The Austin Chronicle

UT's Cohen New Works Festival Brings Experimentation to the Stage

By Alyssa Hiarker, April 12, 2019, 7:00am, All Over Creation

When curtains rise on the Cohen New Works Festival on April 15, over 30 original student creations will debut in spaces across the University of Texas campus. Encouraged to push themselves and their art in new directions, the performances challenge student artists to reinterpret art, storytelling, and the way that they create.

Drawing in audience members from across campus, Austin and the world, the festival encourages attendees to view as many of the pieces as they can by not charging admissions fees to any of the shows. In order to further encourage the exploration of art, only 60% of the available tickets are available online, with the rest reserved for walk-ups on the day of the performance. “The spirit of the festival is to show up and see as much art as you can,” says Alice Stanley, the student producer of the Cohen New Works Festival.

Established in 2007, the Cohen New Works Festival – named in honor of professor and advocate for the creation of new work David Mark Cohen – focuses on the formation of original pieces that departments within UT are centered around. “I’ve been working with New Works for a while. It’s what initially inspired me to apply for UT,” says Anna Skidis Vargas.

For Vargas, the opportunity to participate has allowed her to begin fully exploring the idea of Lloronx, a feminist retelling of the folktale of La Llorona coming to the fest. It gave her deadlines that have helped the show take form. “Having a firm deadline is the scariest way to work. No matter what shape the show is in, it’s going on,” she says.

The biennial event has been in the works since last year when the executive committee, comprised of graduate and undergraduate students, was selected and met to decide the core values that the 2019 incarnation would be built upon. With the selected tenets of empowerment, collaboration, community, process, and representation, New Works encourages participants to think of themselves as generating artists.


In order to support the festival, the Department of Theatre and Dance will suspend all classes for the week so students are able to go out, participate, and see as many performances as possible. However, the general public is also encouraged to see what these student-artists are up to. It doesn't hurt that all the events are free.

Focused on the pursuit of interdisciplinary art, the festival includes dance pieces, interactive installations, musicals, plays, and operas that push content creators to explore their talents. “If you’ve written 13 operas and you’re here to write your 14th, that’s not necessarily what our goal is,” Stanley says. “But, if you’ve written 13 operas and you’re writing a solo piece, we’d program that.”

Brutal Imagination, a play based on Cornelius Eady’s book of poetry of the same name, melds art forms to tell the story of Mr. O, an archetype of black criminality that was created in response to Susan Smith’s claim that a black man carjacked her and kidnapped her children after she drove her car, with her children inside, into a lake. “It’s adapting poetry into something to be seen and shown. It’s taking nothing but words and metaphors and making it performable,” says Kriston Woodreaux, one of the project leads for Brutal Imagination.

The life of the performances featured doesn’t end after the last round of applause. In order to keep participants thinking critically about their art, New Works brings in guest artists such as Susan Zeder, the former head of UT's Department of Theatre and Dance's playwriting program and the creator of the New Works Festival, to give feedback. There's also the Outlet, a place on site for people to explore the works in terms of historical context, the creative process, and more. It's also another way attendees can leave constructive feedback.

For pieces like DOPE FIT!, the second in a three-piece series, this feedback fosters growth and adaptation. “This is just a point in the show’s life, and it’ll simply continue to grow from here,” says Michael Love, one of the project leads of DOPE FIT!.

The Cohen New Works Festival runs from April 15-19 on the University of Texas’s campus. See the fest's website for a full list of featured shows and times or to reserve tickets.

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