David Ives Offers 'Lab' for Playwrights, Just Off Broadway

Photograph: Playwright David Ives.

So, did Dr. David Rosenbaum recommend you for this teaching job?

David Ives, the playwright and newly appointed adjunct professor at Columbia University, laughed.

Rosenbaum, a figure of his fertile imagination, is the unseen Columbia professor whose laboratory experiment to find out if "three monkeys typing into infinity will sooner or later produce Hamlet" prompts some of the most hilarious laughter from audiences at Ives' antic Off-Broadway hit, All in the Timing.

"It's more as if I'm Rosenbaum," Ives said. "I have seven primates in my class whom I have to induce to write 'Hamlet,' by hook or by crook."

Hailed as the theatre world's liveliest new talent, Ives is teaching playwriting this spring to second-year M.F.A. candidates in the Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theatre Studies at the School of the Arts. The critically acclaimed production of his six one-act comedies All in the Timing opened at Off Broadway's Primary Stages over a year ago and propelled the playwright to instant celebrity. The season's sensation, the show was moved to the nearly 300-seat John Houseman Theatre, where it continues to play to full houses.

New Play in March

Ives received the Outer Critics Circle's John Gassner Playwriting Award and a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Play for the production. More Ives is on the way for New York audiences: His new full-length play Don Juan in Chicago is set to premiere in March at Primary Stages.

A writer whose originality and skill with language have won raves from critics Richard Corliss in Time, John Simon in New York Magazine, Ben Brantley and Vincent Canby in The New York Times and many others, Ives, 44, is also an extraordinary teacher, say his Columbia colleagues.

Arnold Aronson, professor and chairman of the Division of Theatre Arts, and Romulus Linney, the playwright and professor of writing who is adviser to the playwriting program, both were impressed with Ives when he served as guest moderator at an evening of readings of student works-in-progress last year.

"He showed great sensitivity to the students and was able to empathize with them," said Linney.

"He did so well that we thought we would ask him to teach the spring course in playwriting--part of our effort to draw on the tremendous reservoir of talent in New York. He's a very fine teacher--and not too many playwrights are."

Playwriting Is Harder

"I've taught both screenwriting and playwriting," said Ives in a recent interview, "and playwriting is both much harder and much more rewarding. One can teach people how to tell a story in cinematic ways, but theater is a much more elusive craft. Each play is different from every other play in a way that every movie is not different from every other movie. Writing a play, you start with less, so more is demanded of you. It's as if you have to not only write a symphony, but invent the instruments as well. I love it--teaching--and can't wait to dig in."

Ives, a Chicago native, has been writing plays since he was a student at Northwestern University. He came to New York when Circle Repertory Company produced an early work, "Canvas," and stayed on when a job as an editor at Foreign Affairs opened up.

But he continued to write plays and short stories and enrolled in Yale Drama School in 1981, receiving the M.F.A. three years later. Slowly, his short plays began to be produced. Several of the sketches in All in the Timing--Words, Words, Words; Sure Thing; Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread; and Variations on the Death of Trotsky--were staged at Manhattan Punch Line's Festival of One-Act Comedies. The Universal Language saw its world premiere and The Philadelphia its first New York showing.) His two-act Ancient History was produced by Primary Stages in 1988, and Ensemble Studio Theatre staged Mere Mortals and Long Ago and Far Away in 1989 and 1993, respectively.

More Plays

There are lots more Ives plays around, and 14 of them have been published in one volume by Vintage Press under the title All in the Timing. He also has written several "End Paper" essays for The New York Times Magazine.

And the accolades keep piling up. Young Playwrights Inc. has just named him winner of the 1994 George and Elisabeth Marton Playwriting Award, an honor that carries a $1,000 prize, and New York Magazine named him one of the "100 Smartest New Yorkers."

But Ives refuses to be impressed, saying of his inclusion on the list: "Lists are anti-democratic, discriminatory, elitist, and sometimes the print is too small."


Columbia University Record -- February 10, 1995 -- Vol. 20, No. 16