A young artists’ mecca in the making

Posted on June 04, 2012 by Janika Carey

Endstation Theatre Company at Sweet Briar College
Several arts camps are set to convene at Sweet Briar College in June and July as the Blue Ridge Summer Theatre Festival celebrates its fifth season.

For the first time, the University of Virginia will hold its renowned Young Writers Workshop on Sweet Briar’s campus — alongside the College’s Blue Ridge Summer Institute for Young Artists and Endstation’s Playwrights Initiative.

“It really is a marvelously inspiring coming together of so many people who are invested in the arts,” said Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence Carrie Brown, who helped bring UVa’s program to Sweet Briar.

After renovations at UVa put the 30-year-old workshop on hold last year, organizers decided to look for a new home, and Sweet Briar seemed like a good fit.

Margo Figgins, founder and director of the Young Writers Workshop, named a number of reasons: “the strong interest from Sweet Briar in our program, the warm invitation to pursue the mutual possibilities, the sustained friendliness of everyone each step of the way, the arresting Sweet Briar landscape, and the ability to become a 100 percent in-residence program — which has been a long-held goal of the program.”

Brown is hoping that it will indeed become a permanent one. After all, she said, Sweet Briar’s campus offers an “inspiring landscape for young artists,” and she’s not just talking about its natural environment. Over the years, Sweet Briar has established a growing, interconnected community of artists.

There is the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) across U.S. 29, which continues to attract creative minds from around the world and serves as a vital resource for Sweet Briar students and faculty.

There is the theater company Endstation, whose summer festival has been growing consistently since 2008. In addition to staging innovative indoor and outdoor performances on Sweet Briar’s campus, the company attracts an eclectic mix of young writers each summer. Its Playwrights Initiative, founded four years ago by associate artistic director Michael Stablein, is an artist residency program for emerging and professional playwrights from all over the country.

This year, resident playwright Joshua Mikel will be joined by visiting playwrights Kate McManus (Los Angeles), Elford Alley (Dallas, Texas) and Kirin McCrory (New York City), as well as Regional History Commission Playwright Tearrance Chisholm from Washington, D.C. Chisholm, who participated in the Initiative last year, will be completing his new play, a fictional account of the first African-American tenure-track professor at Sweet Briar College. The Playwrights Initiative also features special guest playwright Rory Ledbetter — writer, actor, director and professor at the University of Mississippi — and a public reading series highlighting 10 original works of theater (July 9-13, 16-20).

BLUR 2011
And then there is BLUR (June 17-July 8), a three-week workshop for high school students interested in writing, acting or visual arts, which took place for the first time last year.

Dave Griffith, director of BLUR and assistant professor of creative writing at Sweet Briar, said workshop participants will once again be taking advantage of the College’s artistic landscape.

“I’m particularly excited about the fact that the students are going to get to see three Endstation Theatre productions — Big River, Comedy of Errors and Macbeth,” he said. “The site-specific nature of what Endstation does is a perfect fit for BLUR, and the ridiculous talent of the actors is hugely inspiring to our young artists.”

Staged in a different location each year, Endstation’s outdoor plays make deliberate use of the College’s natural and built landscape. The idea of drawing inspiration from nature is a big part of what BLUR is all about — the other is incorporating different art forms into one’s own. This summer, Griffith decided to add an elective class period in which students have the opportunity to leave their home studio and create art in one of the other studios.

“This will complement the interdisciplinary and collaborative emphasis of the program, as it will encourage students to see how the skills and concepts native to the medium they usually work in apply to another media,” he explained. “So, for example, in what ways might writers bring what they know about the basics of storytelling … to theater? How might a visual artist’s sense of color and form help her when she sits down to write a poem? What unique insights do actors bring to [the] writing of stories?”

Participants will also visit the VCCA, something that has been part of the program from the start.

“Last year students were treated to a tour of several artists’ studios and got to talk with the artists about their process of composition,” Griffith said. “The VCCA is one of the premier artist colonies in the world, and we are unbelievably lucky to have them as a partner.”

BLUR 2011
Thirty high school students are expected to participate in BLUR this year — four more than last year.

UVa’s Young Writers Workshop promises to bring another 170 students to campus. Session I takes place June 24-July 6, session II runs from July 8-27, each offering studio workshops in five different genres: fiction, poetry, songwriting, screen and play writing and creative nonfiction. Taught by a staff of published, professional writers, participants develop a portfolio, publish in the workshop’s literary magazine and perform their work at the end of the camp.

Proximity to BLUR and the Playwrights Initiative add a new dimension to the well-established workshop. The latter will serve as a valuable resource for both student camps, Stablein says:

“There will definitely be some cross-pollination with BLUR and [the] UVa Young Writers Workshop. Both groups of students will be attending our Public Reading Series and select students from both … will attend closed-door roundtables with the visiting playwrights as they develop new work on campus.”

Griffith, Brown and Figgins say they look forward to even more collaboration between the different art camps, the VCCA and the theater festival in the future.

“How can we come together so we can do more things and reach more people?” Griffith said. “How can we create spaces for art to thrive?”

Sweet Briar, it seems, is a great place for art to do just that.