O’Neill program creates ‘chain of mentorship’

Through the O’Neill Program, School of Drama students and undergraduates teach playwriting at the Co-Op Arts and Humanities High School.
Through the O’Neill Program, School of Drama students and undergraduates teach playwriting at the Co-Op Arts and Humanities High School. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

This past Friday and Saturday, students from the School of Drama came together at the Yale Cabaret to read nine previously unperformed plays, written by students from Yale College and the Co-Op Arts and Humanities High School in downtown New Haven.

This “Annual Festival of New Work” was the culminating event of the O’Neill Playwriting Program, the flagship program of the Yale-Co-Op partnership. The program brings together playwriting master’s candidates from the Yale School of Drama with students from Yale College, who then work together to teach playwriting at the Co-Op, explained Kjerstin Pugh, the after-school and summer program manager at Co-Op. The undergraduate students also have the opportunity to meet with their Drama School counterparts to workshop their own pieces, creating a “chain of mentorship,” Pugh added.

“[The reading] is very fun but also very professional,” Pugh said. “Everyone treats it as a big deal — because it is.”

The program kicks off in the spring when the Yale mentors develop a weeklong intensive course on playwriting for the high school’s freshman theater students and sophomore creative writing students — the two departments whose students are eligible to take part in the O’Neill program.

After this, interested students can apply to attend a weekend-long playwriting retreat at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. Pugh said that, of roughly 60 students who apply, 18 are selected, adding that keeping the group relatively small ensures a high level of individual attention and fosters a sense of community.

“[The retreat] is a transformational experience for students because of the creative, artistic freedom and trust we give them,” Pugh said.

Anyone from this group of 18 is then eligible to participate in the playwriting after-school program during the fall semester, with six choosing to enroll this past fall. These students then spend two hours a week working with the mentors on developing their own work, each producing a 10-minute play by the end of the semester.

Jason Dunn, a Co-Op student in the Creative Writing Department, said he had always had an interest in playwriting and had even attempted it before, but that he “needed a little push” to make his work more successful.

“It’s a heightened experience you don’t get from a normal classroom,” Dunn said.

Eric Sirakian ’15, who worked as an undergraduate mentor this past year, said he wanted to get involved in the program as a way to engage with New Haven, as well as develop his interest in playwriting.

Hansol Jung DRA ’14 said she enjoyed the chance to get in touch with the larger Yale and New Haven communities, adding that the experience opened up her consciousness to the other realms of theater at Yale outside of the Drama School.

Sirakian said he has learned from working with younger students who are tackling the same challenges in writing as him, and from their more “unfiltered” style of writing.

“They write really openly and without fear, without awareness of what their work is doing in relation to every other play that’s existed,” Sirakian said. “That freedom is enviable.”

The mentors adopted a different, more “playful” approach to playwriting exercises for the program relative to their own work at the Drama School, Jung said, citing writing scenes based on pictures as an example.

Mentoring in the O’Neill program is a paid student job, Sirakian said. Former O’Neill program mentor Caroline McGraw DRA ’12 said the experiences she had teaching while in the Drama School helped her understand how she could use her craft in other ways. It is nearly impossible to make a living in America only writing plays, and she realized she could supplement writing with teaching playwriting. Other past mentors are already drawing upon their experiences through the program in their postcollege life — Kenneth Reveiz ’12, for example, currently teaches playwriting at the Co-Op.

“[Teaching] gives us the opportunity to be playwrights, and also earn a living by doing something we care about and bringing that to other people,” McGraw said.

The Yale-Co-Op partnership is funded by the Beinecke Library.

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