On the Boards’ annual NW New Works Festival is like a bag full of party favors. You could find a beautiful polished stone that you keep as a good luck talisman . . . or a cheap plastic ring that you throw away immediately.
For the past 29 years, OtB has presented established and emerging artists in music, theater, and dance over two weekends in a showcase of talent from throughout the Northwest. Choreographer Mark Morris, Lauren Weedman, and Pat Graney all got their start at the festival. Each year there are performances that signal a major new talent or an exciting, different direction for a well-known artist. Of course there are also disappointments — an essential part of the creative process as performers try new art forms, work with new collaborators or experiment with ideas that may not be fully formed.
Performers are chosen by a 12-member panel composed of OtB staff — including Artistic Director Lane Czaplinski and Festival Director Sean Ryan — along with artists and arts administrators from throughout the Pacific Northwest. “We look for artists who are pushing or defining their genre,” explains Ryan, who has managed the festival for the past seven years. “It’s about supporting tomorrow’s innovators today and my goal for the festival is to help artists in how they think about their work and how they create something new.”
Ryan stresses that it’s important for audiences to understand that the works – 17 in all this year – are not completely fleshed out productions although they may involve sets, costumes, lighting and props. Rather, they’re works-in-progress that audiences have an opportunity to help shape by watching and responding to. Festival rules limit performances to 20 minutes maximum (there’s no minimum) and shows are staged in both of OtB’s spaces, the 94-seat black box studio downstairs and the 300-seat mainstage theater upstairs.
As part of the festival application process, artists indicate which space they’d like to use. Sometimes their choices are surprising. Choreographer KT Niehoff, who usually performs in a traditional theater setting, is creating an installation on top of the seats in the main theater. The installation will be seen by 15 people at a time and viewings are timed so that a maximum of 90 individuals will be able to participate over the festival’s two weekends.
Choreographer Catherine Cabeen has chosen the studio space for a new solo work that continues her experimentation with text. “Ready, Aim…” retells the story of 20th century dance history and allows Cabeen to talk frankly about her experience as a female dancer who was literally shaped by the “shots” her teachers, directors and audiences took at a her body. The intimate studio will enable her to connect more closely with the audience and gauge its reaction more readily than in the larger upstairs theater.
Choreographer Zoe Scofield, whose company zoe | juniper has performed several times on OtB’s main stage, has also selected the studio. She’ll be collaborating for the first time with Raja Kelly, a dancer with her company. Their 'performance essay' entitled “Flee on Your Donkey” is drawn from Scofield’s and Kelly’s conversations about their respective experiences and creative sensibilities.
Niehoff, Cabeen, and Scofield are well-known to OtB patrons, as are many other participants in this year’s festival, including Corrie Befort, Maureen Whiting, Ezra Dickenson and Beth Graczyk (in a collaboration with Peggy Piacenza, Allie Hankins and Portland sculptors Steven Berardelli and Micki Skudlarczyk).
But there are also the unfamiliar, both to audiences and members of the selection panel. Walsh, for instance, had never heard of Erin Pike until OtB received her application. She has studied with choreographer Ellie Sandstrom for years and is just now trying her hand at solo theater. Pike’s offering, “Timing and Stain,” is a minimalist exploration of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which she blends movement by Sandstrom with her own theatrical invention.
Among the unfamiliar are Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, whose three-act play will explore the nature of extinction; ex-music producer and hot rod builder Richard Lefebvre, who’s presenting a “narcotic mélange of hand-driving noise and cinema verité for the proletariat class;” and Portland’s Tahni Holt, whose new dance work involves two performers and a pile of cardboard boxes.
Many more artists apply to the festival than can be accepted and this year, the 17 were chosen from a pool of 60. According to Walsh, as in the past, panel discussions were lively, although there wasn’t a lot of time to disagree. “We go through the applications in one day and look for diversity of art forms and what makes a balanced evening,” he says. “Everyone votes on all the artists and that decides the top 16 to 20.”
Participating in the festival provides the performers with creative and financial opportunities that can otherwise be hard to find. In addition to donating performing space and festival publicity, OtB provides an honorarium of $375-500 to each artist, depending on the size of the project, plus a $100 stipend for those traveling from outside the Seattle area. OtB also offers free rehearsal space and free technical services, although performers and companies are also expected to raise their own funds since OtB regards the festival as a “shared relationship.”
How this year’s festival will stack up against past outings is impossible to predict but with such a wide range of performances there are bound to be at least a few gems and perhaps many more.
The full schedule of artists and performances for the festival is available on the OtB website.
If you go: NW New Works Festival, June 8-10 and 15-17, On the Boards, 100 West Roy Street. Tickets $14-30 depending on the number of showcases and can be purchased at the box office, Tue-Fri, noon-6 pm, by phone at 206-217-9888 or online at ontheboards.org