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The paradox of plenty: can there be too many theatre festivals blooming?

In the theatre nothing is certain, except for death and festivals. Wherever theatre people with brains, talent, resources and chutzpah feel the driving need to be seen and heard, the spur to "festing" cannot be held back or denied. This impulse--as bone-deep a habit as the drama festivals that evolved out of the ancient rituals at City Dionysia in honor of the Greek god of fertility and wine--moves us to action as primally as the search for identity and the need for assembly.

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Festivals are so ubiquitous a phenomenon that invoking their importance invites skepticism. It doesn't help that our critics and news junkies have degraded the conversations around the relevance of theatre festivals, reducing them to the bottom-line language of "commercial hit" or "Broadway standards"--loaded measures of success. Trend-spotting is another favorite sport that disguises laziness and ennui: Writing about the venerable Humana Festival of New American Plays has become a parlor game among reviewers and reporters to propose theories and designate themes running through all the plays. In recent years what has elicited notice is the establishment of fringe festivals in the U.S.--those frequently uncurated smorgasbords, usually modeled after the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and created in anarchic opposition to the hegemony of well-established festivals. Of course, the spirit of democracy or egalitarianism that provides the philosophical or journalistic basis for supporting fringe festivals would be a good thing in the best of all actual cultural worlds--if those other alternative festivals, based, say, on ethnic identity or peripheral cultures or sexual affiliations, weren't frequently ignored or overlooked in the mainstream media.

Let's not come down too hard on hard-line aficionados who partake of festivals, however. Certainly many new-play festivals are too imitative of past models; many play selections are either too traditional or too eclectic; others refuse to take real risks (why not produce new plays instead of just reading them?). There is the question of financial security: For instance, without the Humana Foundation's acknowledged support of the festival Jon Jory founded, and without the national awards and international tours that validated ATL's reputation as one of the leading progenitors of new plays, the future of its festival would have remained uncertain, and its ability to later expand its repertoire, incorporate new genres and make bolder choices would have been encumbered.

The proliferation of festivals, each one seeking to enliven the imagination and enrich our sense of human possibility, could be a sign that too many flowers are blooming. Rather than denoting the health and vibrancy of culture, this profusion might actually mean less cultural diversity than meets the eye. In "Curating New Work Festivals: Diverse Disciplines, Common Questions," a panel discussion I moderated and co-organized with Actors Theatre of Louisville, it became clear that commissioning and developing new works is a complex mechanism that calls for a particular creative energy and is deeply misunderstood by hit-seekers and drum-beaters. It also turns out to be a very American tendency, an institutionalized quirk not fully shared by our European brethren.

The panel revealed that a fissure or wedge exists between presenters and producers, even though both presenting organizations and resident theatres profess their belief in originality and innovation. Jargon confusion reigns: The ethos of new-play development differs from that of new-works development--the latter focuses on individual artists and ensemble theatres that develop and support their work by touring, usually to alternative spaces, contemporary art museums and presenting institutions.

The intent of the panel, held as the opening event of a special critics weekend this past March in Louisville, was to give an inside glimpse at how the fest scene operates; and to trace not just the growing stature of American festivals internationally but, more important, stress the sense of national scale, range and impact being afforded by such cultural endeavors as the National Black Theatre Festival, National Asian American Theater Festival, Hip-Hop Theater Festival, Humana Festival, Under the Radar and Colorado New Play Summit.

Festival fever continues unabated, because it comports nicely with the ideological framework of the free market as the ideal institution for the production and distribution of new works. Yet in the mania for commercial breakthroughs, what hasn't been explored is how theatre festivals can be an optimistic exhibition of what America could be--how a festival can be an expression of the creative ambition of the communities it serves or an urgent imperative to rebuild a sense of belonging and commonality in a multifaceted and diverse country.--Gener

RANDY GENER: How would you distinguish your festival from others that exist, many of which also promote new works? What is missing in the larger new-work development world that your festival addresses?

KENT THOMPSON, artistic director, Denver Center Theatre Company: Before I came to Denver, I ran a festival at Alabama Shakespeare Festival called the Southern Writers' Project. Because of the region's literary history, we identified its mission pretty clearly as a festival that would be based upon Southern writing and writing for African-American issues. When I moved to DCTC in 2005, I did not have the same impulse to do the Rocky Mountain Writers' Project. It seemed like the wrong thing to do.

The loose rubric that I had in mind for the Colorado New Play Summit consisted of two things: I wanted to have a healthy play-commissioning program that had a minimum of five to six commissions per year. And I wanted to distinguish our program from other festivals through ongoing and long-term relationships with several playwrights. I had done enough commissioning of work with enough playwrights over time to know that frequently the main issue comes down to the question: "How many plays are you going to get from those commissions that would hit your company's main stage?" I wanted to make sure that plays move to production. Each year, our company could produce at least two and hopefully three or four new plays--or they could be second, third or fourth productions of plays-in-process by writers with whom we wanted to work.

If I had a thematic basis for the plays I commissioned, it was: "What does it mean to be an American in the 21st century?" It is not that our festival couldn't have international writers represented in it, but we feel that where the festival is located, in the American West, gives us a unique view of American culture. [Taking place Feb. 12-14, next year's Colorado New Play Summit will premiere Michele Lowe's Inana and Cusi Cram's Dusty and the Big Bad World. Rogelio Martinez's When Tang Met Laika and Constance Congdon's Take Me to the River, about water rights in the American West, will be among five readings.] We love commercial producers, but it is much more important to me that we spend a lot of time before, during or after the summit to ensure future productions for the plays that we're producing or reading. We publish a chapbook, like the one Humana had in the past, a limited edition that we send out to the industry. We try to do a lot of marriage-brokering to make sure that our plays reeive productions elsewhere.

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MARC MASTERSON, artistic director, Actors Theatre of Louisville: The Humana Festival is only part of what we do at Actors Theatre, and it is playwright-centered. Directors and other theatre artists certainly have an important role, but the playwright has the power in the decision-making, and that notion has always been a hallmark of what the festival means. Secondly, because of the festival's longevity, it is important that it changes with time. If you think about what was happening in the U.S. in 1979, there were not very many theatres producing new plays; in fact, there were not many theatres in the U.S. compared to where we are today. My goal is to create a festival that represents that diversity in some way, that draws on that energy and strength.

I read someplace recently that Humana is the place for the well-made play. Certainly we still want the well-made play, but the American theatre is much more interesting than that to me. Like Kent, I want plays to move out of these doors and into production all over the country and all over the world. I see that as our mission. That said, we have done plays that are, if not one-time occurrences, particularly significant to us. We did At the Vanishing Point by Naomi Iizuka, a commission that came out of a community-based residency that TCG funded, and it was phenomenally successful for our local audiences. The national audience looked at it a different way. For us, the festival is not only a matter of ticking off the numbers. There's a qualitative measure that we take into consideration.

KAMILAH FORBES, artistic director, Hip-Hop Theater Festival: HHTF defines itself in a very clear way: aesthetically. We're a festival that is solely focused on producing and presenting works by, for and about the hip-hop generation. What that hip-hop aesthetic means can be very specific, but it can also be very broad. In 2000, the playwright and actor Eisa Davis wrote in The Source about the hip-hop phenomenon, mentioning Universes, Danny Hoch, Sarah Jones, Jonzi D, Reg E. Gaines and me. We knew of each other's work peripherally, but we were located in various different parts of the country and hadn't been able to come together under any one platform to meet each other or see each other's work.

HHTF is based out of New York City. We've been producing since 2000, and we've expanded to Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco. [The current festival, running through Oct. 11 in New York, features its founder Danny Hoch's new piece Taking Over, which will tour the five boroughs before its Public Theater debut starting Nov. 7.] We definitely feel that we're an institution that fosters and nurtures early work and early development with the hope that we can co-produce with larger institutions with larger resources and have a sit-down run for a production and ensure its future longevity.

MABEL ROBINSON, choreographer, director and artistic director, North Carolina Black Repertory Company: The National Black Theatre Festival was founded in 1989 to revive black theatre across the country, and it's held every summer in Winston-Salem, N.C., as a networking opportunity. We think of the NBTF as a celebration and a reunion of spirit. Larry Leon Hamlin, the founder and artistic director of the Black Rep, who died in 2007, felt that with black theatre artists scattered throughout the African diaspora, it was tough to find out what everybody was doing. He wrote to about 300 people or companies that existed--or were trying to exist--at that time and suggested to them that we create a network where we all come together and figure out how we can support each other.

NBTF produces a readers' theatre of new works. We do classical plays, hip-hop, dramas, comedies, musicals. Last year's festival showcased 117 performances from 35 companies over six days. More than 68,000 black playwrights, performers and theatre artists came down to North Carolina. [Next year's NBTF will be Aug. 3-8.] The poet Dr. Maya Angelou was one of the first people to offer support; she brought in Oprah Winfrey, and then the Harry Belafontes and Sidney Poitiers came in. In a city where it was thought that a black theatre company would not even work, more than 2,000 volunteers have come together and helped us in every capacity (lawyers, transportation and so on) during the festival. Malcolm-Jamal Warner hosts a hip-hop poetry slam. There's a midnight series, national teen showcases, seminars, youth projects. It's amazing. The city of Winston-Salem supports us--the festival gives the city lots of work and visibility, an impact of $13.6 million to the local economy in 2007.

MIA KATIGBAK, producing artistic director and co-founder, National Asian American Theatre Company: The mission of the National Asian American Theatre Festival is still in process. In 2003, TCG sponsored a convening of 21 theatres of color in Yulee, Fla.; there were six Asian-American theatre companies present [East West Players, Ma-Yi Theater Company, Mu Performing Arts, NAATCO, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and Second Generation]. Some of us knew each other socially, and four of us were based in New York. We began talking, for the very first time, about issues that affected all of us. Historically speaking, as a field, Asian-American theatre is pretty young. From this TCG conversation, we found that as a community we tend to be isolated in the East and West Coasts, with a smaller community in the Midwest. We found that despite the numerous Asian-American artists performing in the field, there was no connection with one other. We wanted our works to be seen on a national level. We wanted to contribute.

So we planned and organized the first-ever Asian-American theatre conference at East West Players in Los Angeles. We decided to hold a conference in the first year, a festival the second year, then a conference the third, then a festival. For now, our primary goal is to be a support system for each other and to continue the intergenerational dialogue. The first conference gave us old fogies the opportunity to meet younger artists who were coming up. Last year's NAATF was an amazing eruption of spirit and art; it was a national effort, with committee members and artists involved coming from around the country. Oh, how to manage all of that is a challenge!

The second conference took place this year at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. We had intended for the festival to travel as well--we wanted to hit all the communities in the country. But a festival is a huge undertaking. The plan is that the 2011 festival will take place in Los Angeles so that it will coincide with the 45th anniversary of East West Players, the oldest Asian-American theatre company in the U.S. Our hope is that six years down the line--by the time we would be in the tenth year, the fifth festival--the young theatre companies will be in a position able to host these festivals. So for 2009, please come to New York Oct. 8-18.

MARK RUSSELL, producer, Under the Radar: Under the Radar happens in January at the Public Theater. It came into being after the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation held several conferences (one in Portland, Ore., another in Pittsburgh, Pa.), which were funded through the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and TCG. They were interested in a certain issue: Why are presenters doing one kind of theatre, and the regional or resident theatres doing another kind of theatre? Why don't the two worlds intersect? We realized that presenters and producers were talking in different languages. So the idea was to do a conference where we show what we show what we think the new work would be.

I was asked to help put together the first UTR as a mini-festival and conference in January '05 at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. What we presented was focused mostly on devised work that comes out of U.S. -based ensembles (sometimes solo work) or that was created for tours, and sometimes playwright-created. Sometimes the works intersected with the resident theatre system, but very often not. I thought multiculturalism was a really tough thing--putting these two cultures together was worse.

The second UTR, in 2006, was more internationally focused, and we moved it to the Public, thanks to Oskar Eustis. We've been there for the last three years. The last UTR had hard costs around $450,000, but without the in-kind support from both the Public and APAP, the budget would be more like $950,000. A mix of national and international productions, I believe, is the future flavor of the festival.

I am a presenter of new works. I used to work at a place called P.S. 122, which was like a festival that wouldn't stop. UTR happens with the annual conference of arts presenters. There are 4,000 of those little buggers out there who come to New York to do showcases. There are almost as many shows happening in New York on that one weekend as there are in the Edinburgh Fringe, but no one knows about it. Most are really short and crappily produced showcases. And theatre doesn't work in showcases--five minutes of theatre doesn't get you anywhere; you have to see the whole thing, so I created this symposium format, which was like a forced march through theatre. The goal is to have people see shows, as fully produced as you can make them. [Next year's UTR will run Jan. 7-18.]

The idea of touring shows has been an important cornerstone of UTR from its very conception.

RUSSELL: Organizations like the Walker Art Center [in Minneapolis], Wexner Center for the Arts [in Columbus, Ohio] and your university presenters tour work; they may have the SITI Company, for instance, visit for three or four days. One of the companies that performed in that second year of UTR was a Dutch troupe called Kassys, in a piece called Kommer, which was about grief. They got 20 invitations that afternoon. It has taken them three years to respond to all the U.S. invitations. The Nature Theater of Oklahoma, based in the East Village, has received a whole lot of invitations in Europe and has been able to create its work almost solely through the commissions it gets in Europe. So the festival has been able to help a combination of foreign and American companies. We've been inviting--and are trying to make the festival a confused place for--international presenters, because they have more money and can get involved. They're also very interested in what's happening in the U.S.

You've served as a guest artistic director of Time-Based Arts Festival at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in Oregon. How does that fit in with UTR?

RUSSELL: PICA's TBA is a festival that takes over the whole city of Portland. It deals with all the arts--visual arts, performance, music, film, dance, theatre--but is informed by a contemporary visual-arts perspective. I often have artists that appear in both festivals, sometimes developing a work at TBA and then bringing the final version to UTR. There are shows (like Kommer) that were discovered at UTR and then came to Portland. Many artists I work with at UTR have work that fits into the context of TBA. Artists that push the envelope of their form are especially appropriate for TBA.

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Translation is an important mode of distributing American plays internationally after a festival debut.

MALGORZATA SEMIL, editor of the Polish theatre journal Dialog: It is essential. Literary managers and directors in Europe usually do not have enough English to be able to evaluate a play. There is no other way for a play to travel. In my part of the world, competition is strong: We are exposed to a lot of theatre from other European countries, especially Germany and England. A foreign play cannot have a theatre life until it is translated.

Can you cite examples of plays from Louisville or other U.S. festivals that you have seen in translation?

SEMIL: Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare (which I translated), Kathleen Tolan's A Weekend Near Madison, Marsha Norman's Getting Out and 'night Mother (though not directly from Louisville), Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart (my translation), Adam Rapp's Finer Noble Gases, Donald Margulies's Dinner with Friends, John Pielmeier's Agnes of God, William Mastrosimone's Extremities, D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game and Stephen Belber's Tape. All the plays mentioned above except Finer Noble Gases have been performed in Poland, some of them by a number of theatres (for example, One Flea Spare by Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw and Teatr Wybrzeze in Gdansk). Recently Gina Gionfriddo's After Ashley and Carlos Murillo's dark play or stories for boys, which both originated from Louisville, were translated into Polish.

Is there such a thing as an American "festival scene"? If so, does the American focus on text in new-works development make us really strange creatures, compared to work in European festivals?

SEMIL: I find it extremely difficult to find an American "festival scene" because of the size of the country. I know that many American artists meet very seldom, contrary to the situation in Europe, where we have permanent opportunities for European artists to meet within countries and also internationally. The basic difference between festivals over there and American festivals is: Most European festivals are concerned only with completed works. Fastivals are not workshops; they are not intended for developing works. Many European festivals try to create a melting pot by inviting artists from different countries to work together. The most important European festivals I know of are curated by one person or a very small board who shop around to find work that they think is interesting to show in their country and to showcase internationally. This latter approach sometimes boarders on "airport art." The more conscientious curators try to show theatre pieces that nobody has been before, or that nobody has seen in an international context.

In the Soviet bloc, there had always been many festivals--usually each country had its annual national festival of best productions of the season, or other presentations of new work. This tradition continues, but nowadays it seems that the organizers are making a point of inviting foreign guests and creating for them a special program that would give a broader background to the theatre productions. I would say that the showcase formula has become quite popular in Hungary, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Israel and Poland.

RUSSELL: I bet you that there are more new-works festivals in the U.S. where all the works are premieres than there are in Europe. The U.S. uses festivals to develop more new works and new playwriting. In Europe, they have different mechanisms. My festival is primarily presentations; I'm looking for the best. Sometimes I bring back or remount productions that have previously been seen in New York but which need a larger platform . A lot of those international festivals in Europe, however, specialize in really well-packaged works that can travel. They can send tech riders ahead of time.

What about the issue of ownership of a commissioned work? Does your festival take any long-term financial interest or option in an artist's work?

MASTERSON: I want to speak a bit about generosity. What's very interesting to me is getting in between the spaces of these well-defined worlds like presenters and producers, and finding the richness and energy in the space between those definitions. I collaborated with Kent on co-commissioning a play, Carlyle Brown's Pure Confidence, a few years ago. Each of us, Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Actors Theatre of Louisville, did a workshop. Then right after Kent left Alabama, we did a full production in the Humana Festival. Marc Bamuthi Joseph's the break (s) was co-commissioned by 12 different places. Although the Humana Festival offered commissioning and development support, we had no financial interest in it at all.

The Civilians's This Beautiful City is another interesting example of generosity between three very different entities: the Humana Festival, the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., and Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. That means the developmental process of the play is a rolling premiere, sort of, that will evolve over those three productions and eventually, I believe, find a home in New York City [at the Vine-yard Theatre this winter]. I'm talking here about getting over the macho need to won the play--and for the need to be the first, which is what's generous about it. We don't claim first-class rights, which is one reason why so many producers and scouts on the commercial side of theatre come here and pick something up. What that the means is that the play doesn't always travel with the acting company or creative team that first created it here. Sometimes the results are for the better, sometimes for the worse.

THOMPSON: We traditionally have an option for first-class rights, but DCTC has not exercised it during my tenure. At the Summit, we have discussed doing so with Octavio Solis's Lydia this season, based upon our passion for the script. We decided, in the end, that we had no actual plans to produce a commercial production and wanted the script unencumbered--which often means it will be produced more widely. Unless we and the playwright believe it's in the best interest of the play to keep the commercial rights (perhaps we believe it's a landmark new play, or the playwright wants to keep together a creative team/cast), we do not exercise those rights. I suspect we may do so in the future if DCTC wanted to bring a production directly to New York.

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If you could change something about your festival (its mission perhaps), what would it be? How might your festival look five to ten years from now?

ROBINSON: Time--more time. NBTF is a biennial festival that runs for six days. More and more, we want to expose our audiences to more black works. The greatest challenge is to obtain the funding to continue the NBTF.

THOMPSON: We want to try to add a week of rehearsals beyond our normal rehearsal period for play production. We would love to go beyond a one-week model of "we have a week to rehearse the play, then you do a reading of it, once or twice." We would like to get the Colorado Summit to a three-of four -week model, so we can do multiple readings.

KATIGBAK: NAATF just got started, so I guess I can dream. For that reason, my dream is philosophical, almost. It would be great to have a festival that would be an examination of range. We don't know what "Asian American" means anymore--or how the notion of it has changed. What do we mean when we say America? Do we mean North America? South America? Central America? What does Asian American mean in these contexts? The borders and boundaries are changing.

FORBES: I guess the big dream has to do with our name, Hip-Hop Theater Festival. I hope that, in 10 or 15 years, the name will change--but not the impact that could still be made. Hip-hop is the culture and generation that, I think, is currently reinvigorating the theatre.

MASTERSON: I have a wonderful big sandbox that by its nature over time reinvents itself. The Humana Festival's commitment to American playwrights will not change. But I agree with Mia that perhaps the definition of "American" playwirghts might evolve. For example, we don't have a lot of Canadians in the festival, and there's a rich theatrical culture to our south that should be brought in. I guess this is the bigger point: Americans are currently so isolated from the rest of the world, and how do we build those bridges again? It's by taking our work and sending it out, by inviting others to come in, and by having meaningful exchanges while keeping our commitment to this festival strong and clear.

RUSSELL: I think that PICA's TBA will contribute new works that will someday find themselves at our regional theatres. Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Reggie Watts and Lemon Anderson are all artists that I think will find homes in the resident theatres very soon. PICA supports works that speak to our times; many of them take a very theatrical form and would be completely appropriate for a regional theatre audience, perhaps one that is ready for a little adventure. I also see UTR going into more commissions of new works. We're trying to play right now a West Coast version of UTR, perhaps in L.A., that would look at the Pacific Rim, South America and Canada. There's so much theatre we're not engaging with that I hope to bring to the fore.

MODERATED BY RANDY GENER
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Title Annotation:CURRENTS
Author:Gener, Randy
Publication:American Theatre
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2008
Words:4673
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