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Deborah Salzer, Founder and Teaching Artist for Playwrights Project

June 24, 2011

Deborah Salzer founded Playwrights Project in 1985.  Since retiring in 2008, Deborah has continued to be a Teaching Artist for our in-school playwriting programs and our senior playwriting program Lifestages.  In this edition of Backstage Diaries, Deborah shares her insights on our senior playwriting program.

Join us for a FREE performance of Lifestages: Recollections & Reflections next Tuesday June 28 at 7pm at Old Town Theatre.  In July, Deborah will teach a summer series of Lifestages:  Recollections in Point Loma at the NTC Promenade (details below). 

What was the inspiration for the Lifestages program?

In the summer of 1989, I took a playwriting course at San Diego State.  Most of us were adults.  As we listened to work developing over the weeks, one voice stood out.  The writer was a quiet girl who had acted in Plays by Young Writers a few years earlier.  When the course ended, I urged her to enter the California Young Playwrights Contest.  Annie Weisman replied, “I’m only sixteen.  I don’t have any stories to tell.”

Early one morning months later, I prowled around the house, too worried to sleep.  My mother had recently moved from New York to San Diego and was now in a skilled nursing facility.  Replaying her first weeks there, I remembered a bright spot.  The entire staff had gathered to chat with her as part of their intake procedure.  They wanted to know about her life.  The staff asked one question; my mother talked happily for an hour.  Visiting my mom, I was often entertained by other residents’ recollections.  Here were stories in abundance.  But who was listening?

Annie’s comment popped into my head.  Why not pair older storytellers, with a lifetime of tales to tell, with playwrights looking for material to dramatize?  The idea thrilled me.  A year later, my mother’s convalescent hospital hosted the first Lifestages cycle.  Four playwrights interviewed four residents,   created theatrical vignettes from their lives, and performed them in the lobby.  I wish my mother had lived to see the program she inspired.

In the Lifestages: Recollections program, each writer is guided to dramatize a key moment in their lives as “fictional autobiographies.”  Why do you ask writers to fictionalize their experience?

I encourage writers to find the truth in the recollections they dramatize.  In the context of writing, truth is subjective.  Facts may not be as important as the emotions evoked by the memory.  Once discovered, these emotions may best be dramatized by combining fact and imagination.  For example, a writer recalls a moment at a family gathering when he tried to communicate with his hypercritical father.  To focus on the conflict, he may change the location, omit characters and invent dialogue.  Another writer returns to a moment that has angered her for years: an injustice suffered at the hands of an incompetent traffic cop.  She creates the scene as she remembers it.  When the scene is read aloud, we hear hints of humor.  The writer is surprised but willing to see where they lead her.  Her final draft has a comedic, fictionalized ending that draws cheers from the audience and a catharsis from the writer.

An interesting note about memory:  Current research suggests that memory is like a filing cabinet.  Each time we pull out a recollection, the act of doing so changes it.

How does the program compare to our playwriting programs with youth in schools?

Both programs introduce the basics of dramatic writing, focus on the development of character, encourage risk taking, and lead to discovery of the writer’s individual voice.  Both use interactive techniques to teach skills and provide constructive feedback.  Both have culminating performances.

However, structurally they are different.  Our programs for youth are usually taught in schools.  Classes can be large, work is graded, participation is mandatory, language must be “appropriate,” and students work at the same pace towards the same goal, usually the completion of a short play.

Recollections is structured more like a writers’ workshop.  Class size is small.  Everyone has opportunities to hear their work read aloud and to receive constructive feedback.  Between sessions students may email their work to me for comments.  Writers work at their own pace.  Some write and revise one scene.  Some create monologues.  Some write two or three connected scenes.  While I structure the sessions and provide information, writers learn as much from each other as from me.  Each brings her wisdom, his perspective, her questions to the table.  Together we create an environment that nurtures discovery.

Is it challenging to dramatize a real-life event?

Given that all writing is challenging, yes.  At the start, the writer may imagine it might be easier to write about life experiences.  You know the characters and plot, or you think you do.  Then the fun begins.

FREE Performance of scripts from Lifestages: Recollections & Reflections

Playwrights Project proudly presents scripts written by or about adults in their Golden Years; presented in partnership with Cygnet Theatre.

Tuesday June 28, 7pm at the Old Town Theatre (4040 Twiggs St., San Diego, 92110)

FREE (suggested donation of $5 at the door)

View the performance flyer: Click Here

Summer Series of Lifestages: Recollections

Deborah will teach a seven course series of Lifestages: Recollections, a free playwriting workshop series for adults in their Golden Years (ages 55 and up).

Begin your own personal adventure as you write dramatic vignettes from significant moments in your life.  **No Experience Necessary** Professional actors will read the vignettes at the end of the program. Selected pieces may be incorporated into future community performances.


San Diego Watercolor Society
NTC Promenade at Liberty Station
2825 Dewey Road,Suite 105
San Diego, CA 92106


Thursdays,  July 7, 21, 28, Aug. 4, 18, 25, 2011 from 2:00-4:00 p.m.
Final Performance:  Thursday, September 1, 2011, 2:00-4:00 p.m.


For ages 55 and up
Deborah Salzer, Teaching Artist and Playwrights Project Founder


Playwrights Project
(619) 239-8222
Only a few spaces remaining, so sign up now!


Playwrights Project
(619) 239-8222

For more information on the performance and/or the Summer Series of Lifestages, visit our website at

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