities, and Arts@29 Garden.

“It’s wonderful to see Harvard offering intensives in all of these arts,” said Madeleine Bennett, a senior at Adams House who is active in theater at Harvard and took part in Tec’s seminar. “It’s something that wasn’t available when I was an incoming freshman.”