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From stage to classroom: A USF professor’s lifelong love for playwriting

Assistant professor Mark Leib has been teaching playwriting for over 40 years, first at Harvard Extension School and then USF. ORACLE PHOTO/JUSTIN SEECHARAN

In assistant professor Mark Leib’s mind, every play he puts on will be his last.

“One idea comes to me and I think, ‘I’ll never have another idea, this is the only one that will result in a play,’” he said. “And I’ll write that play thinking it’s the last one I’ll ever write. Then a few months later I’ll have another idea. So it’s one at a time, and it always looks like the last one.”

Leib grew up in Tampa and began writing as a child by constructing poems out of words on his elementary spelling bee list. He continued writing poems as he entered high school, as well as venturing into short stories. However, he didn’t see a career as a writer to be a viable option.

“I thought I was going to be a lawyer,” he said. “I didn’t really want to, but it seemed like the only thing a person who didn’t want to be a doctor could do.”

Writing was never out of reach for him, though. Leib attended Harvard University and contributed to the Harvard Advocate writing poetry and working as an editor.

He wrote just one play in his time as a student, and it was written entirely in poetic verse. It wasn’t until attending the University of Bristol on a fellowship that Leib truly fell in love with playwriting.

“I went to study theater, and wrote a play called ‘Muddle,’” he said. “I saw one of the scenes on stage and I was hooked. I loved seeing my work on stage.”

Returning to the states, Leib struggled to find work as a freelance writer. He found his fortune in the Yale School of Drama, got his master’s degree in playwriting and had his first major break into the American theater scene. His play “Terry by Terry” was the first new American play at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater.

The play garnered good reviews, including one from Newsweek magazine. Leib said that review opened a door to an opportunity he never imagined for himself — rewriting a movie for Universal Studios.

While he did take up the offer, Leib quickly found himself disenchanted with the way movies were being made, and returned to the East coast to focus on playwriting. For the process of bringing a play from the page to the stage, he uses the word “bizarre.”

“When I first started, I thought all I had to do was write a good play and people would come running,” he said. “I was mistaken. My best plays were sometimes rejected by 40 theaters before someone said ‘yes.’

“It’s so unpredictable. At best, everything falls right into your lap. At worst, no one wants to know you.”

The endless process of pitching ideas to theaters only to face rejection has the ability to completely destroy one’s confidence, according to Leib. These days, he said his tracklist helps cushion the blow, but determination is the defining factor.

“I have a track record. I have six plays that have gotten top producers and good reviews, so I know I can do it,” he said. “But when I look at the play that nobody wants, I reread it and say ‘This is good stuff, I’m not gonna give up on it.’ It takes enormous stubbornness.”

As well as a career in playwriting, Leib has also worked as a theater critic. He says this experience has sharpened his writing skill more than anything.

“Before [becoming a critic], I hadn’t decided what I liked and why,” he said. “Coming back to my own blank pages, I had to decide whether I could live up to my standards as a critic or as a writer, which is scary.”

In 1981, Leib took his skills from the stage to the classroom. He began teaching playwriting at the Harvard Extension School and has been a professor ever since. In 1990, he made his return to the Tampa area and began teaching at USF shortly after.

Through teaching, Leib said he has found a new perspective on being a writer and in turn, a better person.

“It’s made me more aware of my principles. In order to teach, I’ve had to really think about things that otherwise were just intuitive,” he said. “It has made me a better critic of my own work. I think that has made me a better person, trying to live up to my standards as a writer.”

Leib’s newest play, “When the Righteous Triumph” sets the Civil Rights movement against the Tampa backdrop. It’s an unconventional location for the topic, and Leib said he’s aware of that. But after researching, he wanted to put the spotlight on this lesser-known part of Florida history.

“I started looking at Tampa Tribune articles from the ‘60s, and there were sit-ins day after day,” he said. “Then I discovered that the man who started the sit-ins, Clarence Fort, was still alive and I was able to talk to him about it. So after doing the research, I wrote the play.”

Though an accomplished teacher, critic, novelist and poet, Leib’s first love will always be playwriting. No matter what theater the play is in, you can find him in the back mouthing all the lines, still getting the same giddy feeling he had the first time the house lights went down.

“I think I have a [pinch me] moment every time,” he said. “I love it. The experience of having a play on stage is so great that it’s worth all the trouble. And there’s not a time that I’ve taken it for granted.”