The lights came on, revealing a line of actors seated in front of microphones. A narrator sat on the side of the stage of the Off-Broadway Theater, providing directions while the actors spoke their lines. Their faces shifted from tense anxiety to comic ease between readings. They performed scenes that ran the gamut, from domestic drama to laugh-out-loud farce.
Actors, playwrights and audience members had gathered together for the showcase of the O’Neill Playwriting Program, a year-long mentorship program that brings together Yale undergraduates, Yale School of Drama students and Co-op High School students. The showcase, entitled the Annual Festival of New Work, ran from Feb. 6 to Feb. 7, the fruit of many months’ labor. Students from the School of Drama performed 13 staged readings of original scripts developed by high school students and Yalies alike.
Abigail Carney ’15 was one of four undergraduate mentors in the program. She had written a play tackling themes that tested her powers as a playwright. She had to strike a balance between considerations of race, abuse and justice in “Sunday Morning,” which was performed on the second night of the Festival of New Work.
“What do you do when someone hasn’t clearly been raped, but there has been substantial emotional harm done?” she asked me while describing the central dilemma of the plot of her play.
Carney’s play explored blurry and fraught topics of race and abuse, centering on the story of two girls who have recently graduated from college. “One of the girls is abused by the doorman of her apartment. The abuser is black and the girl is white,” said Carney. “It is the hardest play I have ever worked on.”
Carney has found the O’Neill Playwriting Program to be integral to the development and consummation of this play. The fall semester of her freshman year, she worked on “Sunday Morning” in a playwriting class. She continued work on the play over the summer, finally sharing it during her enrollment in the O’Neill Playwriting program. On this night, all her hard work had come to fruition.
The program, and the high school students she was paired with, brought in a “wonderful element” to the process of completing the play, she tells me. During her time in the program, the play materialized into a script.
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The O’Neill Playwriting Program was founded in 1997. Since its inception, it has attempted to bridge the town-gown divide by dissolving boundaries of age and experience. Although it has undergone some changes in structure over the years, the program continues to provide a unique playwriting experience to budding playwrights and mature artists alike.
The program began as the “O’Neill at Yale” project, under the auspices of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Its goal: to bring the Yale community and New Haven public school students together over a shared interest in the work of famed American dramatist Eugene O’Neill, whose seminal play “Long Day’s Journey into Night” was famously first published by the Yale University Press. In its earliest iteration, members of the program performed O’Neill’s works and wrote and produced original plays inspired by them.
The program changed in 2005, said Lynda Blancato, current director of the program, coming closer to its current form. At the time, a chance meeting between the program’s artistic director and a high school theater teacher led to a partnership with Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School — an arts magnet school in downtown New Haven.
The collaboration sought to include teachers as well as students. Blancato explained that the partnership extends to teachers at Co-op High School, who lead writing exercises alongside their students during the week of spring workshops. “The program isn’t designed explicitly for teachers, but they are a crucial part of its success,” said Blancato.
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Wilfredo Ramos ’15, an English major, got involved with the O’Neill Playwriting Program this year. He heard about the program late in his Yale career and decided to give it go.
For Ramos, the program has become an important outlet for creative expression as well as a place to connect with others. The O’Neill Playwriting Program brought together three different communities that had felt disconnected to him before, through a shared love of writing and a desire to hone the playwright’s craft. Ramos got to connect with students he wouldn’t have met otherwise.
When reflecting on the O’Neill Playwriting Program’s setup and purpose, he emphasized its “distinctive cross-generational aspect.”
This crossover spills into the art produced by the different groups of students. When three disparate groups come together to share creative space, the work that is done often proves lively and refreshing.
Undergraduate member Dave Harris ’16 didn’t find this to be the case at the get-go: what he found was a hesitancy among his mentees to try something new. “What I noticed on the first day of the program was that the high school students read … mostly Shakespeare,” Harris said. “I wanted a chance to teach them that their voice was significant, and no matter how insignificant they thought it was, it could be turned into art.”
By the end of the program, Harris felt he had partly accomplished his mission, by releasing the students he was mentoring from the artistic restriction they initially felt, and which he himself felt while growing up.
Carney echoes this sentiment. When the high school students finally found their personal voices and embraced those voices with pride, they delivered bold scripts. They came to pursue darker, more emotional themes.
“Reading their scripts sometimes gave me insight into the kind of stuff high school students actually deal with,” she said.
Ryan Campbell DRA ’15 recalls several occasions when one of the high school students he was mentoring had a “breakthrough moment.” They saw how theater could actually relate to their own lives and be a vehicle for their own stories.
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The O’Neill Playwriting Program not only has an artistic purpose — it builds a sense of community that goes beyond dramaturgical considerations.
Robert Esposito, who has been teaching at Co-op High School since 2005, noted the impact the program had on his students — especially his African-American students.
For one thing, Co-op students have found role models through the program: people who look like them, do the things they do and care about challenging them artistically.
Esposito adds that the new, unfamiliar environment of the program confers benefits on the high school students. Co-op students are able to get out of the house and away from distractions. They have the chance to engage with their craft in a secluded, yet supportive community, whose close bond he partly attributes to a program retreat.
“While on retreat, we got really close with the entire group of high school students as well as with the graduate students involved in the program,” says Anya Richkind ’16, an undergraduate involved in the program. The small size of the group made the program personal and intimate.
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Despite the success the program has enjoyed thus far, challenges accompany a Yale-New Haven collaboration like this one.
According to Blancato, “It’s a bit of a trick every year to find the right dates for the Annual Festival of New Work that don’t conflict with other performances and events at Yale or Co-op High School,” she said.
But this might be a good problem to have. New Haven has an incredibly vibrant art scene, Blancato adds, and the O’Neill Playwriting Program is only a very small piece of that. It’s a little fish in a big pond.
The O’Neill Playwriting Program, Harris emphasizes, marks a step toward fostering a lasting relationship between the arts scene at Yale and in New Haven. Harris hopes that this collaboration will be expanded to collaborations in other fields, such as spoken word poetry.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “Through the program, students can come to Yale and hear their words read by Yale actors and take that work back to their homes in New Haven.”