When assessing whether her students really want to write for a living, Andrea Stolowitz asks them what kind of car they’re willing to drive.
“I tell them that they have to be OK being poor,” says Stolowitz, who began working as a playwright 15 years ago. “Undergrads are spirited about wanting to do things. I don’t hide the depressing moments from them and how hard it is.”
Stolowitz, an assistant professor at Willamette University, knows first hand how daunting a life in the arts can be. But she also knows the rewards.
Just this year, her play, “Antarktikos,” won the Oregon Book Award for drama. She also received a $25,000 commission from the Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland to write “Ithaka,” which is playing through June 30.
“Hopefully this trajectory will let me create more work to get out there,” Stolowitz says. “You have to pace yourself for a life in art. The only thing you ever have control over is your work.”
Understanding the World
Stolowitz discovered her love of writing in Moscow, where she was working toward a degree in Russian literature. The year was 1992. The former Soviet Union was falling apart, and the economy was at a standstill.
For many Russians, Stolowitz noticed the theatre was a refuge — a place where they connected with one another and the actors on stage.
“They turned to the theatre as a way to understand the world out there through the world in here,” she says. “Since then, I knew I wanted to make stories to help people understand the world around them.”
In her newest play, “Ithaka,” Stolowitz tells the story of Elaine “Lanie” Edwards, a former Marine who has trouble readjusting to civilian life. To find herself again, Edwards embarks on an Odyssean journey across the country.
“I had this idea for a play about relationships between women and the dissolution of friendships,” Stolowitz says. “I didn’t know about the war or about Marines, but I decided to embrace the fact that were coming to me that way.”
To understand the plight of her characters, Stolowitz visited the Portland Veterans Center and the California Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, where she interviewed recent veterans.
“We talked about their war experiences, especially related to my characters,” she says. “In the end, their stories weren’t so dissimilar. I wrote about a universal theme — about war, about coming home — which made the play more authentic.”
Through the play, Stolowitz hopes people will develop a frame of reference for what veterans are feeling and experiencing.
“I want to create a bridge for people who have been to war and those who haven’t,” she says, adding that everyone experiences struggles that affect their outlook on life. “This is a play about finding your way home.”
In addition to working as a playwright, Stolowitz has taught screenwriting and playwriting courses at Willamette as an adjunct professor since 2007.
Emily Golden ’13, one of her former students, says Stolowitz is a dedicated mentor who is passionate about helping others succeed.
“She does a great job of teaching students of all different skill levels because she’s able to find positive things to say about everyone’s work,” says Golden, who majored in English and theatre. “I always got the feeling that she genuinely enjoys teaching, which makes her really patient — even with total beginners.”
Golden credits Stolowitz for telling her about CoHo Productions’ NEW x NE play writing competition, which Golden applied to and won. As a result, her play, “The Candlestick Maker,” debuted at the Fertile Ground Festival in Portland last winter.
Now Golden is interning as an assistant director at Seattle Children’s Theatre and aspires to earn her MFA in playwriting.
Colton Miller ’12 also credits Stolowitz for cultivating his interest in creative writing. He took two screenwriting classes from her while at Willamette and now works as an assistant at Harbinger Pictures in Los Angeles.
Through his job, he hopes to make connections to launch a career in screenwriting.
“Having the experience of taking these two classes greatly helped solidify my dreams of being a writer.”
For Stolowitz, teaching is a way to ignite a passion and curiosity for the arts in others. She enjoys guiding her students through their creative development and working collaboratively to help them achieve their goals.
Ultimately, if they’re serious about screenwriting, she advises them to seek their start in LA.
“I tell them to be young, smart and aggressive,” she says. “They need to go out and do it, now.”
As for Stolowitz, her immediate plans include researching material for a new play and television pilot, visiting former students in LA and applying for grants to continue her work.
Although hopeful of making additional strides in her career, Stolowitz isn’t taking anything for granted. But no matter what the future holds, she counts herself lucky to have found a team of Willamette faculty who understand and support one another.
“It’s such a joy to have a department of creative writers at Willamette,” she says. “We get a lot from each other.”