Having run the annual weeklong Young Artists and Writers Project scriptwriting retreat for eight years, YAWP program director Will Chandler is familiar with its rhythms.
When students from various schools and groups arrive at the Stony Brook Southampton campus on Monday, they are strangers. By Tuesday, they are blending. By Wednesday, he can’t tell which students came from which group. And by Thursday, no one wants to go home. But the retreat has to end Friday, the day when students present staged readings of the scripts they worked on all week.
This year’s retreat, which was held in the middle of November, extended YAWP’s reach by far. In addition to welcoming students from Sag Harbor and New York City, for the first time the retreat welcomed students from Robert College, an American private high school in Istanbul, Turkey.
Top scripts produced in the retreat and other YAWP programs will be fully staged with professional direction this Saturday, December 10, during the YAWP High School Playwrights Festival, a free event open to the public at the Stony Brook Southampton campus’s Avram Theater.
The Robert College connection came through Caitlin Dunne, who has been an English teacher there for three years. She was formerly a teacher at Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies in the Bronx, and back then she also brought students to the annual YAWP retreat in Southampton. She said she looked forward to bringing Robert College students to the YAWP retreat ever since she started working there.
A 16-year-old Robert College student who participated—her name is being withheld because of concerns related to unrest in Turkey—said that even before she knew she was going to attend the YAWP retreat, she was planning on writing a play for her school’s theater club. Now she hopes she will be able to take the script she produced in Southampton and have it staged back in Istanbul.
She explained that her play is set at a bus stop, where a girl who is severely depressed is sitting on the anniversary of her mother’s death. A screen behind her will reveal images of the girl’s life through her perspective. Two other people will come to the bus stop individually and tell her their problems, which she will help solve. But, ultimately, feeling at her lowest, she will decide she doesn’t want to live anymore, and she will walk into traffic. But then the screen will switch to another person’s perspective, showing the scars on his wrist from a past suicide attempt, and he will stop her before she is struck by a vehicle.
“The lesson is, everyone has their own problems, and most of the time we don’t realize that,” the aspiring writer said. “And usually we forget to ask other people how they are feeling.”
Mr. Chandler said it’s always been YAWP’s policy to treat students like writers—rather than children. “We get them started by setting expectations, by making sure they know what they’re here for,” he said. “The first thing we do is we remind them: This is now a safe space. You’re here to push your writing abilities further. You’re here to experiment, and sometimes you’re going to fail.”
Students receive intensive writing instruction as they learn the importance of theme and get help generating an idea for a story. Their scripts are workshopped to find what works, and what doesn’t.
“I always give them permission to write the absolute worst thing ever written in the English language. Because the important thing is: Get it on the page,” Mr. Chandler said. “We can fix it from there. But let’s get it on the page. I want a first draft.”
Among the 20 participants this year, not every student is looking to become a professional writer. Some simply want to become better writers as they prepare to write college application essays, or for all the times throughout school and career they may be called on to write.
Teja Deonarine, a senior at Bedford Academy in Brooklyn, was one of four students who came to the retreat through Harlem Educational Activities Fund, or HEAF, a nonprofit supplemental and youth development organization based in both Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Writing has long been an interest and hobby of hers, she said, explaining that she signed up to improve her creative writing skills. But her aspiration is to be a marine biologist, and she is applying to Stony Brook University. It was serendipitous for Teja that the YAWP students were invited to the Stony Brook Southampton marine sciences laboratory as a mid-retreat field trip to the other side of the campus.
Teja’s script is about a girl and her inner critic. “She has criticized herself so much that she’s come to the point where this inner critic has become another person,” Teja said. “Throughout the whole story, she is battling with this inner critic, and she is struggling to find her voice and her confidence.”
Teja explained she wants audience members to believe they can overcome their inner critic. “And I also want them to see that it’s okay to have an inner critic, because they’re there to, in some ways, support you,” she said. “But don’t let your doubts and don’t let your fears overcome you, because that’s when you stop doing what you want to do.”
Nick Knab, a senior at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor, is one of the students who is, in fact, planning to become a professional writer. Nick earned a Judges Choice Award in the Dan’s Papers Emerging Young Writers Prize contest and took part in the Sarkisian Wagner Writing Workshops at John Jermain Library in Sag Harbor.
Learning of the retreat through a presentation by Mr. Chandler at his English class, he was immediately interested.
“I really, really am passionate about writing. I want to improve as much as I can, and I just want to be a good writer in general, so I was easily convinced to come along,” Nick said.
He spent the retreat working on a play about the relationship between two brothers. The older brother, a mine worker who is suffering from a lung disease, is the younger brother’s only living family member. The brothers get into a conflict, and the younger brother ends up running away during harsh winter weather. The older brother is faced with the decision to go out and search—risking his own life, as he is ill—or staying home and hoping for the best.
Nick said the retreat is an experience he will remember for a very long time to come.
“I’ve learned so much about writing and the art in general that I’m definitely very happy that I decided to do it,” he said. He praised Mr. Chandler, saying, “Because he’s brought so many things together, and he’s really, really put the pieces together. So I see what works and what doesn’t work so well, and how we can progress as writers with different techniques and looking for our own methods to do things.”
The YAWP High School Playwrights Festival on Saturday, December 10, at 7 p.m. takes place at the Avram Theater, in the Fine Arts Building on the campus of Stony Brook Southampton, 239 Old Montauk Highway, Southampton. The event is open to the public, and admission is free. For reservations and more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.