For decades creative types have strolled the beaches and meadows of the East End, gaining inspiration from the surrounding natural beauty and enjoying the unhurried contemplation of a rural existence. Decades before it became known as “The Hamptons,” the region existed as a gathering of hamlets that collectively supported a bohemian enclave. These days the heir to that community is what the East End community has known primarily as the Writers Conference or, as Julie Sheehan, the Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Literature, puts it, “an arts colony for credit.”
Now in its 37th year, this gathering of artists is perhaps closer than ever to returning to its arts colony roots. Southampton Writers Conference has evolved to Southampton Arts, home to an increasingly wide range of artistic endeavors, beyond the literary arts of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, to theatre arts, filmmaking, and visual arts.
For the month of July, Chancellors Hall on the Stony Brook Southampton campus becomes the headquarters for a powerhouse arts faculty, featuring such luminaries as John Patrick Shanley, Mary Karr, Billy Collins, John Robin Baitz, Roger Rosenblatt, to name just a few of the 70 visiting faculty that offer arts training to over 300 graduate students.
Program Director Sheehan, who is also an award-winning poet, notes that traditional modes of education do not necessarily match the requirements of creativity. “Our programs are driven by the needs of the creative process rather than by the strictures of academia, which are designed to support scholarship.” Sheehan added, “We are very fortunate to have been able to design the MFA program to serve the needs of working writers, and now we are doing the exact same thing in theatre and visual arts.”
This summer marks the latest phase of what has been an extended period of continuous growth. The new graduate program in theatre announced last summer is already flourishing 12 months later with over 130 graduate students receiving training in acting, directing, playwriting and musical book. The all-star faculty includes such notables as playwrights John Robin Baitz, Marsha Norman, and Adley Guirgis, director and performer Rinde Eckert, directors Mark Wing-Davey and Kathleen Marshall.
The major announcement for Summer 2012 is the plan to build a new film program under the leadership of new faculty member and legendary independent film producer Christine Vachon. Vachon, who produced such award-wining films as Boys Don’t Cry and Far From Heaven, will also be bringing her production company, Killer Films, to campus next summer. “By creating an effective public/private partnership,” Vachon said, “we hope to engage the reality of filmmaking as it actually exists.”
The initial foray into the visual arts is represented by print-maker and designer Scott Sandell’s new “Almost Beachfront Studio.” Sandell is bringing well-known artists to campus to realize limited-edition artists’ books, theatre sets, embellished manuscripts, and all forms of large format imaging.
Old partnerships are continuing, such as the residency of Manhattan’s Ensemble Studio Theatre, and new partnerships are forming. The Michael Chekhov Association will be on campus this summer, offering training in the Chekhov technique to 60 actors from all over the world.
Two July evenings of special note in Avram Theater are open to the public and free if reserved on-line (tickets at the door at $10).
First, the Conference’s inaugural joint appearance with Pianofest, another East End institution (July 23, 5:30 p.m.). The evening, called “Reading Music,” features Pianofest founder Paul Schenly, his students in classical piano, and members of the writing faculty.
Second, the annual celebration of the summer issue of The Southampton Review (July 27, 7:30 p.m.) will feature readings by two long-time MFA faculty members: poet Billy Collins, and novelist and essayist Roger Rosenblatt.