Low Plaza

Theatre Arts Alumni Collaborating to Create New Works for New York and Beyond

By Kristin Sterling

"She Died" from the Kazbah Project's production of Venus in South Africa
Photo by D.W. Nkwesi

During her audition for the School of the Arts Theatre Arts program, Diane Paulus, SOA'97, recalls Professor Anne Bogart asking each prospective student where they hoped to be in five years. For Paulus, the answer was easy. She wanted to have her own theatre company and tour internationally. Today, not only has she reached that goal, but her company, Project 400, created the off-Broadway hit "The Donkey Show," which celebrated its 1,000th performance in November.

Her story is becoming the norm for many theatre arts alumni. Bridgit Antoinette Evans, SOA '99, Cynthia Croot, SOA '99, and Sophia Skiles, SOA '99, are part of The Kazbah Project, which enjoins social activism with theatre. Ivan Talijancic, SOA '98, Erika Latta, SOA '97, and Doris Mirescu, SOA '97, are members of WaxFactory, which tends to adapt texts not necessarily written for the stage.

All of the alumni attribute their innovative success to the collaborative nature of their companies -- a spirit they say they learned from Theatre Arts professors.

"The principle of collaboration is the golden jewel of the Columbia acting program because it prepares students to make theatre, not just show up for rehearsal and play their given role," says Evans.

Evans, Talijancic and their collaborators were interested in the Columbia program because it embraced an unconventional approach to theatre. At her audition, Evans recalls renowned director and SOA faculty member Andrei Serban saying: "we are not training you to make the theatre that exists today, we are preparing you to invent the theatre that will exist tomorrow."

Through different approaches, all three collaborations are creating the new theatre and introducing it to the world.

Project 400's "The Donkey Show" is a Generation X version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Night Dream," set to 1970s disco music. The production takes the idea of interactive theatre one step further and puts the audience in the middle of the choreographed disco action. In addition to long-running performances in New York, currently at the El Flamingo Club, "The Donkey Show" has been performed in London, France and Edinburgh.

"Our shows have one foot in the classics and the other in pop culture," says Paulus. "Everything we do is driven by music -- how it relates to our memories and how to structurally tap into elements of our lives outside the theatre."

"Jordin Ruderman, Anna Wilson, Rachel Benbow and I discovered that we truly share a vision, work effort and belief in a common goal, all of which stems from common experiences at Columbia," says Paulus. "As a group you build on what you have made together. It is a different dynamic because everyone is in on it from the start, and even before that, from the last show. We are truly committed to one another and the company."

"The Donkey Show" took root shortly after the group graduated. Paulus admits that in the early days the company would return to the Dodge Hall lobby after hours to rehearse, because they didn't have the money to rent other space.

A scene from WaxFactory's Quartet V2.0.
Photo by Tasja Keetman

While Paulus and Project 400 get their material from theatre history, often focusing on Shakespeare, WaxFactory, which was established at Columbia, is creating new theatre by focusing on adaptations of text that weren't necessarily written for the stage. Their current project, "Quartet V2.0," is an adaptation of Heiner Mueller's "Quartet," itself derived from Choderlos de Laclos' novel "Les Liasons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons).

Talijancic describes Quartet as a decadent requiem for the end of the millennium. Set after World War III, the two protagonists are the last survivors of a deadly plague. They are quarantined and are connected to the audience by video surveillance because the outside world no longer exists. Throughout the piece, the characters switch roles, embodying each other in what becomes a dangerous ritual fueled by jealousy and betrayal.

"We were interested in the interaction of different disciplines in the creation of theatrical presentations," says Talijancic. "We found that the majority of conventional productions are dominated by the text, but to us all of the production elements are equally important. We investigate the ways in which the technology can contribute to the work in theatre. We work on combining different art forms and didn't want to do the kind of theatre in which the text is the most important or the only important element."

"Quartet" was originally presented as a work in-progress at the New York Center for Media Arts. Last summer it officially premiered at the Split Summer Festival in Split, Croatia, and continued touring internationally in Dubrovnik, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.

Evans and The Kazbah Project take yet another approach to creating new theatre. They bring historical events to the stage, creating projects that explore and challenge freedom and address humanitarian crises.

The Kazbah Project's most recent production is based on Suzan-Lori Park's Obie Award-winning "Venus." The play dramatizes the epic journey that took Saartjie Baartman, known as the "Hottentot Venus," from her life on a South African plantation to the freak shows of London in the early 1800s and medical laboratories of 19th century Europe. After her death, Baartman's body parts were exhibited in a museum in Paris until 1985.

In the summer of 2002, "Venus" was produced in South Africa. The production coincided with ceremonies presided over by Nelson Mandela and South African President Thabo Mbeki, in which Baartman's remains were finally laid to rest in her home town.

The Venus Project, founded in 2000, uses Baartman's story to ensure that women survive, and thrive, in the aftermath of violence. The Kazbah Project invests their profits in local organizations that address the needs of women in the countries they visit and helps to develop programs promoting social change through women's health, self-determination and liberation from violence. Their civic projects are drawn from methods utilized in Columbia's theatre arts program, particularly the work of Professors Kristin Linklater and Anne Bogart.

"The Venus Project is unique because it marries social activism with theatre," says "Venus" director Cynthia Croot. "From the inception emphasis was placed on both humanitarian and artistic goals. We feel something is missing if the work doesn't go beyond the first row."

Evans and co-producer Rana Kazkaz also facilitated civic dialogues in South Africa with 60 young African artists, working to transform their anger and pain into a creative platform. During their residency next summer, Evans and Kazkaz will offer a four-week intensive training program for returning students.

Evans, Talijancic and Paulus agree collaboration is critical for their success in creating the new theatre.

The Venus Project was conceived with the company sitting together in a room and making it happen. Five or six primary collaborators, including actors, worked together to decide the focus, the music and the design. In less than two years, Evans has enlisted more than 25 artists around the world in the project.

According to Evans collaboration is not top-down, but an even balance. Talijancic and Latta concur. While Talijancic is the director of "Quartet V2.0," and Latta and Doulis the actors, in 2000 Latta and Doulis proposed the idea for the production to Talijancic, unaware that he had also been intrigued with the text and considering it as a timely piece for the millennium.

"We are all the artistic director," says Talijancic, referring to the role he shares with Latta and NYU alumnus Dion Doulis. "We work intuitively. We don't have hard-and-fast references we use as guideposts. We don't make decisions about a piece ahead of time. Instead we 'listen' to the ideas and search for the way that best suits a new project."

The groups still recall advice the Columbia faculty, particularly Andrei Serban, Anne Bogart and Kristin Linklater offered.

"We went through so much together in the program and still quote Serban and Bogart in rehearsals," says Paulus. "They set the bar so high, as a young artist you are constantly striving to reach it and won't settle for less."

Likewise Evans often reflects on the advice Serban offered at her audition. "Everything I do now is with Andrei Serban's goal of inventing the theatre of tomorrow in mind -- forging a new path. In one evaluation session Andrei told me that it proves very important to always choose the path of most resistance in my artistic choices. Otherwise, he said, you get lazy."

Six months after graduating, Evans had two agents, a featured role in a major film, an off-Broadway show, a guest spot on Law & Order and a national commercial that paid her rent for a year. A great start for an actor. But she wasn't happy. Six months later she forged ahead with Venus.

"Since then I've been broke, terrified of failure, humbled beyond words, exhilarated, among many other things," she says. "Still, look what energy has wrought. I live by this rule (path of most resistance) now."

What does the future hold for these innovative theatre companies?

Over the next two years WaxFactory will be working on "The Island Project" and will bring together an international team of collaborators for performances in Marseille, Mexico, and the United States in 2004. The project seeks to explore a wide spectrum of meaning connected with the concept of the island -- from mythological interpretations to the island as a geographical fact. For the 2003 International Ibsen Conference, WaxFactory was invited to restage their site-specific installion/performance "Lady from the Sea," mentioned as "the most innovative production" of the year in the 2001 Worldwide Critics' Survey at Berlin's Ballet-Tanz magazine. They will also work on Sarah Kane's "4.48 Psychosis."

The Kazbah Project will bring The Venus Project to five continents in its first three years. The project will be produced in London; Paris; Sydney and Townsville, Australia; Sao Paulo, Brazil, and a return residency in South Africa. During the second South African residency, in 2003, The Kazbah Project will bring the production to six cities in Botswana and Lesotho.

While Project 400 is enjoying the success of "The Donkey Show's" 1,000th performance and counting, they are also in negotiations to bring the "Donkey Show" to Los Angeles, Spain and France.

Indeed, each of these groups have met the challenge posed to them in the theatre arts program, inventing the new theatre and introducing it to New York and the world.

Published: Feb 05, 2003
Last modified: Feb 04, 2003

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