Award winning director Jay Craven writes plays with NHS students

By Anna Popnikolova

From Jay Craven, the award-winning director, writer, and producer of films like High Water (1989), Where the Rivers Flow North (1994), A Stranger in the Kingdom (1998), and Wetware (2018), parts of which were shot on Nantucket Island, comes the Nantucket Young Playwrights program for high schoolers and middle school students on island. The workshop, which has been running for around 6 years, typically takes place in spring or early summer. In 2020, it was scheduled for late May; however, COVID restrictions and the quarantine did not allow for the event to take place in-person.

“I would come into the school for two full days, and then work at the Atheneum for a day, and that had to be cancelled.” Craven recalls, when talking about the workshop in prior years. Due to the unusual circumstances of this past year, he was contacted by White Heron Theater, one of the main sponsors for this class, to reschedule for an online session in the fall.  “It is different to do it online than it would be to do it in person,” Craven says, about the changes in his work and the workshop during the pandemic. “I think that people responded well… and I think that people worked at their plays, and that was all great. It’s better in person, there’s no question about it.”

For this differently timed workshop, during abnormal circumstances, there were obviously pros and cons. Craven claimed that, “the pro is that you can do it. The pro is that you can connect to people… well, when everybody’s picture is blacked out, you don’t get much.” He shared his difficulty with feeling a real connection with people through an online platform, but agreed that programs like Zoom give people great opportunities to have meetings and communicate without having to travel long distances and come in contact with each other.

On another level, the students in the workshop all said that they had a good time, even though the program was based online. 

Sarah Swenson, a sophomore at the Nantucket High School, said that she had a positive experience with the workshop this year, “I liked it because we got to workshop each other’s writing, and it made me feel professional, or at least older. It felt like a more mature space to share writing.” 

Catherina “Cat” Buccino, also a sophomore at the school, agreed that, “being able to get the perspective of a seasoned filmmaker… was really interesting.”

“I also think that it increased my confidence in writing, because I hadn’t written anything like that (a play) before,” added Mihail “Misho” Minevski, another sophomore here at NHS. 

The workshop, which was made up of two six-hour sessions and one four-hour session, was an intensive study on playwriting, and left much space for the creativity of the students, as Minevski said, “we got to practice writing the different exercises, and got to do more free stuff than in school, where it’s like, you have this assignment, write about that.” Each student had the objective to write a short, ten-minute play of their choosing. The genre could be any, as could be the characters and setting. 

Jay Craven left it completely to the imagination of the students, “I thought the stories are quite different; none of them really resemble each other at all. I think that’s great, the variety.” He said.

This year, the student’s ideas came from a wide spectrum of categories. For example, Ellie Kinsella, a sophomore, “I wrote about a deity on Earth, and his experience there, getting kidnapped.” When asked about her writing process, she said that, “it was very interesting. Because, at first, I hardly ever write about anything that doesn’t have magic in it, and I knew I wanted to do something like that for this project. But, with everybody else’s, how they’re a little more realistic, because I was more than a little conscious of it… I was worried I was writing something supernatural compared to everybody else’s, so it was definitely a little hard in the beginning, I didn’t know where I was going to take my story, but it got easier as I got further in.” Kinsella said.

Minevski’s story is geared in a completely different direction. “Mine was about Greg, he’s like a careless guy. He’s very much in love with his wife, but she’s secretly just trying to kill him. And in the end, her secret is uncovered and his heart is a little broken, so he moves to Scotland. As any person would.” 

Similarly to Minevski’s script, was Olivia Davis’s, which was also comedic. “My story was about these two college students and they’re friends, and they live in an apartment, they just moved in, and they have no furniture. They have no clue how they’re going to get furniture because they have no money, so one of them goes and steals a refrigerator. And now they are trying to get the giant refrigerator into their apartment, with no avail, and they have to try to get out of it when the cops come.” Like Minevski, Davis said that, “I don’t usually write comedic stuff,” and that her everyday stories are a little more random, from general inspiration in her surroundings.

“I wrote about this kid called Sean, who accidently finds himself as an accomplice to arson, because his best friend burned a house down and then they have to deal with that. He makes a pass at her which she didn’t want, and it gets really bad.” Swenson says. She added that her usual writing style is fantasy and realistic fiction, and that the genre wasn’t necessarily new to her, where the writing format of scripting was: “I’ve never written a script before, and it was interesting and hard not to be able to use description as much as I like.” 

Cat Buccino, sophomore, also wrote realistic fiction, “It’s a story of two best friends, and the development of their love and trust for each other, while dealing with a lot of conflicts that come with growing up and dealing with things like mental illness and tragedy, and discovering this really deep connection that people can find through friendship, and how important that is to them.” 

As all the student’s scripts are now completed and have been sent to Jay Craven for final edits and revision, the workshop is complete. “The idea is that we will have some kind of dramatic reading over the radio, it will probably be over the public radio station on Nantucket… normally, I would come down and be involved and actually perform, I don’t know that ‘ll happen this time. I would like to still also stage them in the spring as part of the book festival, and I would come down for that, I’m sure.” Craven said, about plans for staging these plays that were created in this past workshop. Depending on the situation with the pandemic that the country is facing come springtime will determine whether or not these stage readings will, in fact, be possible.

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