April 15, 2011

New Work Week diversifies performances

“I started writing it on a plane after too many gin and tonics,” said Matthew Hartman, a fourth-year political science major, with the barest hint of a smile. The “it” Hartman is referring to is his new play, 41 Somethings about a Man, which will debut tonight as part of University Theater’s New Work Week, an annual showcase of original student pieces.

According to curator and University Theater (UT) director Heidi Coleman, New Work Week started in 2005 as “a response to the writing talent brewing at University Theater.” Chosen playwrights are given the unique opportunity to have their works-in-progress performed in front of a live audience, providing beginning writers a unique opportunity to gain experience and feedback. The selection process is “deceptively simple,” according to Coleman. “In winter quarter, a call goes out for submissions of new work as well as applications by directors. The co-curators and myself match playwright with director to produce as much work as possible during six days.” Students responded overwhelmingly, making this year’s New Work Week the largest in its history with 21 original pieces.

“In the past, we received a lot of plays, but this year the submissions were broader in scope,” said Gabriel Benghiat, a fourth-year Theatre and Performance Studies (TAPS) major and co-curator of the event. Pieces differing from the norm include a clown performance, an original musical composition, and two sitcom screenplays. The wider range in pieces is the result of a more diverse group of students submitting their art. “People outside of UT are beginning to use New Work Week as a platform for their work,” Benghiat explained.

This diversity is reflected in the many different places writers found inspiration for their work, as well as their varying backgrounds and interests.

Second-year Jesse Roth, a double major in TAPS and English, started writing her play in fall quarter. The play, titled A Sea of Them, explores the intertwining relationships between one woman and several men. “It started off pretty linear. Girl meets boy, they say interesting stuff to each other, but it began to grow more nebulous as it went along,” Roth said. “I was influenced a lot by modern dance.” When asked about the most challenging aspect of writing the play, Roth replied, “Writing the play wasn’t really the most difficult part. It’s the idea of it being performed that’s really scary.”

While Roth drew inspiration from dance, second-year Myra Su used her response to an essay question on the Uncommon application as the genesis of her play, UnCommon Chickens. “…it was originally a play I wrote for my uncommon application essay to UChicago in response to the prompt: ‘At present, you need to live the question,’” Su said. “…due to severe outbreak[s] of Avian Influenza, the [Hong Kong] government passed a new law that decreed that all unsold chickens must be slaughtered by the end of the day. The inevitable death of these chickens made them ideal characters, who in my mind, ‘at present, live the question.’”

Fourth-year Alicia Graf also incorporated elements of academic work into her performance installation piece entitled “Rapid Cycling.” Drawing from her BA thesis about the effect bipolar disorder had on the work of famous artists like playwright Sarah Kane and poet Sylvia Plath, “‘Rapid Cycling’ is heavily inspired by [these artists] and my own academic history learning about psychopathology. The story tells of minds wrenched through the violent illness of bipolar disorder, and their courageous struggles to survive.”

Another fourth-year, Hannah Cook, cites Aaron Sorkin as a major influence on her work. “If I could be a 10th as good as Sorkin, I would be very happy,” she admitted. Her play Architecture Daily hones in on a day in the life of Dan, an architect, and his mentally unstable wife. A political science major, Cook doesn’t have plans to go into playwriting full time. “I love money too much,” she joked. She added that when she does Teach For America in Detroit this fall, she’ll be sure to garner fresh material for future plays.

Second-year transfer student Katie Hunter is a seasoned playwright in comparison to many of her colleagues. At 17, Dramatics Magazine published her play,, a satirical take on Facebook, which was then performed off-Broadway across the country and even in Morocco. Her play for New Work Week, Innov, centers around Guy, a man struggling with the insecurity over being an artist.

For those students planning on attending New Work Week, Coleman offers some words of advice: “As you watch tonight, know that somewhere in this theater, there’s a playwright listening to you listen to the reading, and that your response is participating in their subsequent edits. You are part of the creative process right at this moment.”