The Laboratory of Playmaking
Artists from different realms join forces to concoct new strains of performance in UT's New Works Festival
"New" isn't just another adjective when it comes to the David Mark Cohen New Works Festival. This biennial event, organized by the UT Department of Theatre & Dance and named for the influential playwright, critic, and educator who headed the school's playwriting program from 1990 until his death in 1997, is intently focused on the new on every level: new works, certainly, but new kinds of work free experimentation with style and narrative and mash-ups of disciplines like theatre and sculpture or film and dance and new ways of working, with those traditional authorial voices, playwrights, and directors, mixing it up more collaboratively with designers and performers and composers in creating a work's identity.
And since most of the participating creators are students, we're also talking new artists many of whom get the opportunity through the festival to establish creative partnerships with other artists they've never worked with before. It's a great big stew of new (28 projects this year, that's how big), and in the weeks leading up to the seven straight days of the festival, the Winship Drama Building becomes one giant laboratory of original performance. Work is made in theatres, classrooms, odd corners of the building, and outdoors, the bulk of it hurled together in a matter of days, like atoms in a supercollider. In the coming week, the results go public, and we have the opportunity to enter the lab and observe the results, to see what new strains of performance have been bred. Based on my experience with the previous three festivals, it's a visit worth making. (And since the festival is underwritten by the University Co-op, every performance is free.)
How does it feel from the inside, though? When you're scrambling to assemble a performance with a handful of rehearsals and a couple of hours of tech? "The vibe is frenetic," says playwright Ryan Pavelchik, whose play Static was presented in the 2005 New Works Festival and picked up by Salvage Vanguard Theater for production last year. "Never enough time, never enough space, never enough sleep; but that's theatre, that's live, that's people in passionate pursuit. The harried youth pinballing through the lobby, half-dead but more alive than they've ever been. It's beautiful. Through the building flows a collective unconscious brimming with wonder, failure, delight, pride, and love."
Anastasia Coon, who's performing a piece she wrote in one of the showcases of solo performances by master's of fine arts acting students, finds the department to be caught up in a similarly intense rush of enthusiasm and anxiety, what she calls "superexcited/wildly stressed/crazy collaborative/extremely interdependent/go team!" That isn't owing just to the condensed time frame prior to the production. "Many of the organizing committees and producers have been meeting for the last year to make the festival a success," she explains. "Directors from each project have been meeting weekly since November. For many of us, our show in NWF is also our thesis, which we will defend to our faculty committees. So this is high-stakes stuff for all of us."
In some cases, those stakes are bound up in a particular creative vision that an artist has held for quite some time and is using the festival at long last to realize. Set designer Yvonne Boudreaux is one such artist. Her project, Portrait, is one she had in mind when she came to the university three years ago and is finally bringing to life in her last semester. Students who have taken part in previous festivals shared that perspective. In it, dancers harnessed in a trolley walk and dance along the back wall of the B. Iden Payne Theatre as if it were a floor. Pieces of furniture are bolted into the wall to add to the illusion. "It is like when you peer over a balcony and look down on people walking," explains Boudreaux. "The idea was to take simple movements that we do in everyday life and have your perception skewed." The concept required an enormous technical challenge: building a 40-foot-long truss with trolleys inside of it that would allow dancers to run and dance along a wall. "I never thought the thing would actually be built and then work," she admits.
And it might not have, had Boudreaux not trusted in the nature of collaboration. One lesson she took from her experience in the 2005 festival was "that I cannot do everything by myself. It is okay to ask for help and give people their own department to run." She turned to fellow design grad student Chih Feng Chen to build the structure and asked her friend Andee Scott to choreograph which actually allowed Scott to realize a long-held vision of her own: choreographing an aerial work, something she'd been unable to figure out how to do in her work with Dance Repertory Theatre. Thanks to the collaborative process of the NWF, Scott is not only able to create an aerial dance but to do one that overcomes one of the limitations of the form: dancers hanging from a fixed point, "so the movement is restricted to parabolic pathways." Chih Feng Chen's trolly/track system gives the dancers a way of exiting and entering the "stage." "Of course, now that they can walk, there are other things they cannot do," says Scott, "but that's what makes it so exciting for me as a choreographer. I really get to explore and discover different ways to do things and address the concept of perception as it relates to how we see dance."
Coon is taking advantage of this year's NWF to expand on the vision she realized in the festival two years ago. "In the previous festival, I wrote and produced a solo show called 'Gracie and Rose,' set in 1963, about two women who are lovers and living on a ranch in Wyoming. Gracie dresses to pass as a man when she leaves the ranch to do 'men's work.' They both must cope with the extreme demands of the land, livestock, and of living in hiding from the surrounding community. When I wrote that show, I was just coming off of a breakup, so the story was pretty tragic, and it seemed that Gracie and Rose wouldn't be able to overcome the obstacles of living as lesbians in rural isolation. But now, I'm much happier, so Gracie and Rose are, too. Their desire to have a baby becomes a metaphor for seeking biological freedom. So as my life expands, so does the piece."
That doesn't mean everything about the piece expands. It's still a solo work, and Coon notes, "Because we have a limited budget and time to tech our shows, I'm challenged to keep my ideas simple but packed with meaning; I can't land a helicopter on stage like in Miss Saigon, but can I combine an old wooden ladder with the sounds of galloping hooves and capture the audience's imagination to envision a herd of horses thundering across the plains of Wyoming?"
Katie Pearl sympathizes. The Obie Award-winning co-creator of Nita & Zita has been brought in as a guest director in previous festivals she directed the NWF presentation of Steve Moore's Nightswim, as well as its world premiere at the State Theatre and she's back this year to steer David Modigliani's play Wireless-less to production. "I'm trying to remember to be very realistic," she says. "For example, as I was conceiving how to stage David's play, I know that we have only two hours of tech time and probably can't rely on the subtleties of lighting cues to move us through the show so I built a system of carpet squares that will continually rearrange in order to take us to different 'places' on the stage." She feels the pressure of the ticking clock more this time, too, as she works to stage a show with a large cast that's "much more sprawling than Nightswim was. There's a lot more to do: live sound, live video, technical elements. It feels a little like trying to contain an octopus in a fish tank that's a tiny bit too small for it but it's a fantastic octopus! And a really great fish tank! So we'll just keep trying to make it work!!"
Pearl sounds very much on the inside of the laboratory right now, but as an outsider, she's also able to see the bigger picture, the goal of the organizers "to create a place and a time that acknowledges not only the fantastic work that is going on at UT but also the kind of work and creative trends that are growing nationally and internationally. So there is the goal of exposure but also the goal of acknowledgment that the making of theatre is entering a new age, one that is driven not solely by the playwright but instead is fueled by collective, collaborative creation. The playwright is joined in the room by many people, all of whom are writers in their own ways, using their own tools. I'm sure the shows coming up at this festival will be a testament to that."