Tag Archive | "Avram Theater"

Storytelling in Southampton

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Wendy Suzuki

Wendy Suzuki performing with The Moth in May.

By Mara Certic

In a world in which technology seems to be taking over, entertainment often becomes interactive and distracting, desperately trying to grip the ADD generation with graphics and fanfare. But for over 15 years, a group of writers, scientists, criminals, musicians, thinkers and average Joes have come together under the guise of “The Moth” to provide the public with something raw: a simple story.

As the story goes, writer and poet George Dawes Green spent the summer evenings of his youth sitting on his porch, telling stories with his friends, as moths would flock through a hole in the screen door toward a nearby light. This group of friends began calling themselves The Moths and many years later, Mr. Dawes Green started “The Moth” in New York City in an attempt to recreate the low-key nights he spent in his native Georgia. Since then, it has become a nonprofit group dedicated solely to the art of storytelling. “The Moth” offers a weekly podcast and a radio show and has heard stories from speakers as diverse a bunch as The Moldy Peaches’ Kimya Dawson, Garrison Keillor, Ethan Hawke and Salmon Rushdie.

Originally based out of New York City, “The Moth” now runs over a dozen storytelling programs throughout the United States and for the very first time this week, it will come to the East End. On Friday, July 18, as a part of the Southampton Writers Conference at Stony Brook University, writer Adam Gopnik will host an evening of five storytellers from “The Moth” with very different backgrounds.

The theme for each story is the same: “fish out of water.” Friday’s five fish-out-of-water range in profession from a fashion commentator to a neuroscientist, with writers and performers punctuating the night of first-person stories.

Special Projects Coordinator for Stony Brook Southampton Kathie Russo has been involved with “The Moth” ever since it began. She was married to writer and actor Spalding Gray who told one of the very first stories for “The Moth.” She previously worked as a booking agent, where she helped get the storytellers their first gig on the West Coast. Since her husband’s death, she has told her very own Moth story, which she described as “daunting.”

“And I told a very short story,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for these people to tell an 11-minute story [without notes].”

It is that process that differentiates the oral tradition from the written word, according to Moth member and journalist Ted Conover. “You have to open up this direct channel from your brain to your mouth. It’s intense and it is cathartic,” he said in a phone interview on Monday. “It’s a cool thing for a writer to get to do.”

Mr. Conover has a wealth of tales from his many inquiries into worlds unknown. When he was still in college he traveled on freight trains around the country to learn about the last remaining hobos. Years later, Mr. Conover spent a year working as a Corrections Officer at Sing-Sing Prison to get some insight into a very unfamiliar and undocumented life.

“It’s not just any story I want to tell. I’m especially interested in stories that need to be told and aren’t easy to tell if you’re from a different world. Prison is an example of that. Prison is full of stories that don’t get told,” he said.

“I like putting myself in these difficult situations and learning about them firsthand. This is something I did long before I ever heard of ‘The Moth.’ ‘The Moth’ is really great because it gives the writer a chance to tell the story in a different way.”

“We’re trained not to tell stories this way in science,” said Wendy Suzuki who told her first story with “The Moth” earlier this year. “I’m a neuroscientist who studies the neurobiology of memory,” she said. “And the story’s about my dad, who developed dementia and how I deal with that.”

Ms. Suzuki’s story talks about the difficulty and frustration she felt, being an expert in a disease that still has no cure. “I know how it works,” she said. “But there’s nothing I can do to cure it.”

Of “The Moth,” she said, “it was a great experience. It’s very emotional, but it feels very releasing to be able to share that.”

“The Moth” “brings storytelling back to the forefront,” Ms. Russo said, “which is where it should be.”

The evening is sure to entertain technophiles and luddites alike. As Ms. Russo said: “It’s nice to just be still and listen to a story.”

“The Moth” will take place at Stony Brook Southampton’s Avram Theater, starting at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased at themoth.org.


Author, Author! Young writers hone their craft at Stony Brook Southampton

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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. 

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. 

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.

 “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.” 

“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.

 “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. 

“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.” 

“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.

Above: Pierson students Hannah Kaminski and Gabrielle Gardiner rehearse a play by Madeline Webber on the Avram Theater stage.  Jessica Adamowicz photo