Innovation: An Unlikely Incubator for New Work

by Alice Reagan

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

Post image for Innovation: An Unlikely Incubator for New Work

(“The Egg-Layers” by Lauren Feldman, Directed by Alice Reagan; Barnard College/Columbia University (2012); Scenery- Sandra Goldmark; Lights- Lenore Doxsee; Costumes- Roxana Ramseur; Sound- Jane Shaw; Photo Credit- Stephen Yang)

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Here’s one way of describing “innovation:” plant your feet, survey the surrounding geography, and ask yourself, how can I improve the landscape I’m part of, RIGHT NOW? What is desirable and achievable? Then find your partners, go out, and do it. Innovation equals action.

I started teaching in the theatre department at Barnard College three years ago, and while the department regularly produces work by women, we were not producing younger, less established, local writers. The downtown theatre world of which I am part is literally teeming with excellent playwrights, many of them in their 20s and 30s. How could we bring new playwriting to Barnard? What could Barnard offer emerging playwrights? And who could partner with Barnard to make something happen? New Georges and its intrepid Producing Artistic Director Susan Bernfield immediately said yes.

In the spring of 2011, New Plays at Barnard was born. The idea: every other year, a New Georges-affiliated writer will have a new play produced on the Barnard mainstage. The playwright receives financial assistance and development workshops sponsored by New Georges; the production is financed by Barnard.

The missions of these very different institutions share some affinities: New Georges is a company known for their longstanding commitment to producing plays of adventurous scope and theatricality written by women. While Barnard Theatre offers the undergraduate major to all Barnard and Columbia University students, male and female, it is housed in and funded by Barnard: a college for women. Barnard Theatre is committed to widening the range of opportunities for women and wants to include new plays as part of its season. On the flip side, New Georges and Barnard nicely fill in some blanks for each other. For example, New Georges does not have a permanent performance space; Barnard has access to two spaces: the Minor Latham Playhouse, a proscenium space and the Glicker Milstein Theatre, a black box.

What does the writer get out of this? She gets to experience her fully-staged play after at least two workshops, faculty directed and professionally designed, performed by an ensemble of some of the most dedicated and game actors you can find: college students. Barnard, like most colleges, possesses an in-house production and technical team, a well-oiled costume shop with extensive stock, and the ability to realize complicated designs.

But doing a new play at a college isn’t simply a license to sidestep the economic realities of professional theatre; it’s an opportunity to work in a different way. The playwright develops her work in an environment designed for ethical, conceptual, and intellectual inquiry. Theatrical productions in a college setting can and should be part of the college’s commitment to research and inquiry—both the final product and the process of its making participate in the conceptual critique essential to the production of new forms of knowing.

For our first iteration of New Plays at Barnard, Bernfield reached out to forty writers whom she thought might have large-cast plays (Barnard prefers to cast between 8-14 students per show) sitting in their bottom desk drawers. Out of that field, we read dozens of plays. We chose Lauren Feldman’s 30-page script The Egg-Layers and commissioned her to expand it into a full-length play. She did, and it was a glorious, at times disturbing, exploration of Greek myths that deal in creation, framed by a contemporary story of estranged siblings.

(Photo Credit: Stephen Yang) The pedagogical rewards were immediately apparent: students got to work on a play-in-formation, have in-depth discussions with a writer in the midst of her process, and have characters altered and molded by their feedback. Then they get to perform those roles. It has been gratifying to see that working on a new play fills a need in theatre students: the process values the students’ desire for more stake in the process. As liberal arts students, they are asked to bring their deft critical and analytical skills to every rehearsal. The process is far from top-down: working with New Georges writers has proved to be a collaborative experience beyond the students’ imaginings.

For round two, New Georges put out a call for proposals (instead of scripts), and again, we received dozens of responses. This time, in order to involve the students even further, we convened a reading panel that ultimately chose and interviewed the finalists. Dipika Guha’s proposal for a loose riff on Hamlet was chosen; one workshop took place this spring, with another planned for the fall. Her play, Blown Youth, will premiere in February, 2014.

New Plays at Barnard is, for now, on a two-year cycle. Every other year we will go through a lengthy proposal process, and in the intervening years, we will workshop and produce a new play. Next step: to bring a new play from uptown to downtown in order to widen the audience for the writer’s work and expose the student ensemble and crew to what it takes to put up a show in an off-off-Broadway theatre.

For artists at the beginning of their careers, it’s vital to have the chance to see their work fully produced and embodied on stage, to test and really see what they’ve got. For theatre students, it’s crucial to expose them to the work being made now. The innovation here was realizing that I stood with one foot in each of two worlds—academia and downtown theatre—and might, however improbably, bring them together. For Barnard and New Georges, the bridging of the student and professional theatre worlds has established a space where the ambition inherent in both can run wild.

ReaganHEADSHOTAlice Reagan is a New York City-based director and an Affiliated Artist at New Georges. She has directed plays at The Chocolate Factory, Target Margin Theater, HERE Arts Center, the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator, and Mabou Mines/SUITE. Upcoming: I Came to Look for You on Tuesday by Chiori Miyagawa at La Mama, fall 2013; Blown Youth by Dipika Guha at Barnard College/New Georges, winter 2014; Too Serious by Julia Jarcho at Incubator Arts Project, spring 2014. She is Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at Barnard College.