July 12, 2010
After thriving 21 years, curtain falls on English Alternative Theatre
Brenden M. Lynch
LAWRENCE — Over the past two decades, Paul Stephen Lim has breathed life into more than 50 productions and 100 staged readings at the English Alternative Theatre, an organization he established at the University of Kansas in 1989 to bring student-written plays to the stage.
But earlier this year, Lim, a professor of English, dimmed his theater’s lights for good to focus on his own award-winning work as a playwright.
“Prior to coming on board full-time, I was writing a play a year personally,” Lim said. “But after 1989, because of teaching and the demands of running a theater by myself, I had to put my own writing on hold. I thought that maybe it’s time to retire, so I can devote more attention to the plays I still want to write.”
Now with retirement on the horizon, Lim can reflect with satisfaction upon his theater group’s long run of artistic success. Indeed, EAT was a one-of-a-kind setting where English majors saw their dramatic writing performed on stage.
“The only effective way I could teach playwriting was if my students could see their plays performed by actors in front of audiences,” Lim said. “None of the theater groups in Lawrence were particularly interested in original scripts at that time — they’re not commercially viable. So it fell to me to start a group devoted to producing student work.”
Lim said that EAT dramatizations revealed strengths and flaws in student scripts and allowed for vital communication between authors and actors. Usually, Lim directed the students’ plays while helping his student writers with revisions.
“The joy of producing an original play is that you’re working on a script that’s never been staged before,” said Lim. “You can ask the playwright at any moment, ‘Why is my character doing this?’ You can tell the writer, ‘This line is hard to say.’ Or you can ask, “Would it be permissible to do it this way?’ There’s live give-and-take with the playwright right there beside you at rehearsals.”
According to Lim, English majors bring distinctive skills to dramatic writing, which he would bolster with his own theatrical experience.
“The students I get are primarily interested in writing fiction, but I’ve been able to make many converts to dramatic writing,” said Lim. “One nice thing about working with writers from the English department is that they have a greater love for language and, for the most part, they are also better read. But many of them don’t have a sense of drama and theatricality. This is where I can step in, to help to make their scripts more dramatic and theatrically interesting.”
In the process of staging dramatic work by KU student writers, Lim churned out superior playwrights. Indeed, scripts by KU students in the theater have been 27-time regional winners of the prestigious Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Several of those were also featured at national KCACTF festivals in Washington, D.C. A complete list of award-winning EAT playwrights can be found at the EAT website.
“Paul has had a profound impact,” said Gregg Henry, artistic director of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. “EAT certainly has been the tent pole for new writing in the Great Plains region of our organization. It’s an inspiration to other universities because of Paul’s commitment to new writing and taking his students’ work further. For someone to step up with the kind of advocacy he has for his students’ playwriting is a rare thing — not just at KU or that region but nationwide.”
In fact, Lim’s efforts have been so resounding, the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival named a playwriting award after him. The Paul Stephen Lim Asian-American Playwriting Award will be presented annually at the festival.
Most importantly, exposure to Lim and EAT has been a priceless experience for scores of his students. For Kirby Fields, a former playwright at KU, the springboard of EAT has launched him on a career path in New York City, where this July, Samuel French will present his play, “Flood.”
“What I learned from Paul has more to do with determination than it did with the nuts-and-bolts of writing,” Fields said. “The guy just makes things happen. He saw a need for a certain kind of theater — edgy, challenging, idea-driven — and he simply made it happen. The other point about Paul’s influence that pretty much tells you everything you need to know is that I still send him the earliest drafts of many of my plays. He always responds promptly, with comments that usually begin with a line or a scene from the play but which end up drawing from Williams or the Greeks or the Bible.”
Following retirement, Lim will continue to make his home in Lawrence and plans to travel to visit family in Florida, New Jersey and the Philippines. In the meantime, in addition to penning his “memoirs in flux” in a newly created blog, he is planning to begin work on several writing projects that draw on his time at the university.
“One of them is a play about sexual harassment and academic freedom,” said Lim. “And the other is probably going to be a novel about affirmative action and political correctness within a university.”
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