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For playwright, the payoff is better than the paycheck

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WANT TO GO?

"Dead White Males: A Year in the Trenches of Teaching"

WHERE: Davis Fine Arts Theater, West Virginia State University

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday

COST: Free

INFO: 304-766-5110CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Playwright William Missouri Downs sees his play "Dead White Males: A Year in the Trenches of Teaching" as a problem play, a dark comedy that deals with a complicated and contentious social issue.

Downs said, "Basically, it's about how we've empowered students, empowered parents and in doing so, disempowered teachers."

His play will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at the Davis Fine Arts Theater at West Virginia State University. Downs, a former television writer turned author and university professor, will be in attendance opening night.

He'll also give a talk Thursday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. as part of the school's Faculty Lecture Series. The program is in room 103 of the Davis Fine Arts building.

"I'll be talking about my life in Hollywood," he said.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Downs worked as a writer for popular shows like "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," "Amen" and "My Two Dads." One of his film screenplays was even optioned by director Ron Howard, though never produced.

Twenty years ago, Downs dropped out of Hollywood, took teaching jobs at different universities and focused his efforts on theater. Since then, he has directed dozens of productions and penned several books about the stage. So far, more than a dozen of his plays have been produced.

Most of them, he said, deal with philosophical or social issues.

"I try to write plays that have a bit of philosophy or at a bare minimum criticism of society that we can laugh at," he explained.

 "Dead White Males," for example, revolves around "a rookie history teacher who goes from idealist to burnout as she fights insidious internal politics in her effort to truly affect her students."

The play is meant to reveal a problem the audience could be aware of but might not be.

"We go through our lives with problems all around us," he said. "We live with the problems. A play like this, you laugh at the problems, laugh at what's going on, then you go home and maybe do something about it."

Downs said "Dead White Males" isn't the kind of show most people are expecting when they go to a theater.

"Our stages are filled with 'Always, Patsy Cline,'" he said. "Most of our plays don't say anything. Most of our movies don't say anything.

"You go and watch an action/adventure sequence and you know from the beginning that the good guy is going to win and the guy is going to get the girl. You live vicariously for a while and then it's over, but you really don't take away something to think about."

Audiences are used to be solely entertained. They aren't used to being challenged, and Downs thinks that's a waste.

"With entertainment, the goal is to reaffirm the audiences values to make them feel good about who they are and what they believe."

Art challenges that. It's not interested in the audience's opinion.

"An artist says, 'I have something I want to say and my goal is to say it.'"

Art, Downs said, is heavily censored these days, not necessarily because the powers-that-be fear new ideas, but because they want to make it more profitable to sell.

"We'd rather be entertained than learn," he added.

Still, Downs prefers what he does now, what he's done for the last 20 years, to what he did as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. It's a better life.

"I don't miss Hollywood," he said. "The only thing good about it was the money."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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