Photo courtesy of edithfreni.com
By Frances Marion Givhan
On the first day of classes, the white board in Gailor 114 had a name, the room number, the title of the class, and office hours written on it. Students sat around a long table, with a gently tanned woman wearing glasses sitting at the head. When every student had filed in and found a seat, the woman introduced herself as Professor Freni. “But would everyone be okay with calling me Edith?” she asked. As a playwright, Edith Freni knows the habit of theatre workers to call each other by first names. It encourages collaboration and respect as artists. In a playwriting class, such an atmosphere would feel equally important.
Even that small question established the tone of the class. Freni presented herself as professional but humorous, respectful and open-minded, and as a mentor. “I am now fairly comfortable telling people that I am a playwright,” she says, “but that’s only because I am primarily occupied with the process of writing plays and sometimes I even make money writing plays.”
In addition to her own definition of a playwright, she also backs her career with a three-time nomination for the PoNY Award (the Playwrights of New York) and nominations for her plays Total Power Exchange and Buena Vista (edithfreni.com).
Originally, however, Freni did not think she was a playwright. She wrote plays in high school, but interpreted that exercise as screenwriting. “I decided to go to college to study screenwriting. That’s how I ended up at NYU,” she says. Freni received both her BFA and MFA from NYU’s Department of Dramatic Writing, and after college, she and a couple of her friends founded a developmental company that lasted for six years.
“Running that company was a great education in what it means to be a collaborator and an advocate for my peers,” she says. She also learned about new play development and what playwrights need when they begin their careers. She believes playwrights need “time to write, photo copies, free food, unlimited love, and the trust of their primary collaborators.” This makes sense in the world of theatre and writing, where the competition between workers is stereotypical but very true.
“This is a tough business,” says Freni. “It’s extremely competitive, it’s hard to earn a living, and you end up making a lot of sacrifices that folks in more stable professions don’t have to make.”
She is proud of her career, especially of the fact that she is still in it. The three things she feels most proud about being a playwright: 1) leaving New York. “There’s this myth that theatre only happens there or that the theatre happening there is the only theatre of note,” she says, “and that is just not true.” This is a comforting statement, particularly for the students here in the South who either cannot make it to New York City or do not want to. 2) The advocacy she’s done. “I’ve hit a point in my career where I can start creating and offering opportunities to other playwrights,” she says. She has many former students who have entered the professional world. 3) “I’m proud of the fact that I have managed to pursue lots of interests and maintain plenty of relationships over the years that have absolutely NOTHING to do with theatre.”
It feels incredibly exciting to have someone like Freni here at Sewanee, a seasoned writer who understands that writing does not come from a formula. “It’s so easy to start thinking that there is no room for innovation,” she says, “to get stuck in established teaching methods and the old rules.” In her experience, doing the same writing exercises over and over yields similar plays and people who do not want to write plays again. She feels excited to be at Sewanee and to “develop a curriculum that is deep in craft but leaves room for personal artistic exploration and growth.”
Regarding advice for budding writers and theatre majors, she encourages people to read plays and create work while in a supportive environment. She advises students to stay open-minded to criticism and comments while developing into “epic collaborators.” And, not most important but excellent to keep in mind, she says, “Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is a necessary part of the creative process.”