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Jul 14, 2009 1:54 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

From script to the stage

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Jul 14, 2009 1:54 PM

Stony Brook Southampton’s first playwriting conference, the newest addition to the 30-year-old summer writers conference, kicked off last Wednesday with what any aspiring playwright would wish for: a chance to work with celebrated, successful playwrights plus a group of 15 actors from New York City’s premier developmental theater, the Ensemble Studio Theater, on hand to breathe life into students’ scripts.

Theater enthusiasts in the region can also enjoy the talent the new conference has gathered in Southampton. Between Thursday, July 16, and Thursday, July 30, the conference is host to five separate nights of contemporary plays open to the public, three of them still in the developmental stage—including two brand new works presented by the Ensemble Studio Theater and one monologue by Mike Daisey called “The Last Cargo Cult.”

The playwriting conference is being led by Stephen Hamilton and Emma Walton-Hamilton, two of the founders of Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, who joined the Stony Brook Southampton faculty last year and organized the conference with the special needs of developmental theater in mind.

“When we say developmental theater, we’re talking about the development of a new play,” Mr. Hamilton said in an interview last week. “It’s a very unique and personal thing for each playwright.” He said most serious playwrights belong to organizations like the Ensemble Studio Theater, through which they can avail themselves of the services of actors to bring their scenes and dialogue to life.

Playwriting is the fourth summer discipline that Stony Brook Southampton’s master of fine arts in writing and literature program now sponsors, after adding children’s literature and screenwriting components to the Southampton Writers Conference last summer. The original core of the conference, with workshops in poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction, features writers such as Billy Collins, Frank McCourt, Roger Rosenblatt, Ursula Hegi and Alan Alda, as well as this year’s keynote speaker, Richard Ford.

Robert Reeves, the director of the MFA in writing and literature program, said that adding the playwriting conference was a natural progression, considering the campus’s Avram Theater underwent a $1 million renovation in 2008, and the Hamiltons joined the faculty in January.

“I prevailed upon them to join us and it occurred to me that something like this would match very well with what we were trying to do and what they’re trying to do,” Mr. Reeves said.

The children’s literature conference ended last Sunday, and the screenwriting conference runs from July 29 until August 2, bookending the 10-day writers conference workshops that run from July 15 until July 26. The playwriting conference extends through all three sessions with a cap of 12 students in each of the four workshops.

“The idea was to have playwriting run concurrently with other conferences, so when we gather socially, you meet and learn from other people,” Mr. Reeves said. A characteristic of all the conferences and the MFA program in general “is experimentation and cross-pollination,” he added. “We share a lot of what we do and ask people to try things they haven’t tried before.”

Unlike fiction writers or poets, playwrights aim to turn a story from text into a living world that will enrapture an audience. As they write, they need actors to read their drafts and unfinished scenes on stage, so they can see and hear their characters and revise accordingly.

Mr. Hamilton and Ms. Walton Hamilton, veteran theater professionals, knew the significance for playwrights of having actors available. The couple had long been members of the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York City, which is made up of actors, established writers, directors and producers dedicated to the principle of giving playwrights access to those who can help them develop their work, and vice versa.

Luck would have it that the Ensemble Studio Theater, which had a long tradition of a summer residency program for its members in upstate New York, had lost its summer home and was looking for another just as the Hamiltons took the opportunity to run the conference. The Hamiltons offered the members of Ensemble a three-week residency. In exchange, “the actors are providing the meat for the labs,” said Ms. Walton Hamilton, making sure each student’s work gets read.

“From our history, we knew the most valuable workshop settings are those where there are actors, directors and playwrights in the same room. It’s an industry standard,” Ms. Walton Hamilton said. “We knew that was what we wanted to achieve. We knew we wanted it to be more interactive and developmental, less of a lecture and more of a workshop.”

Ensemble actors will also present two readings of new plays for the general public. On Thursday, July 16, they will read “A Boy Called Newfoundland,” written by Graeme Gillis and directed by William Carden. The play is not entirely finished, but is ready for a general audience, who will get a glimpse of the process of creating new work for the stage.

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