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Research and Development

Back in the performance laboratory of the David Mark Cohen New Works Festival

By Robert Faires, March 27, 2009, Arts

Expect sparks in the Winship Drama Building this coming week. As has happened there every other spring since 2001, the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance is hosting the David Mark Cohen New Works Festival, and so much creative experimentation will be taking place – more than 30 projects this year, covering theatre, ballet, contemporary dance, cabaret, film, theatrical design, musical theatre, and mash-ups of two or more of the above – that friction is inevitable and fireworks quite likely.

This will be the fifth edition of the festival, named in honor of the influential playwright, critic, and educator who did so much to champion new work as head of the department's playwriting program from 1990 until his death in 1997. Part of Cohen's legacy now is this intense biennial exercise in experimentation, with the entire drama building and its immediate environs becoming a laboratory for performance, with directors, designers, choreographers, composers, dancers, actors, musicians, playwrights, videographers, technicians, and dramaturges conducting research into what is possible in drama, in dance, in telling stories and not telling them, in fusing disciplines, in collaboration.

"The spirit of collaboration and excitement that I witness in the playwrights and artists, as they support and help create each other's work, is always inspiring," says playwright Sherry Kramer (When Something Wonderful Ends, David's Redhaired Death), a participant in previous festivals. "It's like you can actually see the spirit of performance in material form." She believes the size, interdisciplinary approach, and inclusiveness of UT's festival make it unique on the festival landscape. "While some events are higher production values than others, there is a democratic aspect about the sheer variety of events that makes everything equal," Kramer notes. "Each event is what it is."

"What distinguishes NWF from other festivals is the same intangible quality that helps a script in development: optimism!" That's Suzan Zeder, who succeeded David Mark Cohen as head of the department's playwriting program and has been co-producer of the festival with dance professor David Justin and department producing director Denise Martel. Zeder says that the three of them, along with every student and faculty member of the festival committee, "try to treat each creative team with the respect and rigor that it deserves. The investment of money is not very great in terms of production. The promise of critical recognition is not likely, since most projects are not even reviewed individually. The real investment is an act of faith, that each project, play, piece of creative work will have a life-changing effect on its creators, and that is priceless."

This year, Zeder will have a dramatically different role in the festival. After four runs as producer, teacher, and midwife to other writers' plays, she will be giving birth to one of her own in the festival. For the past year, Zeder has been hard at work on the conclusion to a trilogy that began with what may be her most produced and acclaimed play, Mother Hicks, a drama of outcasts in a small town in Illinois during the Great Depression. A prequel, The Taste of Sunrise, told another story of the town, Ware, in the 1920s. Now Zeder is finishing the Ware Trilogy with The Edge of Peace, which takes the town into the last days of World War II and shows a family's struggle with the possible loss of a son in the great conflict. The play has already been through two workshops with Seattle Children's Theatre, which commissioned it, and will be further developed at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Fla., following Zeder's writing residency at the Hermitage retreat, but "none of these venues will give me what the New Works Festival will provide: a chance to stand on an equal footing with my students and learn from them and to bring this work in its formative stages to children and adults, deaf and hearing audiences." Zeder wants from the festival "exactly the same chance and gamble it gives to every student courageous enough to bring his or her best work to the table: a place to make something new, a time to take the first step, an audience to see it and hear it for the first time, and the belief that at the end of the day, someone will care."

If the festival's prior editions are any indication, finding someone to care will not be a problem. It was from the festival that some of the most remarkable original scripts of the past decade first saw light, and the strong response there helped propel them toward more fully realized productions: Steve Moore's Nightswim, Carson Kreitzer's Flesh and the Desert, Dustin Wills' Ophelia, Ryan Pavelchik's Static, George Brant's Elephant's Graveyard, Eve Tulbert's Ashes, Ashes. UT's biennial performance lab offers us an opportunity to discover more works like these in an environment supercharged with inventiveness and enthusiasm. "Basically, until they invent the warp drive and time travel," says Kramer, "the New Works Festival is pretty much the best way I know to walk through 20 or 40 doors into other worlds in one building in a week ... and what's not to like about that?"

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