A Coming Together, The Power of Words, and The Courage to Speak: A Report from the 2017 WGI Gala

The most notable thing to me about Gala 2017, our fourth, was its feeling of intimacy. The coming together of old friends, the arrival of new ones, in a new venue (as the evening unfolded, the wraparound windows of Tribeca 360 revealed the lights of lower Manhattan), all contributed to the warmth of the event.

Most memorable of all was this year’s chair, Walter Bernstein. His remarks about the power of words, used well or badly (they can as easily convey lies as truths, and must therefore be respected and chosen with care), gave special power to the entire evening’s celebration.

Walter lived through a period when artists were pressured to conform to political pressures alien to their nature or risk losing their livelihood. His integrity and courage through this time are an inspiring reminder of how to resist mounting pressure from the growing misuse and abuse of language in our public discourse.

Sharon Robino-West, a participant in our workshops, who has both served in the military and as a caregiver to a family member, spoke movingly about her work with the WGI and how writing has helped her articulate and gain a sense of control over her life experiences.

This year we worked with a new population: exonerated prisoners who served sentences for crimes they didn’t commit. Jessica Blank, who spearheaded this outreach, spoke to us about this new initiative and was joined by Natheson Fields, who served twenty years on death row before he was found to be innocent of the crime that had put him behind bars. Their report of the workshop’s impact on exonerated prisoners has encouraged us to expand our work with this population.

The heart of the evening, as always, was a presentation of pieces written in our workshops, all on the theme of “Change.” It amazes me to hear this work read aloud. Our guests comment over and over that it’s hard to believe some of our participants have never written before. As I listened to these experiences recounted – a confrontation with a schoolyard bully, an experience in combat, an encounter with an old boy friend – I was amazed at how these emerging writers found the words to make their experiences come so vividly alive.

The variety and vitality of the work was extraordinary and the presentation by our actor/friends, William Jackson Harper, Emily Skeggs, Tony Shaloub, Eisa Davis, Brook Adams and Mandy Patinkin was riveting from start to finish.

Year after year, our producers Richard Dresser and Willie Reale, along with director Jonathan Bernstein, find a way to weave this work into a tapestry of voices that brings entire worlds to life, worlds we might never have the privilege to otherwise encounter.  You’ll find some of this work on our website. And more will be written in the year (and years) ahead.

Our annual gala has become not just a public expression of mission, but a moment when we can come together as group to share a sense of deep satisfaction and gratitude at the trust and courage of our workshop participants, who struggle with new challenges, discover new skills, and open themselves to places in their hearts from which we strive to communicate.

Join us in 2018. I guarantee you’ll find the experience a remarkable one.

Michael Weller

©2017 Writers Guild Initiative 

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