Stony Brook Southampton’s conferences in writing, children’s literature, screenwriting and now playwriting are in full swing and Robert Reeves, director of both the Southampton Writers Conference and the MFA in writing and Literature Program at Stony Brook Southampton, tells us what is new this year, ways the community can enjoy the fruits of the students’ labor and how the program will evolve.
What is different about this year’s conference and what has remained the same?
What’s new? We’ve added a Playwriting Conference this summer that runs concurrently with the other conferences throughout the month of July. We’re also sponsoring in residence a distinguished theater company, Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST). EST will be working with our playwriting workshops, developing their own work, and presenting two staged readings open to the public. That’s something else new — evening events. We have many more theater events this summer in our newly renovated Avram Theater.
What’s the same? As it happens, for the past two years, with Stony Brook University as the new institutional parent for the Southampton campus, one constant has been our continuous growth. The MFA in Writing and Literature sponsors a range of programs, including the summer conferences, and all of these are growing in scope, quality, and reputation. In addition to adding Conferences in Screenwriting, Children’s Literature, and Playwriting, we’ve turned The Southampton Review into a first-rate literary journal. We’ve begun the Young American Writers Project (YAWP), and we will be expanding our offerings the in the fall. We’re building a significant presence at the Stony Brook facility in Manhattan, so students can earn an MFA by combining course work in Manhattan and Southampton.
The faculty this year is especially strong. How do you put together your list of faculty?
Our faculty has always featured writers and teachers of the first rank. This summer there are simply more of them. What is common to all members of our faculty is this: they are accomplished, working writers who enjoy teaching and are good at it. We also have a family feel to our group, and our writers actually like each other. As for recruiting, it’s not difficult to entice writers to come to the Hamptons. Our reputation for attracting very talented students doesn’t hurt, either.
It seems as if there are also a number of local writers (Alan Alda, Marsha Norman, Emma Walton Hamilton) on the faculty this year. Was this a conscious choice?
We’ve always drawn on the enormous reservoir of talent on the East End, writers who live here either year-round or part-time. Roger Rosenblatt has been a mainstay of MFA faculty, along with Ursula Hegi, Melissa Bank, Marsha Norman, Alan Alda, Jules Feiffer, Lou Ann Walker, and Julie Sheehan, among many others. Just in the past year we’ve recruited local screenwriter and producer Annette Chandler to develop our screenwriting program, as well as theater luminaries Emma Walton Hamilton and Steve Hamilton to lead the playwriting effort. The result is we’ll have many distinguished playwrights, actors, and screenwriters joining us: Craig Lucas, Emily Mann, Robert Brustein, Lanford Wilson, Andrew Bienan, Christina Lazaridi, Ken Friedman, Peter Reigert, Alec Baldwin, Jon Robin Baitz.
Has the recession led to decreased enrollment and how is the college handling that?
I wasn’t sure what to expect with the dire economic news, but as it happens, we have the highest enrollment ever for this summer, with over 240 students registered, and dozens of faculty and distinguished visitors. Students apply to particular workshops — the novel, poetry, creative nonfiction, for example — and admission is competitive by writing sample. This summer most of our workshops have been filled with waiting lists for some time now. How to explain this? We may be at a time when people are assessing what is truly important, and in our view, there is nothing more important or lasting or meaningful than the creative process that leads to literary art.
At the close of the workshops, is there an opportunity for the students to share their work with the community?
The participant reading is on the last Saturday of the conference, July 25. It’s a daylong reading and all members of all workshops read, and the playwriting workshops put together special staged performances. In many ways, it is the most memorable single day of the conference. Unfortunately, it is restricted to workshop participants. The evening before, Friday, July 24, is the launch of The Southampton Review, featuring a reading by faculty member, and former US Poet Laureate, Billy Collins. For members of the community, that is one not to be missed.
Every year it seems the Southampton Writers’ Program expands to encompass new forms (most recently, screenwriting and children’s literature). How do you expect the program to evolve in the future?
We’ll be growing in many ways, but here are two areas in particular: Our “Manhattan Track” for the MFA promises to be hugely successful, offering the opportunity to earn an MFA by combining course work at Stony Brook Manhattan during fall and spring terms, with summer work at Stony Brook Southampton. Given the quality of our faculty, and the affordability of state tuition, I can’t think of another program that can match that.
Our second area of growth will be in collaboration with our new Dean and Vice President, Dr. Mary Pearl, a truly exceptional leader whose vision for science and the arts puts us very much at the forefront of interdisciplinary education. Our first step is to design for Southampton undergraduates an innovative minor in creative writing.