The School of Dramatic Arts briefly caught up with MFA in Dramatic Writing alum Brian James Polak (’14) for a new Q&A series highlighting the accomplishments of the alumni of the USC School of Dramatic Arts.
About the alum
Brian James Polak is a playwright whose works include Henry and the Hippocampus (winner of the Jean Kennedy Smith Award), War Profits (winner of the John Cauble Award), Underground (The Theatre @ Boston Court’s PLAY/ground) and Tales from Tent City (workshopped at Rogers State University and Loyola Marymount). Several of his short plays have been published in Smith & Kraus anthologies and Commonplace Books. He is also currently the marketing and communications manager at The Theatre @ Boston Court and is a member of The Dramatists Guild, The Playwrights Union and the Antaeus Playwrights Lab.
SDA: What was your best USC experience?
Polak: The workshop production of my play Tales from Tent City during the second year of the program was an incredible gift. I was fortunate to be matched with director Larissa Kokernot, who is both a talent and a treasure. This was also my first exposure to the talented undergraduate actors. I must have had 100 actors audition for the play. I was astounded at the level of talent in the school. The all-student cast, production and design team came together with Larissa’s leadership to create a fantastic production. The play has since gone on to a workshop at Loyola Marymount University, and another college production at Rogers State University in Oklahoma.
SDA: Was there a class or professor that was particularly meaningful or influential during your time at the School?
Polak: Luis Alfaro was the primary reason I decided to apply to the MFA program. His teaching and mentorship were invaluable to my growth as a playwright. I can literally draw a line from specific plays I’ve written directly to Oliver Mayer, Velina Hasu Houston, and Paula Cizmar. Each of these professors had enormous contributions to plays I would never have written if not for their guidance. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the classes I had with Frank Dwyer and Meiling Cheng. I often wished I had the opportunity to spend more time in the classroom with both of these brilliant minds.
SDA: What lessons have you been able to apply from your SDA training to your professional life?
Polak: I became a better listener and better collaborator since my time in school. Additionally, there is a spirit of generosity I learned in school there, which I carry with me today. I care deeply about fostering the creation of theatre. Whether it is a play I’m working on, or somebody else’s project, I am doing my best to help connect people, and provide a hand whenever I find the opportunity.
SDA: What do you miss about college, SDA specifically?
Polak: Although I don’t think I was a particularly skilled Teaching Assistant, I do miss the time spent in the classroom with undergraduate students. I was blown away, and intimidated, by their smarts every week.
SDA: Was there a particular production you felt taught you the most?
Polak: A group of undergrad students produced Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice on the lawn outside of the Bing during my second year. It was directed by Vicki Pearl, who was a freshman at the time. I was astounded by the ingenuity of the students who created this production in a location I had walked past at least 100 times, never imagining it to be a place where one could stage a play. It opened my eyes to what a theatre needs to be a theatre; imagination.
SDA: What is your advice for current SDA students?
Polak: Do the work and engage with your professors as well as guests brought to campus. These are opportunities you might never have again, and the reason you are in school in the first place.
Tip: Send thank you notes to guests you meet. I mean the kind you write with actual ink and mail in the actual mail. You never know when you might need to connect with them again and it can go a long way to helping them remember you… and it’s just a kind thing to do.
SDA: What exciting projects are you currently working on?
Polak: I grew up in New Hampshire, and have always had a soft spot in my heart for Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I have spent the last few years wondering what Grovers Corners (the fictional setting of Wilder’s play) would be like today, and then started to think about the plight of my hometown in NH. I decided to write my Our Town, titled Welcome to Keene, NH, which borrows heavily from Wilder’s. My dream would be to have both run in rep at a theatre in Keene, NH.
I also host a monthly playwright-centered podcast, produced by LA Stage Alliance, called The Subtext. It gives me the opportunity to have long, broad-ranging conversations with playwrights I greatly admire.
SDA: Bonus question: Do you remember the moment you found out you got into USC?
Polak: It was May of 2011, and I was standing in The Theatre @ Boston Court’s greenroom, where I work full time. I remember answering the phone and hearing Sergio Ramirez ask, “Hi Brian, what are you doing for the next three years?” My friend Kirsa Rein, who was in her second year of the program at the time, was standing in the office with Sergio at the time. I’ll always remember that because Kirsa was an important element of my seeking to apply to USC. It was one of the best moments I can recall.