Every summer for nearly three decades, waves of novelists and poets have flooded the East End, searching for direction and inspiration at Stony Brook Southampton’s annual “Writers Conference.”
This year, they won’t be the only ones. Under the new banner of “Southampton Arts Summer,” what was once strictly reserved for writers is no longer. The change in name marks the presence of an unfamiliar, yet equally creative, crowd comprised of actors, filmmakers and visual artists, who will be rolling onto the Southampton campus starting Wednesday, July 11, to join the authors.
“I’m really excited about being around all these writers and I feel like we’re playing on the same team, you know?” actress and teacher Joanna Merlin said during a telephone interview last week. “We’re looking for ways of expressing our humanity in meaningful ways and, somehow, what I’m hoping is that we might discover something together, or not.”
She laughed to herself and continued, “But it’s going to be fun playing, and playing is the operative word.”
Ms. Merlin, who is known for her Broadway work and recurring role on “Law & Order SVU” as Judge Petrovsky, will teach a master class in the Michael Chekov technique. Mr. Chekov, who died in 1955, was the nephew of playwright Anton Chekov, and Ms. Merlin is his last living student.
“I don’t think I realized how important that experience was going to be for the rest of my life,” she said, noting that she is the founder of the Michael
Chekov Association, which will be taking up residency at the Southampton campus from July 8 to 15. “But he created this atmosphere of playfulness where you were not criticized, where there was no feeling of failure, but whatever critique was always very constructive, which is very different than many other acting teachers—where there’s a right and a wrong.”
The result was the freedom to experiment, a feeling Ms. Merlin keeps alive in her own workshops today, she said.
“I think all of the participants who keep coming back feel this sort of liberation that they can explore, what Chekov called their ‘creative individuality,’” she said. “He also had a wonderful expression called the ‘feeling of ease.’ I find it a kind of magical expression that just begins to release the tension. Actors are frequently under a lot of tension, not only getting the job but then being on stage or in front of a camera. One of the ways to bring ease into the body is through breath.
“I think we need to keep talking about breathing,” she said, spacing out the last four words with an inhale between each, “and connecting the body with the mind and soul through the breath. It sounds like such a simple thing, but sometimes we just get very tense and forget to breathe.”
On the stage, behind a camera or pencil in hand, one of the most stressful elements behind any creative project—especially in today’s economy—is the price tag attached to it. For instance, a 30-minute or hour-long television show can cost anywhere from $800,000 to several million dollars, respectively, according to writer and producer Mitchell Kriegman.
The new frontier in television is to go online with one- to three-minute “webisodes,” he said. According to Mr. Kriegman, the online entertainment industry has exploded since last year, when he first brought the class to the Southampton conference.
“A webisode is amazingly cheap, and what happened is it went from a do-your-own-thing environment to one that’s getting serious attention, so much so that it’s probably, right now, the fastest way in television to show that you’ve got talent and that you can do something,” he said. “If in every person there’s one novel, there’s at least 10 webisodes.”
During the class, students will pitch their own concepts, characters and learn how to write outlines and scripts for their webisodes, which are eventually produced, Mr. Kriegman explained. But ultimately, the students are learning how to tell a captivating story effectively—the centerpiece of any creative project.
“Every student wants to do the ‘Pulp Fiction’ dialogue between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson,” he said. “It’s great that Tarantino did that, but we can’t keep doing it. The thing with filmmakers is they like to use too many words and don’t tell the story visually. As soon as you start to tell the story without words, you’re filmmaking.”
Storytelling is crucial in visual arts, as well. For artist Scott Sandell’s printmaking class, which will utilize new, wide-body digital printers and push the boundaries of the medium, students are required to provide an ongoing series of work that will be the basis of their exploration. The instructor also suggests a penchant for strong coffee, as the class should prove to be an intense experience.
“This class is taking your traditional expectations of what a print is and just blowing them up,” he said during a telephone interview last week. “So say you’re a sculptor or did a series of paintings and drawings, this gives you the opportunity to examine the original concept a little bit further. We’re tailoring our program to practicing artists, but a good idea is what you really need to start with, no matter what.”
Though the addition of dramatic, film and visual arts is new to Southampton Arts Summer, the program has a long history of intensive workshops. But training in writing is a fairly recent phenomenon, one that started in the 1950s, according to two-time appointed Poet Laureate of the United States and Southampton Arts instructor, Billy Collins, adding that a love of reading is crucial for any budding writer to possess.
“The reason there has been no tradition of organized training in the art of writing is that the training needed for writing is, big surprise, reading,” he explained during a telephone interview last week. “That’s where the teachers of writing exist: in other books. The people who conduct workshops—me and hundreds of others—we can give you exercises, be encouraging, but we’re not the teachers. The real teachers are the models you find in reading. Models is putting it mildly because these are writers we’re jealous of. Professors call this ‘literary influence.’ It’s actually envy. That’s how you learn to write, through reading. Through a filter of jealousy.”
During the course of his workshop, students will participate in exercises, read works by published poets and they’ll each bring in several poems to go over in class, where they’ll receive feedback on elements from title selection to line and stanza construction.
The idea isn’t to nitpick over commas and small adjustments, Mr. Collins said. It’s about addressing general points that can be applied to poems by other students in the class, while also instilling a sense of humbleness, he said.
“I think people who begin to write poetry, they’re often a bit taken with themselves, and poetry just makes it worse,” he said. “When you sit down to write a poem, then you start to take yourself very seriously. You’re already taking yourself too seriously without poetry. What people need is humility. Someone said that a poetry workshop should always be conducted in a library, surrounded by millions of books no one’s reading, just to show that your drop in the bucket is just that.
“It’s a realization that poetry involves training, even though writing a poem is picking up a pencil, putting it to paper and just expressing yourself,” he continued. “You can do that without training, but with the result that what you produce will be of no interest to any reader. My advice is to read, and if you don’t like to read deeply, there is probably no hope for you as a writer.”
But with a little instruction under his students’ belts, Mr. Collins said he hopes to teach them how to trust themselves, as well as their poems, by the end of the workshop.
“It’s about how to find your way through a poem with such an open-hearted and open-minded way that you are able to surprise yourself,” he said. “You’re not just writing a poem. The poem is looking back at you and has a kind of mind of its own.”
For more information on Southampton Arts Summer at Stony Brook Southampton, visit southamptonarts.org.