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Kyle Bass watches a rehearsal for the staged reading of his play Baldwin vs. Buckley at UD.
Bass was very young when he had his light-bulb moment about the
importance of language, but he recalls it clearly even today.
I was a really small child, but I remember that I suddenly realized
there was a word for everything every single thing! in the world,
And I wanted to learn them all.
It was an appropriate start for Bass, who has gone on to become a
successful playwright, a professor of creative writing and this years
Susan P. Stroman Visiting Playwright at the University of Delaware. Now
in its second year, the initiative, which brings playwrights to campus
to work with students, was funded by a generous gift from Stroman, an
award-winning Broadway director and choreographer and a 1976 UD alumna.
Bass seems to have been born to be a playwright. Not only was one of
his favorite childhood toys a set of vocabulary flashcards, but he also
spent a lot of time deliberately listening in on adult conversations.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
UD Resident Ensemble Players actors (from left) Rene Thornton,
Steve Pelinski and director Hassan El-Amin talk with visiting playwright
Kyle Bass at a rehearsal for the staged reading of Bass play Baldwin
He said he loved hearing the back-and-forth flow of words, paying
attention less to the content of what his parents and others said and
more to the way they talked. He noticed how voices got louder with some
topics, quieter with others and how women, especially, seemed to talk
personally and intensely with one another.
As an undergraduate, Bass majored in English and focused on creative
writing. His musical training led him to an initial interest in writing
poetry, but he was probably already a playwright at heart.
Hed recite his poems into a tape recorder and listen to the sound of them. I was my own audience, he said.
When he tried his hand at short fiction for a class assignment, the
professor suggested that he think about writing for the stage because
his stories had a theatrical style.
Also in college, Bass came to love the theatre. He accompanied a
friend to opening night of a production of the Henrik Ibsen drama Hedda
Gabler and ended up returning to watch all the subsequent performances.
I almost couldnt believe that someone had created everything we
were seeing on the stage, he said. I couldnt get enough of it.
Kyle Bass (left) confers with Matthew Marholin, stage manager for
UDs Resident Ensemble Players, at the rehearsal for Baldwin vs.
Bass, now an assistant professor at Colgate University and associate
artistic director at Syracuse Stage, as well as the author of numerous
plays and screenplays, shared his creative process during two multi-day
visits to UD during fall semester. He will return in the spring to work
again with students.
During a week on campus in October, he spoke with groups of students,
including a class that had read his play Possessing Harriet. Discussing
the play and hearing the students well-thought-out comments and
questions was exciting, he said terrifying, but exciting.
He also led a two-day workshop billed as a playwriting boot camp, in
which interested students were given a writing assignment, which they
then presented and critiqued.
Kyle Bass was an amazing instructor, sophomore Jalen Adams said of
the experience. I really enjoyed the workshop because it gave me the
confidence to practice the craft of playwriting on my own in the future
[and] helped demystify the process for me.
He said his primary interest is in screenwriting. He wanted to
explore some of the similarities and differences between the two genres.
Thats not unusual at UD or on other campuses, Bass said.
I love teaching, and Ive had very good students, he said. But
they often dont have much experience with live theatre and theyre
often much more attuned to the idea of writing for film or television,
which theyve been inundated with their entire lives.
Writing for the stage is a really specific medium, and its
gratifying when you see students learn how to work with the smaller
scale and realize the vital importance of dialogue.
Thats what happened during the workshop for Farid Frisby, a
first-year UD student whos been developing his skills as a screenwriter
and never tried writing a stage play before. He said he quickly became
aware that the kinds of outside elements, such as car chases or
special effects, that are possible in filmmaking are not available to
You are limited to the stage in a play, which means that your
dialogue matters at the end of the day, Frisby said. Overall, the
experience opened my eyes to a new form of writing that I wish to
explore in the future.
When Bass returned to UD in November, he worked with actors in the
Resident Ensemble Players, the Universitys professional acting company,
to perform a staged reading and audience talk-back for his play Baldwin vs. Buckley: The Faith of Our Fathers.
The play re-creates the famous 1965 University of Cambridge debate on
race between esteemed writer James Baldwin, who was outspoken about the
legacy of slavery and racism in America, and noted conservative William
F. Buckley. REP actors and a few UD student actors performed it on
campus in late November.
Bass said he created the play after seeing a video of the debate and
thinking, These two men were both masters of using language. This
should be seen live.
He transcribed the entire debate, including shouts from the audience
and comments from the moderator, to create what has been called a
The play, Bass said, is not my words. Its my arrangement of [Baldwins and Buckleys] words.
John Ernest, the Judge Hugh M. Morris Professor and chair of the
Department of English, said Bass presence on campus offers an exciting
opportunity for students to work with an accomplished playwright over
the course of the year in a variety of collaborative activities.
We are blessed to have Susan Stromans support for this series
devoted to encouraging the future playwrights who will expand the
possibilities for American theatre, he said.
Bass is the author of numerous full-length plays, including
Possessing Harriet, Tender Rain, Bleecker Street and Separated. He is
the co-author of Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo and the author of
numerous one-act plays and screenplays.
He is a two-time recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts
Fellowship, a finalist for the Princess Grace Playwriting Award and a
Pushcart Prize nominee.
His current projects include a new play titled salt/city/blues and
the libretto for an opera based on the life and music of legendary folk
singer and guitarist Libba Cotten, commissioned by the Society for New
From 2005-2018, Bass taught playwriting in Syracuse Universitys
Department of Drama and theatre courses in the Department of African
American Studies. He is now an assistant professor in the Department of
Theater at Colgate University, where he previously served as the Burke
Endowed Chair for Regional Studies.
He earned his master of fine arts degree in playwriting from Goddard College.
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape
Published Dec. 16, 2019