Traversing the arts: Lina Patel teaches playwriting and the art of creative pursuit

Pomona’s theater department invites working professionals like Lina Patel as visiting professors to teach 5C students concrete skills about their craft.(Courtesy: Lina-Patel)

Acting has long had a reputation as an exceedingly difficult profession to enter. But to Lina Patel, a theater lecturer at Pomona College, acting felt downright easy compared to the writing career that she wanted but didn’t have the courage to pursue. 

“I think I was scared to say I wanted to be a writer,” Patel said. “That just felt overwhelming to me. So I became an actor for a while.” 

Professions like medicine or law offer defined pathways to becoming a doctor or lawyer. But writing required Patel to find her own way, as do many creative fields that students hope to enter. Partly for this reason, Pomona’s theater department invites working professionals as visiting professors to teach 5C students concrete skills about their craft.

“We want to build bridges into the professional world,” explained Carolyn Ratteray, associate professor of theatre at Pomona and co-chair of the theatre department. “There is a real-time understanding of what a career in the chosen field could look like from the direct experiences of our teachers.”

This semester, Patel is on campus teaching Playwriting I. She hopes students will leave with an understanding of their writing process and a love of theater, which can help them uncover their authentic voices.

“If anyone says they want to pursue being a writer or an actor, I’d say A, you’re enough, and B, just completely invest in who you are, get to know yourself,” Patel said.

However, knowing yourself is easier said than done, as Patel’s own biography illustrates, and often involves experimentation and detours along the way.

Patel, who was born in India and grew up in Texas and California, garnered a passion for theater in high school. She focused on acting as an undergraduate at New York University and got a master’s in theater at University of San Diego, in part because this seemed like the most viable career path given her interests. This led to her first role at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1999 in “The Importance of Being Earnest” alongside Patrick Dempsey of “Grey’s Anatomy,” which put her on the map as a professional actor in Los Angeles. 

“The roles I was getting as a woman, as a brown woman, were very unsatisfying,” Patel said. “I was always trying to keep my writing side alive.”

So, she dove into playwriting workshops but initially participated as an actor, reading for parts so that writers could hear their work out loud as a way to get her foot in the door of rooms where writers were working.

“People only knew me as an actor,” she said. 

Here, she met one of her earliest mentors, José Rivera, an acclaimed screenwriter and playwright who has received an Academy Award nomination for his work. Her first play, an adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters, set before the 1947 partition of Bengal,  changed everything, earning her a spot at the year-long Center Theater Group’s writer’s workshop. From there, she received a sizable grant from Yale University’s Binger Center for New Theatre, allowing her to fully focus on her writing. 

“The specificity of voice is what I think creates success as a storyteller. Don’t put yourself in a bubble of people that all think the same as you and talk the same as you. Get out there and love life and then tell your story from your point of view.”

“That was the first moment I was like, oh, I guess I’m transitioning into being a writer now.” 

Since then, Patel has worked on numerous projects, participating in the highly esteemed Warner Brothers Writers Workshop which landed her a job writing for the science-fiction television series “The 100.” Other favorite projects range from the TV show “Krypton,” which explores the story of Superman’s origins, to Ava DuVernay’s “Cherish the Day,” a simple love story set in New Orleans. 

Currently, Patel is working with BET+ on the pilot for an original series she created that explores the intersection of law enforcement and mental health. Patel explained that once you enter the writing world, your day-to-day job varies widely, and can even carry you away from writing, a sometimes bedeviling consequence of success.  

“Ninety percent of your job as a television writer is to pitch ideas. It’s actually not that much writing,” Patel explained. “If my show was picked up, everything would change. Suddenly I’d be the co-showrunner or executive producer hiring writers … like the CEO of a small company.”

Patel still retains creative control over the storytelling, the most important part of writing in her view, which is why she focuses so much on this element in her playwriting class. 

She explained that most western storytelling is based on the Aristotelian structure that includes six elements: plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle and song. But such structures no longer rule the day.

“There have been non-Aristotelian traditions where things don’t have to happen in a linear fashion,” Patel said. “Tony Kushner’s play ‘Angels in America’ is a great example. Kushner was really playing with form and breaks Aristotelian notions of linear time, like an angel crashes through the ceiling.” 

Patel explained that understanding these storytelling forms helps students develop “critical thinking skills” and enables them to “talk about what they’ve seen as opposed to just receiving it passively,” which is the first step of developing one’s own artistic vision.

“The specificity of voice is what I think creates success as a storyteller,” Patel said. “Don’t put yourself in a bubble of people that all think the same as you and talk the same as you. Get out there and love life and then tell your story from your point of view.” 

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