What’s New?

SpeakTogether: Our Growing Program Collaboration with Union Settlement

Rebecca Newberger-Goldstein with a Union Settlement student
Rebecca Newberger-Goldstein with a Union Settlement student

In its second year of collaboration with the Union Settlement Association, House of SpeakEasy expanded its SpeakTogether program by introducing seven more writers to the group of twenty-three students in this year’s College Readiness program. The diverse group of students includes 9 seniors applying to colleges across New York State, who have gained admission to CUNY John Jay, CUNY City College, SUNY New Paltz, and the College of Mount St. Vincent. The program has been well-received and beneficial in the students’ college decision process, says Union Settlement’s executive director David Nocenti. “The value that SpeakEasy has provided to our participants cannot be measured – the joy in reading, the basic relation to the literature, and the engagement with the authors. It has given our students a new view of life and of the successes that a college degree in literature, writing, and journalism can provide.”

The 2015-16 House of SpeakEasy author visits to Union Settlement’s College Readiness Program have included such luminaries as novelist Susan Minot, composer and lyricist Michael Friedman, Tony-award winning playwright Doug Wright, comedian and head writer for The Daily Show, Elliot Kalan, philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein and New York Times best-selling author and international journalist Hooman Majd. Pulitzer prize-winning critic and memoirist Margo Jefferson is scheduled for the fall.

Susan Minot at Union Settlement
Susan Minot at Union Settlement

Unlike many school programs, SpeakTogether isn’t a tutorial or a lecture. Instead, in true SpeakEasy style, it seeks to bring together writers and students – particularly those with few opportunities for such interaction – for a conversation about writing and storytelling. Our partner in this venture, Union Settlement Association, has been working with families in East Harlem since 1895. Their College Readiness Program, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, has helped more than 18,000 students achieve a 90% acceptance rate at institutions of higher learning and is currently serving nearly 1,400 high-schoolers with academic advising, test preparation, college trips, and application assistance.

The first SpeakEasy author to participate in the program was playwright John Guare, who says, “I didn’t know what to expect when I agreed to talk to the kids at Union Settlement. I certainly didn’t expect the degree of sophistication I found. They were so unembarrassed by their hunger to know more. They asked me pertinent direct questions about my life as a writer working in the theater, and spoke about what they liked and did and read (yes!) and listened to and wrote about. You could watch them trying to figure out their place in this world, a place that was definitely attainable to them.”

Susan Minot in session with Union Settlement students
Susan Minot in session with Union Settlement students

After the session, Guare signed books and posed for pictures with the students. Leadership Program Coordinator Monique Keller says, “[The afternoon] was a real highlight for us all.” And not just for the students- “I loved talking to these kids,” says Guare. “The best thing about the class was meeting young high-school students who do not feel they are blocked off from the future. After two hours, I went back home filled with something approximating exhilaration.”

John Guare and friends at SpeakTogether
John Guare and friends at SpeakTogether

“I didn’t know what to expect when I agreed to talk to the the kids at Union Settlement,” says the playwright, who was the first writer to participate in the program (poet Jeffrey McDaniel ran a session in June). “I certainly didn’t expect the degree of sophistication I found. They were so unembarrassed by their hunger to know more. They asked me pertinent direct questions about my life as a writer working in the theater, and spoke about what they liked and did and read (yes!) and listened to and wrote about. You could watch them trying to figure out their place in this world, a place that was definitely attainable to them.”

After the session, Guare signed books and posed for pictures with the students; the afternoon, says Leadership Program Coordinator Monique Keller, “was a real highlight for us all.” And not just for the students. “I loved talking to these kids,” says Guare. “The best thing about the class was meeting young high-school students who do not feel they are blocked off from the future. After two hours, I went back home filled with something approximating exhilaration.”

Wit and Wordplay Flowed at House of SpeakEasy’s 3rd Annual Gala: I’ll Have Another

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Despite February’s blustery winds and biting temperatures, House of SpeakEasy’s 3rd Annual Gala ushered in the icy month with fiery panache and red-hot enthusiasm. Cozy inside City Winery, 250 guests celebrated SpeakEasy’s second birthday and toasted another year of Seriously Entertaining shows. The host of the night, literary luminary Salman Rushdie, introduced each of the writers of the evening to speak on this year’s gala theme “I’ll Have Another”. Aptly, the night’s Grand Quizmaster was chess god Garry Kasparov, who delivered the literary quizzes with his signature grace and charm.

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Author and radio show host Kurt Andersen led off the lineup of speakers, delighting the audience with tales of his boyhood before being joined by playwright and actress Sarah Jones for a surprise duo performance. Ms. Jones then continued solo, showcasing the multitude of diverse identities she can assume in a wickedly entertaining 5-minute taste of her acclaimed one-woman show. Best-selling historian Erik Larson let the audience in on the secret of his wife’s crucial role in his book-writing and editing process before the last speaker of the night, SpeakEasy veteran Irvine Welsh, finished things off with a story that included questionable hygiene, a brothel, and, of course, his homeland of Scotland.

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Fundraising for our range of community programming – our free ticket program for teachers (SpeakFreely), our after-school writer workshops with Union Settlement’s College Readiness Program (SpeakTogether), and our latest endeavor, a mobile book truck for New York’s book deserts – was central to the evening events. SpeakEasy co-founder Dr. Amanda Foreman led the charge in garnering support for these efforts. Things got exciting when Garry Kasparov volunteered a chess game with himself, and Dr. Foreman donated a dinner with Downton Abbey’s dreamy Dan Stevens, as incentives. As the night concluded, our brilliant speakers were grandly applauded, the clever quiz winners were announced, and our generous friends, supporters, and sponsors were thanked for the over $235,000 raised in support of House of SpeakEasy’s mission.

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