David Mark Cohen New Works Festival

Relishing that monster buzz

The last "course" of the theatrical meal Foodstuff – one of the 30-plus projects in the 2009 David Mark Cohen New Works Festival at the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance – consisted of a diner in a restaurant knocking back cup after cup after cup after cup of espresso, then topping them off with a hefty mug of cappuccino. Rodney Richardson, the actor who downed all this java, keenly communicated its effects on his system, growing progressively more hyper until he was one big ball of buzz, crackling with energy like a Van de Graaff generator.

By the time I saw the piece Friday, that monster buzz was most familiar; I'd felt it throughout the Winship Drama Building all week: a current of energy coursing through the halls and in and out of every theatre and classroom. It was equal parts enthusiasm from the students involved in projects they'd generated and been working on for months, anticipation from their peers and teachers eager to see these original works, and that whole festival vibe that springs from so much concentrated creative energy, a packed schedule, people racing around seeing as much as possible, and chatter about what's hot (and not). As much as the works, that energy is what makes the New Works Festival a highlight of the Theatre & Dance Department calendar. Because it speaks to a level of investment on the parts of everyone in the department in the making of art. Students are granted the freedom and responsibility of creation, with full support from the system; they put the craft as they've been learning it into practice, making something original. And that's a remarkable gift from which they may draw lessons for a lifetime.

Based on the five works I saw and comments from other attendees, the 2009 festival seemed to boast more humor than earlier editions, with students more willing to crack wise, camp it up, and even indulge in a little old-fashioned slapstick. The Psyche Project took to the Greek myth of the god Eros and his mortal love with a satiric edge sharper than a Ginsu knife, and Foodstuff's dessert course was a memorable serving of Death by Chocolate Mousse Cake, which a gung-ho Jenny Connell and Mark Scheibmeir smeared all over each other in a fit of hilariously over-the-top passion. Not to minimize the quality of the dramatic works here – the reading of The Edge of Peace proved Suzan Zeder's new drama to be moving and a more than worthy sequel to her classic Mother Hicks and The Taste of Sunrise, and the site-specific dance The Shape of White cast hauntingly lovely images against the natural backdrop of Waller Creek – but it was refreshing to see this up-and-coming generation of theatre artists revel in irreverence.

More significant than the humor, however, was the strong presence of the collaborative process in the generation of new work. Where once the playwright was solely responsible for the text, now actors, directors, and designers may work together with the writer to shape a play. This collaborative process has long been around on the alternative theatre scene – the Rude Mechs are poster kids for this approach – but it's been slow to be embraced by academia. Seeing how well represented collaboration was among the festival works – with The Psyche Project a vibrant example of how well it can work – and how it surfaced in discussions such as the focus group Katie Pearl led on directing new work, combined with the department's support for collaborative work in classes such as one led by playwriting teacher Steven Dietz, suggests that UT may be on the vanguard of this country's university theatre departments, encouraging students in a 21st century approach to the generation of original material.

Such a forward-thinking approach by the department squares nicely with Austin's rep for being innovative and influential nationally in creative matters. And it gives you another reason – as if you needed one – to go ahead and mark the 2011 New Works Festival on your calendar. Yes, it's two years off. But for this, why wait?

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David Mark Cohen New Works Festival, UT Department of Theatre & Dance, Suzan Zeder, Steven Dietz, Katie Pearl

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