Xfest 2.0: Another Successful Season
Xfest 2.0 Artistic Director Chuck Harper calls the event “an extremely ambitious four days,” but every ounce of ambition that went into the experimental theatre festival was met with an equal amount of success and accomplishment.
“We had the world premiere of a play by an out of town artist, a world premiere of a play by a local group, a puppet/dance piece from New York that was much more technically complex than we anticipated and it was still amazingly smooth,” said Harper.
When asked if the team wishes they could have included anything else during the festival, Producing Director Peter Cocuzza said, “No, we squeezed in quite a lot this year compared to last.”
The masterminds behind Xfest 2.0 weren’t sure they could top last year’s success, but the amount of positive feedback they have received from audience members and participants is a good indication that they did. Xfest 2.0 is being called an “excellent mix of different forms and styles of alternative theatre.”
Everyone is quite pleased with the turn out for Xfest 2.0 as well. There was a wide variety of guests, including students, community members of all ages, and a significant number of theatre goers from across the river in St. Louis.
Peter Cocuzza feels that there was something for everyone at Xfest, even those who aren’t regular theatre enthusiasts. “I think they probably found a whole other side of theater and at least have a deeper appreciation of how theater can be both entertaining and insightful.”
The team is already looking forward to developing next year’s event with some exciting ideas that include a special piece made especially for the Edwardsville community. “Without giving too much away, there will be a unique show created from interviews with area residents,” said Cocuzza.
Stay tuned for more Xfest news and next year’s details!
This Is Not Funny: Part Of SIUE Xfest 2.0
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is proud to present an original Xfest workshop production to the stage: This Is Not Funny, by Theater 310b of St. Louis.
SIUE theater alumnae Maggie Conroy and Anna Skidis are part of the original ensemble that put the piece together during SIUE’s first experimental theater festival. Both women, who graduated in May 2010, performed last year as part of Theatre 310b’s production of Whammy!: The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self. They are returning for an encore in Xfest 2.0, directing the show, This Is Not Funny.
“We both wrote parts of the show, but so did the rest of the cast,” said Conroy, who spent a month last summer in Saratoga Springs, NY at the SITI Co. Summer Intensive. “The show is basically a collage of characters, each with their own story and series of vignettes.
“Everyone originally wrote most of their own text for their characters and everyone has had a big hand in revising and tweaking text for characters other than their own.”
Conroy’s credits also include Neighborhood3: Requisition of Doom and Slasher with HotCity Theatre, and Rocket ‘88with Dreamachine Press.
According to Skidis, whose St. Louis credits include Evil Dead: the Musical and As Bees In Honey Drown with Stray Dog Theatre and directing SIUE’s S.E.T.O. production of Bridget Carpetnter’s The Faculty Room, the story itself was inspired by a photo that was part of a photo journal about Afghanistan called “The Big Picture.”
“This particular photo was of a child holding a bunch of really colorful balloons, running to join his friends,” she said. “All of the other colors in the photo are dingy browns and blacks, so the simple joy of the balloons really stands out in the picture.”
Conroy added, “(It) was a very dark image of a child running through a flooded street. Ammunition smoke and militia blend into the background. The only color in the picture is his balloons. The streetlights and smoke only make the colors more vibrant and dramatic.
“After stumbling across this picture we basically said, ‘Let’s talk about this, because we all can’t stop staring at it.”
It all began during an Xfest class last year, said Skidis, adding, “Our original ensemble was able to create a 15 minute version and present it to the class, but the majority of the material is new material created by our current ensemble.
“The class project was a good start in the right direction, but this will be a finished product of This is Not Funny.”
An SIUE Department of Theater and Dance faculty, alumni and student ensemble, Theater 310b creates original dance and theater performance. With a stage of balloons and superior acting, This Is Not Funny examines the line between the innocence of childhood and the indifference of adulthood.
“To me, it feels like a children’s show for adults,” Skidis said of the piece. “It has an almost vaudevillian feel to it, and it has poetry, newscasts based on real news, a clown and some really sweet children’s scenes.
“It will make you think and it will entertain you. It’s colorful, bright, and just a great evening of theater. And This Is Not Funny is, indeed, quite funny.”
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Sometimes in life, it can feel like you’re at the end of your rope. There are those who persevere and rise to meet life’s challenges and those uplifting tales are widely canonized in the news, on television, in the movies and on the stage. This is not one of those stories.
The world premiere of CROW will take the Metcalf Theater stage at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 1 on the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville campus. Chicago actor, theater maker and devisor Jeremy Sher will tell the story of Donald Crowhurst, a British businessman and inventor who went missing in 1969 while attempting to navigate the globe in a 40-foot sailboat as part of the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a round-the-world yacht race that promised a large cash prize. Seven months into his voyage, Crowhurst’s vessel was recovered in the North Atlantic. He was not on board.
Left behind were some phony coordinates and a collection of daily entries in a logbook that captured the navigator’s hopes, dreams, delusions, despair, insanity and finally, hopelessness.
While it is a one-man show, Sher worked with a team on the project, gaining constant input regarding the construction of the ever-evolving script, and fashioning 1,200 feet of rope into a set that represents Crowhurst’s boat, the home he left behind in Bridgwater, England, the people in his life, his work as an electrical engineer and more. The final product is the result of collaboration with a director, a stage manager, a video designer, and conducting numerous, extensive workshops to gain audience input.
“The story is so compelling to me,” said Sher, who formerly worked at SIUE as an instructor in the Department of Theater and Dance. “He was a regular person who tried to do this extraordinary thing. There are those unlikely hero stories out there and this is not one of those. Any of those unlikely hero stories could have met in failure.
“And his story could have resulted in success, but some of his flaws are some of the things we address and examine to explain why his enterprise failed. We see how hope can become delusion. All success stories start with hope, too. The thing that really compelled me to tell this story is where in the process do things break down, in terms of hope?
“What I’ve learned is they don’t break down. They transform. We can talk ourselves into things. We can tell ourselves things are going to be OK to get through them. I’m very interested in how what he went through can happen to any of us.”
Sher spent two years writing the piece, and several years before that conducting research. The idea for the show was born in 2001 during a discussion with Chuck Harper, an associate professor of Theater and Dance at SIUE and one of the Xfest organizers. Sher and Harper were performing together in France at the time and both were fascinated with Crowhurst’s story.
Sher said CROW will be in a “constant state of evolution,” so audiences who see the performance at one place can rest assured they will see something new or different at a future presentation of it.
For more than two decades, Sher has traveled the globe, dazzling crowds with his performances in disciplines ranging from classical theater to Japanese dance, co-founding ensembles including El Trupo of Barcelona, Elastic Picnic Improv of Seattle, International Theatre Collective of Montana and Ardeo Theatre Project of France. Now, the St. Louis native and former SIUE professor will return to his roots.
According to a review of his work from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sher “…forces us to consider how often we’re wrong about what we are sure we know…the images are haunting.”
The innovator said his passion lies in devising; a process by which original works are created in the studio. In Chicago, he has performed with Writers’ Theatre, The Neo-Futurists at The Goodman, Next Theatre, Stage Left, Redmoon Theater, and The Building Stage. Regionally, he has performed at places including the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Shakespeare Theatre D.C., HotCity Theatre (St. Louis) and Annex Theatre (Seattle) and Off-Broadway: New Victory Theatre.
In Paris he worked with Brigitte Dumez Dance Company and Projet Brûlé, creating original devised theatre and experimental works for international audiences. In 2004-2005, he devised, wrote and directed the original work “Saltwater,” which toured in St. Louis, Montana, Seattle and the Canadian Fringe Festival, to critical acclaim. He has trained in Suzuki and Viewpoints with Anne Bogart and SITI Company in New York and Chicago, and has led many Suzuki training groups in cities including Seattle, St. Louis, Paris and Chicago. He also has taught devising, improvisation and movement workshops at several universities across the country.back to top
As part of Xfest 2.0, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s experimental theater festival, a keynote speaker and a panel of experts will engage audiences and take questions from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4 in the Metcalf Theater, discussing theater as a changing and evolving art on stage.
The topic, “Devised Performance in Contemporary American Theatre,” will examine devised work, which SIUE Associate Professor and Chair of Theater and Dance Peter Cocuzza described as “work that is created, not necessarily plot-driven.”
Panelist and Chicago-based writer/actor/devisor Jeremy Sher, who will bring his world premiere of CROW, a devised work-in-progress to the SIUE stage during Xfest 2.0, said the process of devising can best be defined as taking an original theater piece and evolving it with each performance. By doing this, the work is “constantly evolving and is always in a state of change based on feedback from other actors, from audiences, from new information that comes out of workshops and performances.
If it’s done right, Sher said, “You won’t see the same performance twice, even though you are seeing the same show.”
Cocuzza said discussion of this important type of theater is critical to understanding theater’s future. He added, the festival is about broadening people’s horizons and expanding their views about the role theater plays on the global stage.
The concept of devised theater is not new, said Joan Schirle, founding artistic directorofDell’Arte International and director of Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre. In fact, it has been around for centuries. Schirle will deliver the keynote speech.
“The term has only come into usage recently, via the English theatre,” she said. “There's a difference between collaborative processes and devising processes—there have been traditional collaborations between composers and lyricists, for example, but that's different from "devising," which might include the design, direction and performance of a work, as well as whatever writing there might be, though lots of devised works are not text-based.
“The role of 'actor' has become too narrow for many artists, who also have talents as writers, directors, composers, designers—and so these people often find each other and make new work together without the hierarchies that can limit creative input. Thus we get new ensembles starting to create new works now in many cities.”
All are welcome to attend the event, which will provide an exclusive opportunity to hear expert perspectives on Xfest shows, as well as learn about experimental theater.
Judith Newmark, theatre critic from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Margeau Steinau, artistic director of Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemle of St. Louis; Frederico Restrepo, artistic director of Loco7 Dance and Puppet Theater of New York City; Jeremy Sher, solo artist based in Chicago, and Llysa Holland, artistic director of Theater Simple of Seattle, Wash.
The keynote speech will last about 20 minutes and will be followed by a round table discussion that will last about 40 minutes with panelists, moderated by Xfest Artistic Director, Chuck Harper, SIUE assistant professor of theater and dance.
The keynote speech and panel discussion will be followed immediately by a light dinner, available to the audience for $5, at 6:30 p.m. The performance of 500 Clown Frankenstein will conclude the night’s events at 7:30 p.m. in Dunham Hall.
Tickets for 500 Clown Frankenstein, which is a part of the SIUE Arts & Issues series, as well as Xfest, are $28; $25 for SIUE staff, retirees, alumni and seniors 65 and older; $13 for all students. For more information, visit siue.edu/xfest. For tickets, contact the Fine Arts Box Office, (618) 650-2774.back to top
Excitement is building for the family-friendly programming at Xfest 2.0, with performances and workshops geared toward kids of all ages. "I can't wait to learn about how to be a clown at the workshops this year! My mom said we're going to play with giant puppets, too!" -Andrew, age 9.
Andrew and his family are planning on attending the Mime and Puppetry workshop on Saturday, June 4, presented by Frederico Restrepo and Loco7 from New York. Students will learn basic techniques from the same artists they see live on stage during the Friday night performance of In Retrospect. Full details about this workshop and Loco7’s performance can be found on the Xfest website.
Workshops are just part of Xfest 2.0’s family fun–there is plenty of on-stage action to keep your family entertained. Like last year, Xfest 2.0 brings you world-class performances that the whole family can enjoy.
"UMO was so funny! I laughed a lot and I really liked it when the clowns came down off of the stage and talked to us. One clown even shared his strawberries! I'm glad my mom and dad brought me to the play!" -Jacob, age 8
Audiences young and old raved about last year’s performances, and the same can be expected for this year’s finale show on Saturday night. 500 Clown Frankentstein features clowns, acrobatic feats, comedy and more. This performance invites audience involvement throughout, so you may just find yourself entertaining, as you are being entertained. More information about this performance and the artists who created it can be found on the Xfest website.
Xfest 2.0 only happens once a year, so don’t miss the opportunity to involve your family in something they won’t soon forget!back to top
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is inviting everyone campus to experience Xfest 2.0—an exciting four-days of theatrical experimentation, world premiere performances, workshops and more Wednesday-Saturday, June 1-4.
In its second year, the experimental theater festival has grown in size and scope, and promises to offer fun for all ages. Attendees can expect an exciting array of talent to visit campus, with a collection of innovative works and the introduction of new concepts and techniques in stage production.
Five theater companies from SIUE, Seattle, Chicago and New York City will perform throughout the festival:
“The fact that this kind of work is happening should be valued and recognized,” said Peter Cocuzza, associate professor and chair of the SIUE Department of Theater and Dance. “Sometimes we think of experimental theater as something weird or that we don’t understand. This festival is about introducing alternative work to the region and exposing people to the kind of theater that is happening out there.”
Xfest 2.0 also features two workshops in SIUE’s Dunham Hall that offer hands-on instruction from the experts. Workshops are free and open to everyone. No pre-registration is necessary. Workshops are:
In addition to performances and workshops, Xfest 2.0 features a symposium and dinner with expert perspectives on Experimental Theatre at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4. Keynote Speaker Joan Schirle, founding artistic director, Dell’Arte International and director, Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, will be featured at the event, with a round table discussion to follow the keynote speech. The round table will offer a panel of experts in the field from around the nation. Audience questions are welcome. The keynote speech and panel discussion will be followed immediately by light dinner at 6:30 p.m., available to the audience for $5.
Talk back sessions will be conducted following each performance, with directors and cast members fielding audience questions. For more information, visit the website: siue.edu/xfest, or call the SIUE Department of Theater and Dance, (618) 650-5614.
"Devised Performance in Contemporary American Theatre" will be the focus of a symposium set to take place from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4 in the Metcalf Theatre on the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville campus.
“Devised work is work that is created, not necessarily plot-driven,” said Peter Cocuzza, associate professor and chair of the SIUE Department of Theater and Dance. “There’s a world out there that’s taking what we have now and changing it. We need to examine why that work is important and consider the future of it. Some questions out there right now are: ‘Will we always have live theater?
How is this work impacting trends in theater in this country, and what type of impact will it have on theater in 10 years?’’’
All are welcome to attend the event, which will provide an exclusive opportunity to hear expert perspectives on Xfest shows, as well as learn about experimental theater.
Attendees will be encouraged to ask those burning questions of special guests, including Keynote Speaker Joan Schirle, founding artistic directorofDell’Arte International and director of Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre; Judith Newmark, theatre critic from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Margeau Steinau, artistic director of Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemle of St. Louis; Frederico Restrepo, artistic director of Loco7 Dance and Puppet Theater of New York City; Jeremy Sher, solo artist based in Chicago, and Llysa Holland, artistic director of Theater Simple of Seattle, Wash.
The keynote speech will last about 20 minutes and will be followed by a round table discussion with the panelists, moderated by Xfest Artistic Director, Chuck Harper, SIUE assistant professor of theater and dance.
The panel discussion will last approximately 40 minutes and will include an audience question and answer session.
The keynote speech and panel discussion will be followed immediately by a light dinner, available to the audience for $5, at 6:30 p.m. The performance of 500 Clown Frankenstein will conclude the night’s events at 7:30 p.m. in Dunham Hall. Tickets for 500 Clown Frankenstein, which is a part of the SIUE Arts & Issues series, as well as Xfest, are $28; $25 for SIUE staff, retirees, alumni and seniors 65 and older; $13 for all students.Workshops Bring Experimental Theater Experience To Kids
Children ages 8 and older are encouraged to experience experimental theater firsthand during workshops as part of Xfest 2.0 in Dunham Hall on the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville campus.
Two workshops will be held Saturday, June 4: Mime and Puppetry, presented by Frederico Restrepo and Loco7 of New York City, from 11 a.m.-12:45 p.m. for ages 8-12; and Risk and Play, by 500 Clown of Chicago, from 1-3 p.m. for ages 16 and older.
“It is important that, as a department of theater, we bring this sort of experience to this part of the state and country,” said Peter Cocuzza, associate professor and chair of the SIUE Department of Theater and Dance. “These types of programs give us a sense of what is out there and makes us think and appreciate art.”
Loco7’s Mime and Puppetry workshop examines the use of mime as a “universal art that crosses language barriers to communicate emotion, ideas and views through the movement of the body,” according to information provided by the company. "Loco7 is thrilled to have the opportunity to be part of XFEST 2.0, as a resident company of La MaMa Experimental Theatre it seems a perfect fit! Being part of the La MaMa family has taught us to take risks and to explore unusual and different approaches to theatre and what better place than SIUE and the XFEST to continue and pioneer forward in the name of experimental theatre."
Students involved in the Mime and Puppetry workshop will learn basic techniques, including isolation and spatial understanding, as well as be introduced to the foundation of acting, clowning, circus movement and stage magic. This beginning level class promises to take attendees from Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk” to their own original exercises. Additionally, Restrepo will take children on a journey, teaching them about basic puppet techniques with marionettes.
For older students, the workshop Risk and Play introduces the four elements of 500 Clown Theater: Action, risk, audience and humor. The workshop will include group and individual exercises that help students locate and release onstage tension, develop an awareness of audiences, space and partners, and awaken impulses.
“We're psyched this festival exists and thrilled to be a part of it this year,” the company said in a statement.
Risk and Play introduces students to their risk threshold and mines it for theatrical value. According to the company, it has developed “playful ways to work with risk that result in the creation of a state of being in which action becomes stage-worthy and in which we can be provoked to action easily.”
Those participating in Risk and Play are encouraged to dress in clothing that allows them to move freely and is free of lettering and logos. Furthermore, no dangling jewelry should be worn and drinking water should be brought in a container that can be sealed. Notebooks can be brought for note-taking.
Workshop attendance is free and there is no need to pre-register. For more information, visit siue.edu/xfest/workshops.
500 Clown Frankenstein Winds Down the 2010-11 A&I Season
The exciting antics of 500 Clown Frankenstein, an improvisational theater troupe from Chicago that the New York Times called “ribald and exhilarating,” will appear onstage in SIUE’s Katherine Dunham Hall on Saturday, June 4, at 7:30 p.m. 500 Clown is being presented in conjunction with SIUE’s Arts & Issues series.
Arts & Issues Director Grant Andree said audiences are in for a treat with the quirky 500 Clown Frankenstein. “Improvisational theater can involve many aspects of theater,” Andree said. “In addition to a story line, there are moments of creative movement, dance and an air of uncertainty about how the evening will evolve.
“500 Clown Frankenstein promises to deliver a great evening of entertainment,” he said. “Moving between planned elements and improvisation, this performance will leave its audiences excitedly uncertain as to what is and what is not planned.”
In each show, an innovatively designed set piece (with hi- and low-tech mechanics) propels clowns into extreme physical behavior and rough-style acrobatics. Comic mayhem will be served abundantly to theaudience as our three clowns embark on a madcap journey to construct Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Stymied by elaborate and exaggerated period costumes, the clowns execute acrobatic feats in an extended battle with an unruly table and finally face a devastating climax when one clown is forced to play the role of the creature and suffer abuse and abandonment.
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For decades the word “theater” for many has been synonymous with Broadway. Thousands of hopeful actors flock to New York after graduation hoping to be discovered. Some do. Many do not. Yet some of the most powerful theater experiences don’t happen between 38th Street and 57th Street. There are wonderfully talented people in every city whose name you may never recognize. Yet theater to them is an ever-evolving art that, like all art forms, is an expression of the soul, a mirror of life and a measure of our ethical and moral selves. With that thought in mind it is important to us at the university to expose our students to the many forms of performance that push the boundaries of the discipline. We want our student performers to not only be the talented tool of the director, but also to be the creators of their own work - the trendsetters on the first line of what is new and expressive. It is on this delicate line the artisan becomes the artist. In order for this to happen students must first see for themselves those existing artists and theater/dance companies who are already making their marks within the art form. Our mantra has been “Build it and they will come.” If you can’t always bring the students to the mountain then why not bring the mountain to them.
SIUE Xfest was spawned for this reason as well as to bring national and international attention to our theater program, our department and the university. We want the theater world to identify the students graduating from SIUE Theater as visionaries and SIUE as a place to come to see new and interesting theater. The ultimate hope is that one day theater professionals and students will spend weeks on our campus crafting their work, exchanging ideas and using the beautiful campus as a place to define themselves as theater artists.
Choosing our festival season is a delicate blend; we want to build a strong foundation for the festival to grow and develop in scope and also to provide an opportunity for our community to see new, exciting, cutting-edge theater companies from the area and around the nation. We believe that keeping at least one event accessible to family and younger audiences is paramount to fostering an appreciation for the world of theater beyond the high school musical that is also fun, entertaining, and provocative. Experimental or explorative theater can often be misunderstood as intentionally obscure or “weird” when in actuality many forms are quite accessible by audiences of all ages. When selecting festival artists our goal is not to focus on one style or theme but to find an eclectic blend of work unseen in this area. That means looking for and soliciting theaters from around the nation whose work is unique and offers the theatergoer an exciting, and entertaining performance while continuing to expand the festival. You can help support this event by simply attending the shows or going the extra mile and support the festival financially.
A new slot was added to the 2011 festival for a slot for a keynote speaker on Saturday, along with a special roundtable discussion featuring theater artists and a new workshop slot on Saturday afternoon to help develop and premiere new works. As of this writing 500 Clowns from Chicago, Theatre Simple from Seattle, Theatre 310b from Saint Louis and solo artist Jeremy Sher have all committed to the 2011 festival. Got questions? Feel free to contact us using the addresses in the newsletter.
Most actors experience what might be called “linear” theater, in which the play tells a straightforward story. The piece may be filled with symbolism and have layers of meaning but a “linear” play has a logical script for the actors to follow.
But, if an actor becomes part of experimental theater, sometimes known as avante garde theater, the linear convention probably goes out the window when the rehearsal process begins. An actor who has never been exposed to that environment might find the going a bit difficult.
At SIUE, performance students are exposed to experimental theater on a regular basis through class study as well as creating a piece organically from the ground up. That’s what happened last fall when the Department of Theater and Dance produced Whammy!! The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self, created by students and Professor Chuck Harper, head of the performance area in the department, who also directed.
One of the cast members of Whammy, which was definitely an organically created experimental piece, was Maggie Conroy, a senior who will be graduating in May with a bachelor’s in theater performance and who is headed to a prestigious experimental theater workshop in upstate New York. She will be in the cast when Whammy is reprised at the SIUE Xfest in mid-May.
“The new version has been reworked to accommodate the loss of a cast member and to expand on what we did in the fall,” Conroy said. “Instead of taking what we had before, Professor Harper has stepped in and is reworking the concept and then expanding the piece,” she said. “Whammy was finished to us when we opened the play originally, but we all agreed that we could have done more with it. So, now we’ve got that chance.”
Harper’s premise in creating Whammy was the fascination that consumers have with self-help books. “We started with an idea of reacting to what he found in all those books,” she said. “It certainly wasn’t what you’d call linear theater.”
The play consisted of screen projections of phrases from the self-help books as well as readings on stage by the actors themselves. Actors would then react to these self-help ideas, usually in a satiric way, but it wasn’t about relating a story line. There was creative movement, some singing, some recitation and even an actor dressed up as a banana.
“We had choreography to learn even before we got on stage,” Conroy said. “It was a lot more physical than anything I had done before; the closest thing I’ve come to that was in experimental theater class.” Conroy explained the cast, with Harper’s help, made compositions of pieces within the show. “We were given a list of words, props, music and then as a group we came up with something from those elements.
“The set also is being retooled to turn it into a traveling show, but the banana’s returning.”
Conroy, who is a two-time winner of the SIUE Friends of Theater and Dance William Best Performance Award, also has been nominated four times for the Irene Ryan Award during her three years at SIUE. After graduation she is heading to upstate New York to study with Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, an actors’ studio dedicated to creating and teaching experimental theater. During the intensive four-week workshop at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, Conroy will be immersed in the Suzuki theater method as well as other techniques.
Bogart, whose SITI Company is permanently based in New York City, is internationally known for her work in experimental and cross-cultural theater, and to be accepted in the workshop is a quite an accomplishment for Conroy. “The Suzuki theater method is a rigorous physical training program, gathering elements of martial arts and ballet, traditional Japanese and Greek theater styles,” Conroy said.
“We have learned about these techniques in our experimental theater class at SIUE, but we also learned about ‘viewpoints,’ a training method that was created by Mary Overlie and also taught in the upcoming workshop.
“I consider myself very lucky to have been chosen to participate in this training,” she said. “It is very competitive among actors and directors who are clamoring to be in the SITI Company because you train with the best acting teachers in the business. This is all a side of theater I’ve never really experienced outside of SIUE.
“Musical theater is not my strong point so I will be focusing on non-musical plays as I go forward with my career and this training will allow me to be exposed to many facets of experimental theater training, which will be invaluable.
“I want to be a better actor and, since my thing is physical theater, this is my dream to work with the SITI Company. They generate new work and that’s what I want to do, help generate new theater. I also hope to learn a lot about myself as an actor,” Conroy said. “Suzuki, for example, makes you do impossible things with your body; it’s definitely going to be intense.”
For now, however, Conroy is looking forward to performing again in Whammy for SIUE’s Xfest but she’ll also be enrolling in Xfest workshops and attending Xfest performances. “It will be great to meet the people who do experimental theater for a living,” she said. “I look forward to this learning experience.
The shows are chosen. The contracts are signed. The time is drawing near. What actually has gone into the planning of Xfest, SIUE’s inaugural experimental theater festival?
Xfest executive producer Peter Cocuzza and artistic director Chuck Harper, associate professors of theater and dance at SIUE, have spent the last several months making all the arrangements to ensure the campus will come to life during the four-day summer festival that will take place May 12-15.
“We have been looking for years for ways to expand, and bring uniqueness and vision to the SIUE theater program,” said Cocuzza, who also is chair of the SIUE Department of Theater and Dance.
Cocuzza and Harper want to expand the University’s role in bringing culture and energy to the region and increase the area’s visibility as a cultural hub. Through Xfest, the pair hopes to expose the area’s theater students, as well as the University and surrounding community, to more than quality theater productions. They want to broaden horizons and generate interest in the vast, colorful world of theater.
“Anytime you can get students to see new work and think differently, it enhances their development as an artist,” Cocuzza said. “I’m learning, too. Based on the preparation for this experience, I’m a lot savvier now than I was just a year ago.”
Cocuzza added, “It’s been a blessing for the faculty and staff to be so collaborative like they have been. This has all been a learning experience and we’ll see how it evolves and what we learn to make things work for future festivals.”
Through support from the SIUE Office of the Provost, the College of Arts and Sciences and the University’s Arts & Issues series, Xfest is off to a great start. Cocuzza is already researching funding and support options for next year’s festival. Volunteer support and donations from individuals, organizations and agencies are important components to putting the event together.
Both men have spent hours behind the scenes finding businesses, organizations and individuals to sponsor the shows and campus activities during the week. Harper used his extensive list of contacts in the experimental theater world to attract talent to the area, even bringing back a distinguished alumna, Sarah Maxfield, artistic director for Red Metal Mailbox. Sarah wrote and will direct [ ] and will lead the workshop “Investigative Theatre Forum” on May 12.
When Lex Van Blommestein joined the SIUE faculty two years ago, he said it was the University’s “edginess and willingness to try almost anything” that attracted him. Originally from Canada, Van Blommestein, an assistant professor of theater and dance, has been involved in theater and scene design for more than a decade.
Last fall he had the task of selecting the scenery, lighting and projection design for Whammy! The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self. The show will be performed again as part of Xfest, but as an experimental piece with different elements and an entirely different design.
“As a designer, especially of scenery, I always try to design for the emotion of the play,” Van Blommestein said. “I want the scenery to reflect what we want the audience to feel. For me it’s much more about creating an environment and a world. For experimental theater, I try to create another world where the events that will unfold will be best-suited.”
For experimental theater, he creates a design that not only affects the audience, but influences the performers’ moods and impacts their performances. “We’re treating Whammy! as if it’s a new and different piece for us,” Van Blommestein said. “We’re trying to change things up. I have the opportunity to design another dream.”
There is nothing that he is approaching in this scene design that comes from any type of reality. “I’m designing as if I’m in a dream-like state. I had to go into my imagination to develop how things appear as if you are in a dream. Distortions, twisting, gross enlargements—all of these elements will be in the design.
“The nicest thing about dreams is that they are as open as your imagination. When you are open-minded, you can come up with anything.”
Van Blommestein enjoys experimental theater as a means of placing experimental moments into what is considered a traditional play. “A lot of theater has scenery that might be a backdrop and the performers don’t necessarily need that backdrop to make their performance any better,” he said. “I try to create a world that is integral for the performance, the performers and the audience.”
In the heart of the Midwest, experimental theater groups from coast-to-coast will delight audiences on the SIUE campus for four days in May.
The vision to bring SIUE Xfest, in the form of four experimental theater companies—one local, two from New York and one from Seattle—to Edwardsville came from a discussion between two SIUE associate professors of theater and dance; Peter Cocuzza, chair of the department, and Chuck Harper.
During an informal meeting, Cocuzza and Harper toyed with the idea of making campus more vibrant over the summer. Cocuzza recalled, “I said, ‘Let’s have an experimental theater festival.’” Harper remembers smiling, breathing deeply, and becoming a bit frightened, and then responding, “Let’s try it.”
“This is an area that is close to my heart and what I’ve tried to do over the years with experimental theater has energized the students in some new ways,” Harper said. “It seems to have opened some horizons for them.”
Cocuzza, the festival’s executive producer, and Harper, Xfest artistic director, hope to expand Xfest on the SIUE campus for years to come, and that its growth will help let the nation know what’s going on in the Midwest.
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Experimental Theater across the Globe
What will Edwardsville, Illinois, soon have in common with Dublin, Ireland; Edinburgh, Scotland; Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto in Canada; and the U.S. cities of San Francisco, Cincinnati and New York? This May, thanks to the support of a dedicated faculty, staff members and students, SIUE will introduce its very own experimental theater festival.
If you choose an online search engine and plug in “experimental theater festivals universities” you will come up with a handful of campuses that currently engage in such undertakings. These campuses are on the east and west coasts, as well as a few in Texas, New Mexico and Michigan.
Two SIUE associate professors envisioned bringing an experimental theater festival to campus and decided to just take the plunge and hopefully put the “e” on the map. “Each of these plays is about 70-80 minutes long,” said Chuck Harper, director of one of the four experimental theater shows that will come to campus. “These plays are short, sweet, exciting and full of life, ideas and fun.”
Along with being an associate professor of theater and dance at SIUE, Harper is the festival’s artistic director. The festival’s executive producer, Peter Cocuzza, is department chair and also an associate professor of theater and dance at SIUE. Both men agreed that the way to make the dream of an experimental theater festival at SIUE come to life was to dive into the project head first. “We’re taking sort of an, ‘if we build it they will come’ attitude,” Cocuzza said.
He added the department of theater and dance faculty, staff and students have jumped right on board with helping make the dream a reality.
The two men also thanked the SIUE Provost Paul Ferguson and Grant Andree, director of the SIUE Arts & Issues series for supporting and backing the project. “We hope this becomes an annual event and that it grows,” Cocuzza said. “We would like to expand the activities in which the public can participate and encourage the public to participate in roundtables with directors and cast members of shows.”