By Emily J. Weitz
On the sprawling campus of Stony Brook Southampton, a steady buzz can be heard. While many who drive past on Route 27 wonder what’s to become of the campus, the truth is it’s already on its way. With 300 students freshly sated from a summer of creating everything from novels to short films, the secret is leaking out. With another hundred enrolled in the year-round MFA Program, the campus promises to keep buzzing deep into the winter months.
“Part of the excitement,” says Associate Provost Robert Reeves, “is that a program like ours shows that the promise of the campus can be realized.”
Utilizing the brand new housing, the state-of-the-art library, the spacious theatre, and all the other newly updated facilities, the Stony Brook Southampton team plans to grow from the already-successful MFA in Writing and Literature to a Graduate Arts campus that encourages the pursuit of creative work from novels to films, from poetry to theatre.
“We’re expanding the MFA model to enter arenas of theatre and film and ultimately the visual arts,” says Reeves. “What the model is and why we’ve been successful is that we have the most distinguished faculty as part of our MFA program because people want to be a part of this.”
He gestures to the walls of his sunny office, adorned with photos of Billy Collins, Roger Rosenblatt, Meg Wolitzer, and the late Frank McCourt, and decorated with sketches by Jules Feiffer, all beloved faculty members.
Just as the programs in writing have drawn in some of the brightest writers of our time, Reeves is confident the programs in the arts will as well. Indeed, in the realm of theatre, it’s already been done. With Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman and Pulitzer Prize Nominee Jon Robin Baitz on faculty, the Playwriting Conference is firmly established. This past summer was the debut of the Directing Conference, and featured five of the most successful directors in the country, including Oscar, Emmy, and Tony-award winner Tony Walton. In the realm of filmmaking, Emmy Award-winner Mitchell Kriegman led the inaugural conference.
“The short films that resulted,” says Reeves, “had a seamless connection to the work in other genres. They all fall under the umbrella of storytelling.”
It’s this umbrella that will shelter the whole Graduate Arts Campus. It’s all about telling your story, whether you’re doing it with a film made on your cell phone, in a cartoon sketch, or through a poem. Basically, the Graduate Arts Campus is about giving students a wide variety of medium to explore the same question: What do you have to say?
“It’s all about artists trying to find a voice through telling stories,” says Reeves. “Technology has made it possible that a young filmmaker has the same opportunity to complete a story as a fiction writer does. We want to connect them all to the long established history of storytelling.”
But it’s also about stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new. While a student may enroll in the MFA program intending to write a novel, the student may discover his or her voice in a class on writing musicals or making short films.
“We’re trying to build a community that will support the enterprising artist who will be interdisciplinary, will work in different forms, and will take charge of his/her own art,” says Reeves. “There are no more gatekeepers. You don’t have to ask permission anymore. In publishing, the agents and editors used to hold all the power and now it’s changing — you don’t have to go through them to achieve your dreams. It’s a wonderful, exciting time. It’s the great democratization of art.”
Stony Brook Southampton, says Reeves, plans to be on the cutting edge of this democratization, when anyone can learn to harness their creativity and express themselves.
“There are great schools that are training students for things that no longer exist,” he said. “We are trying to come up with a way of thinking about art in a way that accommodates these changes that are on the way and not just the ones we see coming but the ones we don’t. We’re creating a flexible structure so we can participate in the changes.”
Part of that flexibility includes the way the workload is assigned.
“If you’re taking one workshop in the novel,” says Reeves, “it’s quite possible that that could take all your time. The creative process can consume all your waking hours.”
Having a faculty that understands that, and that nurtures a project through its completion instead of imposing unrealistic deadlines and distractions, is key.
Reeves also points out the inherent difference between the creative process and other pursuits. Being successful doesn’t necessarily mean “controlling this and analyzing that and meeting the expectations of the person at the front of the room,” he says. “In the creative process it’s not about being cautious. It’s about taking risks. It’s meeting a different standard.”
There is also a variety of ways to participate in the program. There’s the Southampton campus as well as a campus in Manhattan. There’s also a winter session in Florence, Italy and another launching this January in Kenya.
There’s also flexibility in the relationships students can form in the program. While the faculty members are successful in the professional world, they consider their students more like colleagues.
“There are no minor leagues in the arts,” says Reeves. “You have the same opportunity to succeed as someone who has written ten novels… It’s not about credentials. Art is something where all the academic credentials can’t save you.”
For example, one recent MFA graduate, Helen Simonson, saw her thesis, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, turn into a New York Times Bestseller. In the world of creativity, the line between student and master can get a little blurry.
In the future, Reeves sees a place for undergraduate studies on the campus in Southampton again, though not in a traditional way.
“I think we can leverage our strengths to bring undergraduates back to the campus through arts semesters,” he said. These would be project-based periods of study for juniors in college or people in their gap year or recent graduates who want to complete a project.
“Farther out than that, who knows?” Reeves muses. “There’s no reason we couldn’t have an arts campus for undergraduates someday.” But he emphasizes the need to grow organically and carefully, and to provide what students want and what the changing world requires.
Whatever classes spring up and whatever genres are explored, they will benefit from being side by side. “Your particular area of specialization is informed by trying other things,” says Reeves. “Writers would benefit [and did this past summer] by taking a course in improvisation for writers. Playwrights benefit from taking a course in writing a novel… The courses are about creativity itself. In all different realms, it feels the same in a way. You’re not trying to control the thing, but trying to get out of the way of it.”
Stony Brook University is established as one of the premier science and research institutions in the country. But Reeves argues that “What we do and our creative responses to the human condition are just as important as scientific inquiry. Creativity is one of the most complicated responses to the world.”
With the direction Stonybrook Southampton is taking, the East End is poised to once again lead a creative growth spurt in the coming years.