Oscar (Okkie) Lee Brownstein headshot

This year’s Iowa New Play Festival is dedicated to Oscar “Okkie” Brownstein, who was the first Director of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, which was established out of an existing MFA Program in Playwriting in 1971. 

Okkie was born in 1928. He attended the University of West Virginia but had to withdraw because, it is said, he was too busy editing the humor magazine and playing bridge for money. He was drafted during the Korean War and served as a field artillery specialist. He attended college on the G.I. Bill, earning a B.A. and an M.A. in English from the University of Missouri before going on to earn an M.F.A. in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama and a Ph.D. in Theatre from the University of Iowa. 

Okkie taught English for three years at Binghamton College, State University of New York (SUNY) before being invited to return to the University of Iowa as a theatre professor. He taught courses in dramatic literature and theatre history before becoming Director of the Playwrights Workshop. In the 1970s, the regional theatre movement was growing, along with efforts to support new American plays and playwrights. Okkie sought to create a program that contributed to those efforts. He strengthened its ties to the Writers’ Workshop, employed a “workshop” approach to new play development, offered the country’s first course in dramaturgy, invited professional guest artists into the program, and started the Playwrights Festival. 

Okkie also started and taught Black Action Theatre, a course designed to study and perform plays by African American playwrights, and to bring more students of color into the department. Black Action Theatre (BAT) later became the Darwin Turner Action Theatre, an important educational outreach component of the department.

Lloyd Richards once said that, when he was hired as the new Dean of the Yale School of Drama, he looked around for the individual who knew the most about the teaching of playwriting, and his search led him to Okkie. In 1980 Okkie left Iowa for Yale and ran its M.F.A. Playwriting Program for ten years. During a leave of absence from Yale in 1984-85, he also taught dramatic literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University.

Okkie’s book, Strategies of Drama: The Experience of Form, had a major influence on teachers of playwriting and dramaturgs. In that book, Okkie beautifully analyzes several plays in terms of how they build an experience in the minds of an audience, culminating in a shift of perception. The book has become a primer for the teaching of both playwriting and script analysis.

Okkie advocated the principle that the teaching of playwriting should focus on creating the right conditions in which playwrights can thrive and learn to develop their unique voices in the process of revising their scripts. His impact on his students at both Iowa and Yale is immeasurable. He fostered an entire generation of playwrights and teachers of playwriting. 

Okkie died in Iowa City, where he and his wife Daphna retired, and where Okkie returned home after his departure from the Playwrights Workshop in 1980. We are honored to dedicate this year’s New Play Festival to him.