Rehearsals got underway in earnest earlier this week, and as lighting technicians scaled ladders and inserted gels, costuming choices were made and the sound system adjusted. On stage, Ben Stein and Madeline Kiss, a pair of middle school students from Ross School, worked with director Stephen Hamilton on blocking as they ran through the lines of “Unholy Night,” a play written by fellow student Jon Lesser.
This Saturday at 7 p.m., Ben, Madeline and other students from five area middle schools — including Pierson — will present nine original short plays, the culminating event of a seven week workshop which began in February.Â
This scene of local students working with seasoned theater professionals is a familiar one — for more than a decade, Bay Street Theatre has offered the Young Playwrights Program in which middle and high schoolers create and produce their own original plays. What’s different this time around is that the theater in question is not Bay Street, but rather the Avram Theater at Stony Brook Southampton.
It’s all part of YAWP (Young American Writers Project) a new component of Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA in Writing and Literature program. This weekend’s middle school performance represents the first public event for YAWP, which is designed to bring all forms of writing into the classroom via teaching artists who work with students in honing their ideas into viable pieces.Â
If the idea is familiar, so too are the principals involved in the new venture — several of them came to Stony Brook after leaving Bay Street Theatre last year. YAWP’s executive director is Emma Walton Hamilton (a co-founder of Bay Street along with her husband, Stephen Hamilton) and YAWP’s program director is Will Chandler, Bay Street’s former education director. Another Bay Street alum, Bill Burford, an instructor and director at Stony Brook University, will be producing the program’s inaugural performance this weekend.
The seeds of YAWP were sown last summer when Robert Reeves, director of the MFA in Writing and Literature program at Stony Brook Southampton, learned that the Bay Street Theatre had opted to limit their playwrighting program to the high school level.
“After Bay Street Theatre decided not to continue with the middle school component of their playwrighting program, Reeves saw an opportunity to fill a need,” says Emma Walton Hamilton, the keynote speaker at the university’s children’s literature conference last summer.
Â “It’s a tremendous MFA program,” says Chandler who taught screenwriting at the conference. “The middle school program was orphaned. He [Reeves] had heard this program needed a home, and said, ‘Why not bring it here?’ His vision was to expand it beyond playwrighting — to a whole new curriculum.”Â
“Bob is very visionary about what he’d like to see happen to the arts,” offers Hamilton,
At Stony Brook Southampton, YAWP is not just an acronym, it is also a clever nod to Walt Whitman who used the phrase “barbaric yawp” in his poem “Song of Myself.” It’s a fitting reference given that in addition to playwrighting, poetry is another discipline that YAWP will be bringing into classrooms, along with essay writing, screenwriting and fiction — the MFA program’s other primary writing focuses.
“The faculty members are writing the curriculums for each individual discipline,” explains Chandler. “Lou Ann Walker, a well recognized writer, is creating the fiction and personal essay portion – which is important for students getting ready to take the SATs. Poet Julie Sheehan, who recently won the Whiting Award, will create the poetry curriculum.”
“In fall, we’ll add high schools and they can chose from all sorts of writing from seven week residencies to one day workshops,” says Hamilton. “For each of those programs, the curriculum will be created by the person who heads that discipline. All these incredibly gifted writers who are part of the MFA program will be staffing it.”
“There are a lot of ways we can go beyond what we were able to do at Bay Street,” adds Hamilton who, along with Stephen Hamilton, will direct a playwrighting conference as part of the writer’s program this summer. The conference will function in a writing lab setting and participants will be able to take advantage of having members of the Ensemble Studio Theatre from Manhattan on hand to try out their new work.
“That’s been the premiere developmental theater for years in New York and it’s where we met,” explains Hamilton. “Steve and I ran their summer program. They were looking for a new summer home, they’ll be in residence all summer at Stony Brook Southampton, and will staff the conference with actors and directors. It’s very exciting.”
Another important component of YAWP is the classroom experience the program will provide MFA students who will work with the middle and high school students.
“One of the things grad students want is teaching experience,” says Chandler. “Prior to this program, there were only so many courses a grad student could TA in or teach. This vastly expands that. As we have different kinds of programs and more schools, there will be more opportunities for those getting their MFAs to get into the classroom.”
As far as the playwrighting portion of YAWP is concerned, though the program resembles Bay Street’s in that workshops are offered in the classroom and culminate in a single night of performances, Hamilton notes there are important new elements in the Stony Brook program.
Â “We rewrote the curriculum and we started with a framework of Aristotle’s poetics — the first articulation of dramatic concepts and writing,” explains Hamilton. “It’s incredibly relevant even today. We took that thesis and used is as the structure for the curriculum. We used it in writing exercises and improv exercises. We also have incredible teaching artists, lots of them with theater background and new ideas.”
For Chandler, one of the most important things about the new program is the validity it will bring to the lives of students — particularly those in middle school whose opinions and feelings are frequently overlooked by the adults in their lives.Â
“I feel really passionate about this,” he says. “We may be teaching dramatic writing in the form of playwrighting, but what we’re really teaching is that each student has a voice.”
“We’ve spoken at length with educators, they have said this age is tremendously critical for expressing their personal voice,” says Chandler. “In any case, for me on a personal note, this is the age I remember. The school I attended required we write a play. It scared the heck out of me. But it unlocked something and once it’s unlocked you can’t lock it up again. I was inspired to become a screenwriter.”
“When someone is treated with respect and there’s an expectation that you can do this, you rise to the occasion,” he adds.
Robert Reeves has long been interested in reach out to younger members of the community through the MFA program and he explains why he feels it’s important to expand the curriculum now.
“I think our ambitions to grow arise primarily from the fact that Stony Brook, as our parent institution, is being well supported, and there’s an opportunity to do this now,” says Reeves. “We’ve been thinking of ways to expand and efforts to have young writers in the program. We have the facilities now and part of the mission is to grow a program that has national prominence in the arts — an opportunity to do theater is one of them. I see Avram in such good shape and people who have the talent and ability. It seems a natural extension of what we do.”
“This is a very good match for our program,” he adds.
These days, given the rapidly changing face of many forms of media reliant on the written word, including journalism and publishing, with the MFA program at Stony Brook, Reeves sees not obstacles but opportunities to guide the next generation of writers.
“Introducing students to the creative process is more important than ever,” says Reeves. “Like any change, there are good things and bad things. Production of literature has always been sensitive to changes in technology. If the bad news changes publishing and the way business is conducted, the good news is technology represents the democratization of writing. If there is a decline in gatekeepers, more people can be writers.”Â
“People who write well will be more important than ever,” he adds. “We’re just at the beginning of great change. We support the people who still care about the things we care about – we feel writing is the most complicated way you can engage the world. We help people achieve what they want in writing.”
The Young American Writers Project (YAWP) features plays by middle school students from Bridgehampton, Pierson, Shelter Island, Ross School and Eastport South Manor at Stony Brook Southampton’s Avram Theater on Saturday, April 25 at 7 p.m. Admission is free. To reserve seats, visit www.stonybrook.edu/southampton.