The Doer …

March 2009, Insight for Playwrights
by Sandra Hosking
This article is copyright 2009 by Sandra Hosking. Used by permission.

Playwright:  Elana Gartner
Place of Residence/Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Web site:
Education: Oberlin College, BA in creative writing, 1998.
Selected Titles: Because of Beth, Spinning, Much Ado About Coffee, Peanut Butter and Jelly, and Vespers.

Playwright Elana Gartner’s first stint as a writer and director came in first grade with her play The Good Butterfly.

“It’s the time in your life when you’re realizing the difference between good and bad, and I applied it to a play,” she says.

The play was about a bad creature who terrorized animals, and the butterfly would follow behind it and fix everything.

First, Gartner shared the play with a couple classmates, then more peers wanted to get involved.

“I had a wonderful first-grade teacher who was very supportive of playwriting and theater who agreed to let the whole class get involved,” Gartner says. “We rehearsed, and she let me direct it and let me be in it and perform it for my parents.”

If it hadn’t been for that early experience, she might not have continued her life in theater.

“Someone who could’ve said ‘no’ to me didn’t,” she says. “Ultimately I think I’m a product of very fantastic teachers who are very supportive.”

When she was in seventh grade at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, N.Y., Gartner was determined to take the playwriting class that typically was only offered to high schoolers.

For two years, the answer was no.

“I kept asking, and I kept asking,” she says. “When I got to ninth grade, I was allowed to sneak into the playwriting class of the 11th and 12th graders.”

All semester she wrote constantly, but her subjects were immature.

“It’s what I would think of now as the dreck of your mind that you have to get out to get to the good stuff,” Gartner says. “I got kicked out of the class.”

Instructor Nancy Fales Garrett told her to enroll again in a couple years.

“‘You’re extremely prolific. You just have to go out and have some world experiences and come back,’” Gartner recalls her teacher saying.

While the teenager was angry at first, she did re-enroll as a Junior. Fales Garrett became her mentor.

“One thing I learned—humility,” Gartner says, laughing. “Write what you know; that’s the most important thing I learned from her, to really listen to language. Make the time and just do it. If it’s really that important to you, then you have to do it.”

Says Fales Garrett, “Elana Gartner was a hardworking, enthusiastic, and insightful student writer, and I am so happy that her passion for theater has continued.”

Gartner got involved with the school’s playwriting festival, which has been running since the early 1970s, as a writer and stage manager.

“I think it’s very important, especially if you’re going to be a playwright, to take a turn at as many aspects of the theater as possible because I think it ends up making you a better writer,” Gartner says. “When you’re writing stage directions or writing events … think, ‘Is it really realistic for someone to do all this stuff in this short amount of time and have all these props show up or these scene changes?’”

Gartner also has worked as an actor, director, and light and sound technician.

“It’s very important, particularly for a playwright, to really do as much as possible,” she adds.

Following high school graduation, Gartner attended Oberlin College, in Ohio, where she studied creative writing.

“I loved it there,” says Gartner, who currently is president of her alumni class. At Oberlin, she studied other genres but maintained her affinity for playwriting.

“I just love playwriting more. It speaks to me,” she says. “I love the language that the individual characters use and how they can sound very much like themselves. There’s specific language that an individual develops from either their environment or from things they’ve seen or picked up or people they’ve talked to that they’ve adapted their language. It tends to be a very busy patchwork of experiences.”

Writing descriptions in fiction gets in her way, she feels.

“I’m a very visual person that way. A lot can be said in action,” she says. Walking across the stage in a specific way can say so much about what’s going on.”

In 1998, Gartner helped found Girls Write Now, a New York-based creative writing-mentoring organization which pairs high school girls with professional women writers.

“These teenage girls get to learn about all these different kinds of writing styles,” she says. “They get to really explore what they might be good at.”

After an absence, she has rejoined the group as an adviser.

“I’m pleased that I was a part of the org beginning because I think that it’s very very valuable for writers to have mentors,” Gartner says. “Being a product of positive role models and good teachers is really important. It’s really important to afford that opportunity to the next generation.”

Later, Gartner launched the EMG Playwriting Workshop, a writing group for playwrights.

“That has been the best help for my writing in a long time,” she says. “It is now 5 years old. I began it because I was not doing my writing, and I work best with deadlines.”

After taking a playwriting class that didn’t meet her needs, she became frustrated. At her husband’s suggestion, she sought out other serious playwrights who needed support. What started out as an informal weekly writers’ group, now is fairly structured.

“You do have to apply,” Gartner says. “There’s a period where you come in and we see if we think you’re a match; you see if it’s a match for you.”

In addition to the weekly scene readings and critique sessions, the group presents table readings of new whole plays by its members with actors.

 “It’s a good opportunity for playwrights to hear actors read their stuff,” she says. “If you do go to production, then you can invite one of those actors. It’s an excellent networking opportunity.”

Outside of the weekly meetings, members support each other by reading each other’s work and offering feedback, collaborating on projects, or attending each other’s shows.

“Support doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all nice,” she says. This group absolutely says what they think and has no qualms about it. You feel that they have your best interest at heart.”

Five of the group’s members were included in John Chatterton’s One Page Play Festival this February.

Gartner’s play Because of Beth, which was developed through EMG, was produced by Small Pond Entertainment in New York in January 2008.

In the play, following Beth’s death, her feuding daughters, ex-husband, and fiancé seek to mourn her in their own way. Instead, they are forced to deal with one another and the complicated ties that bind them together.

The play was a finalist in a contest sponsored by New York-based reader’s theatre company, Open Book. It also received the third-place prize in Pen & Brush’s playwriting competition and is slated to be published in the organization’s annual anthology this year.

Pen & Brush, of New York, is a 113-year-old international membership organization for women in the visual, literary, and performing arts.

“The fact that it’s a New York-based organization is great. The fact that it supports women that’s wonderful,” Gartner says. “I know that recently there has been an effort to get more attention for women playwrights, trying to find more places for women playwrights to be produced because a lot don’t manage to get to prominent theatres. I think that an organization like Pen & Brush really does give voice for women writers in ways that other theatres are not so much doing. In that way, I’m very pleased.”

Sandra Hosking’s plays have been produced in New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Canada, and elsewhere. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America and the International Centre for Women Playwrights. Please submit comments and story ideas to

Insight for Playwrights, March 2009