The Austin Chronicle

Race to Innovation

With $1,000 each and eight weeks, five teams compete to take theatre to a new level

By Elizabeth Cobbe, September 9, 2005, Arts

In order to start a fire, you can do the normal thing with matches or a lighter. Or you can bang the right kinds of rocks together until they produce a spark. The first annual ArtSpark Theater & Game Development Festival, which opens Sept. 8, appears to be going for the latter method. Both producers and artists have adopted a trial-and-error attitude toward mounting what they hope will be an original artistic event.

Six teams amassed under the auspices of ArtSpark, which provided each group with a budget of $1,000 and eight weeks to create a live production from scratch. Five of the teams have a theatre focus; the sixth is a combination of theatre artists and video game developers. This week, the teams that have made it to the finish line – one team has dropped out – will present their shows for the public. Then one team will walk away with a prize of $5,000.

ArtSpark's focus is on innovation, collaboration, and teamwork. The additional challenge that the festival producers have set for themselves, however, is to demand equal innovation from themselves as they abandon the established model for performing arts festivals and do a little of their own creative work.

In other words, everybody's trying to invent something better than just another wheel.

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ArtSpark has literally provided this year's participants, who are all local, with a room of their own – specifically, an office with Internet access and a rehearsal studio for each team. Artists have round-the-clock access to the building and the freedom to decide how they use it. "I've long said that if we could just have some place we could be and not worry about having to pay rent, just get a little bit of money, we could change the world," says Cliff Coats, lead playwright for Team Walking Shadow Repertory. (Each company has its own "team" name.)

Along with their budgets and offices, the teams have access to a professional dramaturg and presentations by speakers including Broadway producer Dan Fields, poets Elizabeth Austen and Georgia Me, and local entrepreneurs and lawyers. The idea is to provide artists with the tools to create and to succeed financially. "I don't want to discourage you, but there's a real world out there, and it makes no sense," screenwriter Rex McGee told the assembled artists during one session in early August.

ArtSpark producers have a few rules: Teams can have costumes for their shows but no sets or props apart from what they can create with projections, and no one could start work until July 7. To ensure there were no false starts, producers gave each team some kind of "inspiration": photographs, a book, a movie, or something else around which to develop the show.

Team Walking Shadow had a series of noirish images to work from, such as cigarette smoke and a woman's heeled foot. They spent the first four weeks writing, brainstorming on the sheets of butcher paper now covering one wall of their office, and reading up on Gothic literature. Their play, called Terminal, is about a man in a bus terminal who must face up to the events of his life before he can leave. Says writer Coats, it takes place in a "dark world that exists outside ours that influences us."

The eight-week limit has affected groups differently, but the attitude in the building seemed to be that as long as their method of working was sound, things would work out. "There was an expectation of trying to be as open as possible and not trying to write War and Peace," says director Aaron Sanders. "We didn't necessarily lower our expectations, but I think having that in your brain, we're going to do the best that we possibly can in four weeks, and then we've gotta just let it go."

In rehearsal, the Walking Shadow artists sound like a theatre company with a common vocabulary, tossing around ideas about isolations, movement styles, and character building. In contrast, members of Team Biped Entertainment Group, which combines theatre artists and game developers, talk about textures, rendering, and compositing.

Biped members compare their show to a game demo, where the audience can "play" level one and decide if they want more. "It's a psychological game," says team director James Shipman. "It's not like a first-person shooter game. It's an emotional reality is what it is, because the character has control over her environment. There are things around her that she does not control, and she has to decide how to respond."

Biped artists say that after the festival, they might expand their "demo" into a full-length stage play or game, or they could pursue the idea of marketing the concept of a game demo with live actors to gaming companies. Says Shipman, "Even if the idea itself isn't something somebody wants us to take further, the concept of how to present something live is what's important. ... It may not be the actual idea of the play but the idea of how we have presented it that could go on from ArtSpark."

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Talking to the various artists, it's easy to spot the ways that corporate lingo has bled into their creative work – with teams in a competition for "seed money" or the emphasis on innovation and process vs. product. That's unusual, since most theatre in this country takes place in a nonprofit environment, where artists have at least some separation from things like marketing and competition. "In a way it's honest," says David Copelin, one of three professional dramaturgs who came to ArtSpark from outside Austin. "I don't think there's anything wrong with exploring the commercial potential of these projects."

The ArtSpark festival is the first major venture of the HBMG Foundation. Says foundation Executive Director Barbara Holden, who built her career as an agent in Hollywood, "I'm not from the nonprofit world, so I don't buy into the notion of something not being profitable. If no 501(c)(3)s made money, then none of them would survive."

The HBMG Foundation, which earned its nonprofit status in March 2004, is funded largely by HBMG Inc., a local tech-sector company. Holden says they had intended to recruit three theatre teams and three gaming teams but changed plans when fewer game developers than theatre artists applied.

"Theatre's a really, really ancient art form," says Holden. "I don't want to offend any theatre people, but why not blend that with other art forms? The gaming industry is bigger than the film industry now, so why not get these two fields together?"

HBMG Inc. Chairman Manuel Zarate has been a major force behind the creation of the ArtSpark festival. Zarate has worked as a director and playwright locally and was the artistic director of Third Coast Repertory, a company that folded in 1997 after two seasons.

Holden and the artists involved in ArtSpark speak highly of Zarate and his involvement – one writer called him a "vat of knowledge" – although Zarate downplays his role in the festival. "My experience is reflected in the overall process," he says. "It isn't about me sitting down and telling you everything that I've done or what I didn't do or wish I had done. My general feeling is, if you're interested in what I'm doing, look at what I'm doing."

Zarate says he hopes to make the HBMG Foundation financially independent and free from the "stipulations" of grants and public funding. "I'm tired of artists, of creative individuals, being on welfare. I can't support the foundation forever, because then I'm setting up the same model as well." He made much the same comment to the Austin American-Statesman before forming Third Coast Repertory, suggesting that a nonprofit arts organization that relied only on private and business support could act as a "two-year experiment," one that would "show other organizations that you are structurally sound."

Says Holden, "One of Manuel's goals [with ArtSpark] is to show other businesses what they can give back to the community."

If the model is sustainable, then it would be at least as revolutionary as anything the artists come up with this year. It would also be welcome to many arts groups who face dwindling public sources of funding. But first, ArtSpark and the HBMG Foundation must prove they are financially independent.

As of early summer, the foundation had a short list of companies in addition to HBMG Inc. offering support. Holden says she hopes that businesses will recognize the innovation in the teams' creative processes and hire the artists, directly or through the foundation.

It's unclear exactly what the agreement is between ArtSpark and the artists regarding the ownership of the work and how the HBMG Foundation can derive financial benefit. Before rehearsals began, the plan had been for ArtSpark to take at least a cut of the royalties and residuals from any future productions of works developed for the festival. However, this plan wanders into the well-traveled territory of playwrights' copyright. "We're very artist-friendly," says Holden. "I come from the film world where that kind of thing is completely normal." She emphasizes that the producers are remaining flexible as they work out the kinks: "It's driving our attorneys crazy."

As of late August, the issue was still undecided. "The question was posed in a ripe context and that could lead to fruitful conversations. I don't think there was any malice involved," says Copelin. "I think they were using an inappropriate model."

Zarate has a somewhat different view. "We kept saying over and over, this isn't about theatre. If you're coming in here and trying to follow the same, standard format of how theatre is done, this is the wrong place. I'm dealing with an issue right now where some gentleman from this other organization that is a very traditional theatre organization is out here, trying to tell us how to do things. Well, we're not a theatre!"

Earlier that morning, Ralph Sevush, associate director of the Dramatists Guild of America, had said, "I'm in the process of writing a friendly letter to the executive director of the program to help them know what theatrical standards are. ... I'm hopeful that the situation will rectify itself."

None of the playwrights involved are members of the Dramatists Guild, so its involvement is limited. (ArtSpark only accepted applications from playwrights who have not had a production with Equity actors.)

None of the artists interviewed expressed any feeling other than satisfaction with their treatment during the festival. "We knew [ArtSpark] had the time and the money and the willingness to do it," says Sanders, director for Walking Shadow, "but they weren't quite sure about all of the details, and knowing that going in just meant we've got to remain open to the possibility that things are going to change a lot. They're going to do their level best."

Similarly, the competition for $5,000 has been a presence but not a disruption in the teams' work. "Some of them seem to be focused on it," says Copelin. "Others have forgotten about it. Sure, they want to win, but they don't have dollar signs dancing in their eyes, as far as I can tell."

Prize money and other strategies aside, ArtSpark organizers are clear that one of their goals is enabling the participants to become financially independent. "We're really into dispelling that starving artist image," says Holden. None of the artists are complaining. "We're not making our living with our art," says Biped's Shipman, "but through ArtSpark we might be able to do that."

"People a lot of times have said to me, specifically in the last several months, 'Well, that's not the way things are done,'" says Zarate. "Yes, I know that. I'm not interested in doing it the way it was done. ... That isn't a reflection of bad or good. Nor does it mean that what I'm doing is better. Or that it will succeed! That makes it challenging and exciting."

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