UT students create a safe place for their classmates to make daring new stage work
Courtney Sale will tell you flat-out that the reason she's in Austin is the Cohen New Works Festival. Two years ago, when the New York City-based theatre artist was looking to obtain her master's degree in directing, she made a point of arranging her interview at the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance when its biennial showcase of original student-generated work was in full swing. Sale was warned that it might not be the optimal time for an interview, given the way the department pretty much shuts down all week for the festival's dozens of performances and exhibitions, but she would not be deterred. And once she experienced for herself the electric atmosphere that pervades the Winship Drama Building throughout the NWF, that was it for Sale. "The festival sealed the deal for me," she says. "The intermingling of the graduates and the undergraduates and the energy about creating their own performance was so palpable in this building. The risk. It was thrilling."
It's hardly surprising, then, that when the call went out for help to organize the 2011 Cohen New Works Festival – which starts Monday, March 28, and runs through Saturday, April 2, in the Winship and assorted venues around campus – newly arrived Master of Fine Arts candidate Sale signed on. Now, this was no small commitment. She and the 13 other students serving on the NWF executive committee would be spending a full 18 months putting the festival together, coordinating everything from the solicitation, selection, and production of the festival projects (which typically number around 30) to the participation of guest artists (a small number of theatre and dance professionals from all over the country who may be invited to work on a project, speak to students, or respond to projects) to the festival's marketing and publicity. With this festival, just as students create the shows, they run the show.
As it's such a long haul getting that show up, for the first time this year the three faculty members who serve as the festival's official producers – playwriting program head Suzan Zeder, dance program head David Justin, and department producing director Denise Martel – interviewed students who wanted to serve on the executive committee. According to Sale, that was in part just to determine who had "the ability to run the marathon of this thing."
"And maintain an enthusiasm and commitment to it throughout that process," adds Sarah Coleman, who's serving as assistant to the producers of the current festival, "because the hardest part is the last week when you've been doing it for a year and a half."
When asked why they'd devote so much time and energy to the New Works Festival, these students talk about seeing a need in it that spoke to them personally and that they felt drawn to address. Take Jen Ash, whose experience working on a number of projects at the 2009 NWF led her to take on the job of production manager this time around. "Participating in as many projects as I did in the last festival, I realized that I really loved being a part of that community and being able to help people realize their dreams and creative visions," she says. "And I kept hearing people say that it was great to have someone on the executive committee that really understands the process and has been a part of it. This is my way of trying to help take care of that."
Carrie Kaplan, a graduate student in the Performance as Public Practice program, was also involved in several festival projects in 2009, but in her case it was because NWF participants were looking for dramaturgical feedback on their work, and the festival had no system for including dramaturgy in place the way it did with other production elements. "I was having many, many people ask if I could be their dramaturg, more people than I could possibly accommodate," Kaplan says. And with few other dramaturgs in the department to whom they could turn, a number of festival projects did without structured feedback – and to their detriment, Kaplan believes. "Many shows just needed somebody to come in and be like, 'So, what is this about?'" So for the current festival, Kaplan has developed what's lovingly referred to among executive committee members as the Dramaturgy SWAT Team: a squad of students who might not think of themselves as dramaturgs but who, by being trained and mentored by Kaplan, can serve as dramaturgs for projects in the festival.
Coleman came to UT from Washington, D.C., where her experience producing festivals taught her what a trial it can be for emerging artists to mount work in that setting if they haven't done much of it themselves previously. She sees the NWF as "an opportunity to expose the producing process to the student body and be very transparent about all of the different steps that have to be a part of this and come together. Sometimes you're just not aware of all of the things that have to happen when you're 19 years old and you've only done high school theatre. That was really important to me: to be able to open that process up."
The impression one gets from these testimonials is that the students organizing the 2011 New Works Festival came to the task with a clear sense of purpose – Kaplan calls it an "intentionality" that wasn't evident in earlier festivals – and it appears to have resulted in a smoother and more agreeable process. "It seems a little more calm this time around," says Ash, "because there's a lot more understanding about why processes have been set up the way that they have and decisions are being made the way that they are. We're very clear about that."
Moreover, she adds, the executive committee has set a tone of friendly cooperation that's made a difference: "People see us getting along with each other and being very casual with each other but [see that we] can do that in a very professional way and still get the job done." Coleman concurs: "One thing that's really amazing about this executive committee is that we all really get along."
And sitting in the room with Coleman, Ash, Sale, and Kaplan as they talk through the committee's work over the past year and a half, that's apparent in almost every exchange. When Coleman speaks about the importance of the NWF giving students "a space that is truly safe to produce whatever [they] want," the other three spontaneously nod their heads. Later, as Sale characterizes the "oh shit" moments that she's encountered working on the festival as "the busy work of it, the to-do lists that I just gotta get through," the sounds of agreement echo around the room. And tellingly, when these artists speak to what restores their faith in the work they're doing for the NWF, they come back to the people working alongside them. "When I talk about this festival and when I hear my colleagues talk about it," says Sale, "my buy-in and my passion for it are so real to me."
That isn't to say the organizational work of the NWF is wholly without friction. One of the key days in the 18-month run-up to the festival is the Throwdown, and the name itself hints at the potential for contentiousness. The members of the selection committee spend all day one Saturday reviewing project submissions and collectively determining which will be included in the fest. For the Throwdown this past November, that meant 35 individuals judging more than 60 applications, and when you factor in aesthetic tastes and the committee members' familiarity with the applicants, well, even a second grader can do that math. The committee members interviewed for this feature allowed that the discussion was at times heated, but it was a heat fueled by passion more than anger.
And part of the debate revealed the degree to which the students had taken ownership of this year's festival. At one point, the committee had to consider what to do with several applications that requested full productions but had yet to develop scripts. That might have been cause to reject them, but, says Sale, "nobody felt right completely taking these things out of the game. There were seeds there." Some students suggested accepting the projects but not funding them the way regular projects would be; instead, a reading room would be set up where each of the projects could be read aloud once. When the faculty producers argued against it, the students stood their ground. "While they acknowledge that the faculty bring a certain perspective, I think they also felt, 'This is our festival,'" says Coleman. Then she added: "In the producers' defense, they were totally outnumbered. Two of them to 32 of us."
For all the implied aggressiveness of its name, the Throwdown is the event to which Coleman points as the event that made her feel all the energy she'd expended on the festival was justified: "Before it was great, but it had been so administrative, it was like: 'Okay, what are we doing here? I don't really get it.' And at the end of that day, [having heard] the conversations that all of my classmates had had about these works, being so respectful about their peers' works where they were really putting themselves out there, and looking at all the ideas that were on the board that were going to happen, now that there were ideas and passion and people attached to it, that's when I was like: 'This is the real deal. I'm really excited about this.'"
Of course, the months following the Throwdown, the final four before the festival week, when the 30-plus projects hurtling toward production must be coordinated, ratchet up the intensity and provide ample opportunities for the student organizers to wonder why in the name of Thespis they've subjected themselves to this. The burdens shouldered by Ash as production manager would melt the minds of all but the most organized among us. Once the NWF projects have submitted information about their needs – Does the project need a dance studio? A conference room? Does it require chairs in the rehearsal space? How many hours a week are needed for rehearsals? For tech? – Ash is the person who synthesizes all the data and creates rehearsal and performance schedules, giving every project a space and balancing conflicts between projects that share the same students. "I have a lot of spreadsheet dreams," she admits.
It was while she was creating the first rehearsal schedule that Ash had a major "what did I get myself into?" moment. "I'd made it halfway through," she says, "and my computer crashed, and I lost it. I had already spent a week and a half on it, and I remember having this moment of just wanting to cry. I was so mad at myself." But while she was stewing in frustration, Ash received an e-mail from Tramaine Berryhill, the festival's technical director. He had been struggling with a technical problem for one of the projects to be performed in the B. Iden Payne Theatre, and he was writing Ash to say that he'd figured out a solution. "He had no idea what had happened" to her, she says, "and he was so excited and jazzed. [The students producing] that project – their big problem had gotten fixed, and that was something that they didn't need to worry about anymore. And I was like: 'Oh my god, Traimaine, this is why we're doing this.' Then I went back and cried a little bit and started back on the schedule."
They've already devoted months and months to the New Works Festival, and they keep devoting time to it so they can forge that safe space for their peers and friends to take risks, to push themselves to be original, to create and collaborate in ways that one more production of As You Like It or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof might not inspire them to. Each committee member I spoke to has a project that he or she is especially looking forward to seeing because, even on its application, it exemplified something of that chance-taking spirit that the festival champions. For Sale, it's Stockpile, a site-specific play about squirrels that "just sounded ridiculous and fun." For Coleman, it's And Then Came Tango, a work for young audiences based on the story of the two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who mated and were given an egg to hatch. Ash names Swimming Upstream, which is "essentially the story of conception but told from the sperm's point of view," she says. The application described it as "a multimedia show with puppets," she recalls, "with 'puppets' in caps and exclamation points. And I remember thinking, 'What is this, but why do I want to see this onstage?' The idea just seemed so ridiculous that it was fascinating, and I thought, 'This needs to be a part of this [festival].' 'Cause where else could you do this and get away with it?"
The University Co-op presents the 2011 Cohen New Works Festival March 28-April 2, with events beginning at 11am Monday and ending at 5pm Saturday. This year's festival features 36 new works, including site-specific performances, works of dance and dance-theatre, a chamber opera, a chamber musical, two plays rooted in country music, three plays about sex, several plays for young audiences, several plays with puppets (some for young people, some decidedly not), a play incorporated into a bicycle tour (BYOBike), sound installations, a digital design installation, and more.
Most projects will be presented in and around the Winship Drama Building, 23rd & San Jacinto, but projects also take place in the auditorium and courtyard of the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, 1900 University Ave.; the Blanton Museum of Art, MLK & Congress; and the UT Visual Arts Center in the Art Building, 23rd & Trinity. Thanks to the sponsorship of the University Co-op, all events are free, but because many venues have limited seating – some as few as 25 seats – audience members are asked to arrive 30 minutes prior to performance time for seating. For a full schedule, visit www.coopnwf.org.