Northwestern Prof. Zayd Dohrn wins playwriting prize, discusses rewards of teaching



Prof. Zayd Dohrn

Matthew Choi, Copy Chief


Prof. Zayd Dohrn occupies a small office in the corner of Annie May Swift Hall. His demeanor is calm, his voice tempered. But the award-winning playwright is not shy about tackling the contentious in his work.

Dohrn, associate chair of the Radio, Television and Film Department, is the recipient of the 2016 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play for his play, “The Profane.” The award, named after the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, biennially recognizes excellence in American theater in two categories — Promising New American Play and Outstanding New American Play — and includes a private reception for the recipients and a $20,000 prize.

“The Profane” focuses on the story of two immigrant families — one traditional and religious, the other secular and westernized — and their struggles balancing integration and heritage in the United States. As two college-aged children of the two families fall in love, the families must test their tolerance and loyalty.

“It’s kind of like a Romeo and Juliet story for our times, because it deals with these two families grappling with what it means to be American, what it means to be believers, what it means to be free thinkers,” Dohrn said. “Like a lot of my work, it’s an attempt to make these big issues feel intimate and close and familiar to us.”

Dohrn, who is also associate director of the MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen program, began writing “The Profane” following the 2015 terrorist attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical publication. Many writers and critics began engaging in discussion following the incident, Dohrn said, with some decrying the attack as a direct attack on free speech, while others qualified the attacks with arguments that the publication had been irreverent and Islamophobic. The nuance between these two sides, respect for both religion and secularism, inspired Dohrn in his writing.

Dohrn addresses complex problems in his writing with sophistication and nuance, Prof. Dave Tolchinsky, chairman of RTVF and director of MFA in Writing for Screen and Stage, said in an email.

“While his work is certainly political, it is always deeply rooted in character,” Tolchinsky wrote in the email. “His writing asks the central question: Can the private self ever exist separate from our social and political identities? Indeed, it’s not just entertaining. His work has philosophical import.”

To say Dohrn has experience in the arts would be an understatement. In addition to a collection of award-winning plays under his name, the Brown University graduate has an MFA in dramatic writing from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and was a Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwriting Fellow at The Juilliard School.

Dohrn came to Northwestern in 2011 to teach in the playwriting program at the School of Communication. Though initially apprehensive about leaving the New York theater scene, Dohrn said he was eager to engage in Chicago theater and teach young playwrights.

Fellow faculty and students admire Dohrn for both his work and his support for the department, fellow playwright and MFA Prof. Thomas Bradshaw said. Bradshaw, who is also among the core faculty in the MFA program, has worked with Dohrn for six years and said Dohrn has been a consistently fantastic colleague.

“He is a tireless advocate for the work of his colleagues and students,” Bradshaw said. “When he holds office hours, there is always a line out the door.”

Just the same, among the best parts of being at NU include working with other accomplished faculty and watching students grow to become independent artists, Dohrn said.

“The amazing thing about teaching here is so many faculty members in our department, and so many of the students here frankly, are this really impressive hybrid of academics and artists,” Dohrn said. “They’re students, but they’re also making their films and producing their plays. They’re teachers, professors, but they’re also producing documentaries, writing plays, directing films.”

“The Profane” is slated to open in New York on March 17 of next year.

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