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The Cohen New Works Festival Feature Story (2009)

For the fifth time in 10 years, the University of Texas at Austin Department of Theatre and Dance is proud to present The Cohen New Works Festival presented by the University Co-op, named in honor of David Mark Cohen.

Cohen, who came to the University in 1990 served as head of the Playwriting Program and brought with him an avid love for the creation of new work, which today is a core value of the department. He was heavily involved with the founding of the Michener Center for Writers, acted as Theatre and Dance Graduate Advisor from 1992 to 1994, and helped lead the department as Associate Chair from 1995 until a heartbreaking car accident took his life in 1997.

In response to his death, family, friends and members of the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance established the David Mark Cohen Memorial Production Endowment in Playwriting to provide funds for the development and production of new work by student playwrights. Two years later, Suzan Zeder, who followed Cohen as Head of Playwriting, formed a coalition of students, faculty, and artists from the Austin community to dream up plans for a festival to honor his memory that would showcase and celebrate student work.

Inaugurated in 2001 as a new play festival, the Cohen New Works Festival has evolved from a six–week presentation of two dozen plays, dance works and readings produced in the spare time of students and faculty to a fully–mounted biennial celebration of all mediums of student–generated new work. It is the largest festival of its kind, run and organized entirely by a committee of graduate and undergraduate students, with the support of faculty co–producers.

In 2003 the faculty of the Department of Theatre and Dance took bold action and decided to integrate classes into the 10–day festival and to incorporate class work, discussion, and reflection into festival activities. Almost 5,000 people attended festival events. Guest artists invited from across the nation provided responses to student work and shared their expertise in master classes. Nightswim written by MFA in Playwriting alumnus, Steve Moore, caught the eye of Scott Kanoff, then artistic director of the State Theater. Kanoff decided then and there to produce the play in his season the following year.

The University Co–op became the major underwriter of the festival in 2005, allowing all events to be free. The festival featured 70 performances of 28 projects. Fifteen guest artists brought their wisdom and professional experience as respondents to student work and contributed their talents as guest directors, dramaturgs, visual artists, designers and performers into collaborative ventures with graduate and undergraduate students.

A reading of Carson Krietzer's drama Flesh and the Desert, garnered great reviews during the festival, and was produced the following year by the Department of Theatre and Dance. Krietzer went on to win the first Lark PONY Fellowship in New York City upon his graduation with an MFA in Playwriting later that year.

The most recent festival, held in 2007, featured almost 100 performances of 31 new works and had an increased emphasis on film and multi–media producing some of the most successful student works yet.

MFA in Dance candidate Charlotte Griffin produced the short film, Raven Study, and received the Outstanding Student Work Award at the Dancing for the Camera: International Festival of Film and Video Dance at the American Dance Festival before going on to international screenings.

Elephant's Graveyard, written by MFA in Playwriting alumnus George Brant, was first presented as a staged reading and went on to win one of the world's largest student literary prizes, the 2008 Keene Prize for Literature. In addition, Brant received The David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award presented by the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

In just six days, this year's festival will highlight 31 news works, including 15 new plays, 6 new dance works, 3 art installations, over 10 commissioned pieces of music and a host of trans–disciplinary events including multiple exhibitions at the Blanton Museum of Art and three outdoor site–specific works.

Audiences of all backgrounds can expect family–friendly theatre pieces like, Footprints: A Musical Eco'Tale and renowned playwright Suzan Zeder's final play in The Ware Trilogy, The Edge of Peace; collaborative dance projects ranging from the multi–perspective Looking at Dance: A Journey through the Blanton, to the spatial and architectural exploration of The Shape of White; interdisciplinary pieces like Look, Listen, Look Again! which combines photography, music composition and choreography; and the music of popular recording artists like, The Decemberists, whose songs have inspired the events and characters in the play The Mariner.

In keeping with the department's mission to foster the creation of new work, Department of Theatre and Dance classes will be suspended so that students may fully participate in all aspects of the festival. With generous support from the University Co–op, all events are free and open to the public, March 30–April 4.

Monday, March 30, 2009