The Scarsdale Inquirer – Hometown newspaper of Scarsdale, New York 10583


June 6, 2011

Scarsdale turns out to hear Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin

Attention would-be playwrights: It’s back to the dinner table for good conversation and add Aristotle’s “Poetics” to your summer reading list. That was just some of the takeaway from an inspiring evening with Oscar-winning screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin on Thursday, May 26, in a fundraiser for the Scarsdale High School Drama Club.

Sorkin, class of 1979 and a “distinguished alumnus” of SHS, returned to Scarsdale where his parents still live, at the invitation of the Drama Club president, junior Justine Gelfman. Sorkin was active in the Drama Club during his high school years.

Sorkin came in with Gelfman to appreciative applause in the sold-out house. After an introduction and thanks to Sorkin’s parents who were in the audience, Gelfman noted the “team effort” of putting the program together and thanked all involved, including faculty adviser Adrienne Meyer. The event began with a screening of four short clips of “particularly moving scenes,” as Gelfman described them, from Sorkin’s work: “The Social Network,” “The West Wing,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and “A Few Good Men.” The mention of longtime SHS social studies teacher Werner Feig by a “West Wing” character drew cheers from the audience.

Gelfman moderated a Q&A session with audience members lining up in the aisles at microphones to speak to the celebrated screenwriter. She asked the first question: “What’s your fondest memory?”

Sorkin said that outside of his family, the SHS Drama Club “had the biggest impact on me.” He said he was “devoted” to the Drama Club and “I found what I loved doing.”

In response to another question Sorkin spoke of the professionalism of the now defunct Scarsdale Summer Music Theater, calling it “an extension of the Drama Club.”

At once humble, erudite and down-to-earth, Sorkin engaged the audience with the story of his rise to the top echelons of Hollywood and Broadway and his insider insights.

He credited his parents with sparking his love of theater and interest in dialogue. “My parents took me to see plays all the time.” He described seeing Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” at the impressionable age of 9. “I didn’t understand the story, but the dialogue was like music to me,” he said.

It was at the family dinner table that Sorkin honed his skills at “smart conversation.” Sorkin said that in his family, “someone using one word when you could have used 10 isn’t trying very hard.” He also credited his friends, all of whom, he said, were smarter than he.

Sorkin originally set out to be an actor, earning a B.F.A. in theater from Syracuse in 1983. It was while bartending in New York City that Sorkin, renting a futon in his ex-girlfriend’s living room, was left with fellow Scarsdalian David Handelman’s typewriter for the weekend. He began banging out scraps of dialogue. “I loved it,” he said. “I wrote all night long.” At that moment, though Sorkin still thought of himself as an actor “who was going to write a little bit,” his first full-length play, “A Few Good Men,” began taking shape. He wrote on cocktail napkins and whenever he had a chance and then experienced “incredible luck” in getting the play produced. Sorkin was 28 when “A Few Good Men” made its Broadway debut. The hit play went on to become a smash movie starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise and spawned the catchphrase “You can’t handle the truth.”

A very “cool” moment happened at the table reading for the film when Sorkin heard, not a Nicholson impersonator, but the real Jack Nicholson speaking the words he had written.

He described a pivotal moment early in his career. He had written a one-act play for a competition in Manhattan and acted in it with Nathan Lane. Watching how good Lane was made him realize he was a better writer than an actor.

Sorkin was asked how he figured out what the “message” was to be in “The Social Network,” the film for which he won his Oscar for best screenplay.

“I don’t start that way,” Sorkin said. “It’s not the right recipe. Go back to storytelling.” He advised young writers to read the “rules of drama” in the 64 pages of Aristotle’s “Poetics.” There has to be a goal and an obstacle to overcome and the hero has “gotta want it or we have to want it for him,” he said. Writing the Mark Zuckerberg character was the first time he had written an anti-hero whom he “had to defend,” he said.

The biggest disappointment that he felt he didn’t deserve was the short-lived Broadway play “The Farnsworth Invention.” The play got rave reviews from critics — except for Ben Brantley of The New York Times, “the only one who counts,” Sorkin said.

His advice for students who want to break into screenwriting?

“Just like the violin, it takes practice. Write all the time and read screenplays. Become a good diagnostician, find out why [a script] didn’t work … Get a job as a writer’s assistant and work your way up. Write a spec script. Don’t be shy about using contacts you have.”

And welcome advice in some corners, “Forgive your parents.”

Sorkin told students “to support classmates” and also said, “Covet your salad days. Use them to take chances. For anyone this is the time to fail and fall on your face. You went for it.”

Sorkin thanked Gelfman for the “great welcome” and called her “a credit to this place.”

The Drama Club presented Sorkin with a framed collection of Drama Club programs from his years at SHS.

The winner of the raffle of an autographed script of “The Social Network” was art history teacher Elizabeth Colleary.

The evening with Aaron Sorkin raised $14,868 for the Drama Club.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


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