New Works Festival 2003

Since she came to the US from India, Deepti Gupta, an Acting graduate student, had been waiting to see some new Indian -American theater. "I think that other asian communities such as Philipino-Americans...have been very pro-active," says Gupta, "But somehow the Indians here are not very forthcoming." As his senior thesis project for Plan II, Niraj Patel wrote 1857 ,a play depicting how the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 affected one community on British India. On the advice of the New Works Festival committee, Patel asked Gupta to direct 1857. Gupta was so excited, she accepted the project without reading the script.

Gupta and Patel's collaboration on a new play was exactly what Festival Producer Suzan Zeder, head of the playwriting program and endowed chair in youth theater/playwriting had in mind. For Zeder, the sophomore effort of the David Mark Cohen New Works Festival (April 4-13, 2003) was a labor of love. She organized the first one in 2001, drawing on the idea from a showcase of graduate writing organized by her predecessor, David Cohen, who was killed in a car accident in 1997. Zeder says her primary motivation was that there are simply not enough production opportunities for new theater, particularly theater created in an academic setting. The first New Works Festival included 28 events, ran for six weeks and involved the entire department. "It just about killed all of us," Zeder joked.

Despite the long and exhausting run, all of the events were well attended and the department was hooked. "We decided to shrink the time, but then we also decided to grow the festival which was ironic. The festival this year ... was ten days long and there were 45 events." The concentration of events depended heavily on faculty cooperation, says Zeder: "The faculty made a decision last year that we would take one week in April and focus on the festival… It could not be extra-curricular." Professors released their students from class to attend New Works events, held special classes related to the festival or opened their classes to all festival participants.

The New Works committee, made up of students, faculty, and staff, began work more than a year ago to determine the size and scale of the festival's next incarnation. At that time, Zeder and Erik Viker, the festival production manager, sat down to design the technical aspects — everything from venues to the use of the departments state-of-the-art robotic lighting system. "Erik Viker was the hero of this festival," Zeder said, "…Every production group had tech time."

Last spring, the committee began reading initial production applications. Rather than submitting a full script, most writers presented an idea, a basic structure, and a plan for its execution. The committee announced its decisions in the first week of October, assigning each selected to work to one of three categories: Full productions were given a $1200 budget, 5 to 6 weeks of rehearsal time, and two performances in main venue. Workshops would be performed as script-in-hand stage readings and had one week of rehearsal and a $300 budget. The final category, "Solo/Showing/ Site Specific," included everything from dance performances by S.E.E.D., a student dance & choreography troupe, to more traditional solo performances, to a costume installation entitled "Journeys into and Examinations of the Human Condition." The committee sought grants from several sources to cover production budgets and overhead costs. The department of theater and dance provided approximately one-fifth of the funding. The rest of the budget came from the Michener Center, the College of Fine Arts, the Ransom Center, two department endowed chairs, and the David Mark Cohen endowment and nominal admission was charged for some performances.

New Works Festival writers challenged assumptions about classic works and styles. House of Sweets retold Hansel and Gretel with a dark twist: "What we found in the original text was disturbing," wrote directors Elena Manuela Araoz and Kimberly Dilts, "A pair of children are cruelly abandoned in the wilderness twice by their parents, they roast a witch, go back home, their stepmother is missing, so they live happily ever after with their father. What? There are many holes in this story." The result is a sexually charged, often shocking fairy tale exploring the step-mother's sexual power over Hansel and Gretel's father.

Pieces dealing with a more realistic setting also presented controversial subject matter. Dan Basila's play, Passersby, followed three flat mates through cycles of elation, drugs and resignation in an apartment in San Francisco's Castro district. Michael Graupmann explored the intersection of Christianity and homosexuality in his solo performance, Real Men Love Jesus. Megan Gogerty's play, Love Jerry, used music and movement to talk about pedophilia and its impacts on two brothers. Zeder estimates that 98% of performances were either sold-out or over capacity. Extra performances of Nightswim and House of Sweets had to be added to make room for more audience members.

Between events, the festival sponsored six panel discussions that provided a forum for performers, writers, teachers, guests and audience members to respond to the performances they had seen. John Walch, a playwright currently working in New York and former UT adjunct professor, moderated each of the panel discussions. (Walch is also one of the committed few who saw every production.) The committee invited guest respondents from Austin and around the world, taking suggestions for guests from the production groups. "Our main goal for the panels was to provide a place for both response and discussion of the works seen during the festival," said Walch. "However, we didn't want the panels to be fully evaluative, we wanted them to be discussion with the artists, the guest respondents, and the audiences."

Each panel connected the works being discussed with an over-arching theme: tone, artists' intent, the artists' responsibility to the audience, transformative elements, and the role of theater in Theater in Education. The discussion gave artists an opportunity to find out how their work was received. Walch also notes that the interaction proved to be educational for the respondents as well: "When you're seeing so much work so quickly, you don't really have time to put it all together and think about it, much less discuss it. Many of our panelists had 'aha' moments as they sat in the panels and heard other people's responses." In addition to serving as panelists, the guest respondents met individually with the production team of every show they saw. "That's where I think the most meaningful discussion went on," said Zeder.

Master Classes added more education to the festival for students from Theater and Dance and other departments by exploring several aspects of performance—movement, voice, and storytelling. Jim Hancock, a former UT actor's movement teacher, took the opportunity to focus a two hour class on one his areas of interest: the Chinese healing movement form Qui Gong. Lisa D'amour and Paul Bonin-Rodriguez taught a "Playmaking/Performance" class, billed as "a Low Stakes/High Fun performance and play making workshop for performers who want to maximize presence onstage and writers who want to escape the shackles of the desk." "Our master class together allowed us to pinpoint what we loved about each other's work, and then develop a workshop designed to explore these points of interest," says D'amour, "We were incredibly energized to teach the workshop, which lead to an incredible experience, I think, for both teachers and students." Attendance at the master classes exceeded modest expectations; "Most of them were over full, with students being turned away," says D'amour, "I think we will try and have even more, next festival..."

"The bottom line was it was an event about 'yes'," says Zeder. That meant saying "yes" to as much new work as possible, as many participants as possible, and the best resources possible—drawing on the talents of writers, actors, techs, teachers and observers. "I did not make anything happen," she continues, "I got the obstacles out of the way." The resulting ten days created not only a working space for new theater and dance, but a community spirit that Suzan Zeder is especially proud of: "The vitality was wonderful to behold."

Article by Austin Bonner