By Annette Hinkle
It’s become an annual tradition on the Avram Theater stage at Stony Brook Southampton — the presentation of a series of one act plays written by local high school students as the culmination of the university’s Young Artists and Writers Project (YAWP) High School Playwriting Program.
Sag Harbor’s Emma Walton Hamilton is the executive director of YAWP — which also offers other programs to teens in screenwriting, poetry, essay, fiction and visual arts. She has been working with kids and playwrighting for more than two decades (as a cofounder of Bay Street Theatre she started a young playwrights program there in the early 1990s). If there’s one thing Hamilton’s learned over the years, it’s that when it comes to teaching teenagers the art of playwrighting, nothing is for certain.
“It is a totally evolving curriculum that evolves every year,” says Walton. “We find things that work and things that don’t work. One piece that’s consistently challenging is conveying the notion of action. The difference between something that reads well on paper and plays well on stage is action.”
Hamilton notes it’s a conversation that is constantly brought up in the curriculum by the YAWP teaching artists in the classroom.
“You can have two talking heads on stage, with great words and glorious ideas, but if nothing is happening in terms of conflict or visually in terms of action on stage, it’s not interesting,” says Hamilton. “Action is not car races or train wrecks, it’s affecting change on one individual or another — creating creative tension.”
YAWP is taught by directors, actors and writers affiliated with the university’s MFA in Creative Writing and Literature program who spend two months in “residence” working with local students in the classroom as they develop one act plays. A second program is offered for students who are housed on campus and cover the same territory in an action packed weeklong retreat setting. Every student in YAWP writes a two character play, but only one or two from each school are selected for production. The plays are then cast with students from the same school and a theater professional is brought in to direct.
This Saturday at 7 p.m., six plays written by the 100 or so students who participated in YAWP’s high school playwriting residency this fall will presented at Stony Brook Southampton. The students in the program are from Bridgehampton, Pierson, Southampton and Eastport South Manor high schools as well as the Shinnecock Nation and the Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies (FLAGS) in the Bronx.
At Pierson High School, the program was offered as part of Melissa Luppi’s creative writing class and led by YAWP teaching artist Will Chandler, and in the end, sophomore Evan Johnson’s play was chosen to be produced for this weekend’s festival.
Johnson’s play, which as of yet is unnamed, tells the story of Lacy, a superstar singer who’s crumbling under the pressure placed on her by the media, her parents and her publicists.
“She turns to drugs, and right before her show, does her coke and hallucinates,” explains Johnson. “She’s visited by an extravagant vocal coach who’s a little twisted, but in the end, she gets tot the root of her problem.”
In this production, Pierson sophomore Oona Baker plays Lacey, while freshman Alex Kamper takes on the role of Cid, the mysterious and somewhat devilish vocal coach who torments, tempts and prods Lacey as she sorts out her problematic life. East Hampton actress and director Kate Mueth is directing the play and admits she is impressed by what she sees in Johnson’s script.
“Whether it’s in high school or on Broadway, if you have a great play to start with that’s the launching point for something wonderful on stage,” explains Mueth. “Evan’s a lovely little playwright — and smart — the piece is right there. There are no holes. This is a quick process and it’s a hard process. To get a student to write something so clean and succinct is kind of rare.”
“That makes it easier for me and the actors.”
For Kamper, having the opportunity to work as an actor with Mueth on material that’s a bit edgy has been an eye opener.
“It’s great to work with a new director,” says Kamper. “I’m getting so many skills and growing as an actor with Kate. I’ve never considered acting a serious career path, but I enjoy doing it. It’s nice to have a new experience.”
For the record, there are no “off limits” subjects with YAWP, and Johnson’s play delves into difficult material — drug use, stardom and stress. Mueth explains that the young actors and the playwright have all approached the project with a sense of professionalism that she finds impressive.
“We have to have freedom so these two [actors] feel comfortable with me and each other,” explains Mueth. “The subject matter is huge, that’s important. If they’re not comfortable and relaxed and don’t trust me, we can’t talk about what’s going on in this scene. It’s so fast and furious. These guys are working their butts off and doing good work — and it’s mind blowing.”
And if there’s something in the script they’re not sure about, Johnson, the playwright, is always close at hand.
“We get to go the source…it’s a good team effort,” adds Mueth.
The YAWP High School Playwriting Festival is December 14 at 7 p.m. at the Avram Theater, in the Fine Arts Building on the campus of Stony Brook Southampton, 239 Old Montauk Highway, Southampton. Tickets are free and can be reserved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.