A Cradle for New Work

By Schoon, Amy | Stage Directions, April 2008 | Go to article overview

A Cradle for New Work


Schoon, Amy, Stage Directions


Theatre Arts at Iowa stays committed to creation.

Don't mess with tradition - that might be an unofficial motto of the Theatre Arts Department at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Its theatre-training program, the third oldest in the country, has been committed to the same basic focus since it was founded in 1920: dedication to the creation of new work for the stage. Students, faculty and distinguished guests are all encouraged to develop new plays, and each year graduate and undergraduate students produce at least 15 new works and present another 25 as readings.

Hundreds of writers who have made a name for themselves had their start at Iowa, including: Pulitzer Prizewinner and playwriting legend Tennessee Williams; Tonyand Pulitzer-nominee Lee Blessing (A Walk in the Woods); acclaimed playwright, screenwriter and poet Naomi Wallace (One Flea Spare); and Rebecca Gilman, who received the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays for her work, Spinning into Butter.

"Foryears, our productions have gonefrom here to regional theatre, big cities and even Broadway," says Alan MacVey, professor and chair of the Theatre Arts Department,and director of the Ul Division of Performing Arts. "Being involved in the creation of something, from the ground up, producing it for the first time, can be frustrating. But it's also very rewarding and a special learning environment."

That spirit of creation may have been borne from an overall emphasis on and tradition of writing at The University of Iowa. In fact, the learning community has become known as 'The Writing University" because of its world-renowned Iowa Writers Workshop, International Writing Program, various creative writing summer programs and the Iowa Playwrights Workshop - also known as the Ul MFA program in playwriting. The intensive, three-year program, officially founded in 1971, is dedicated to educating playwrights for professional theatre.

Each spring, the Iowa New Play Festival showcases new work written by undergraduate and MFA playwrights. During the week-long festival, five full productions and seven staged readings are presented to an audience that includes six visiting professional writers, dramaturges, directors and producers.

The department also brings together a team of respected experimental writers and directors to create a new work that is presented during the Ul Mainstage season. The program, called Partnership in the Arts, brings artists to work inresidence for six to eight weeks, working with students on an ambitious project. Among artists who have led projects are Anne Bogart, Rinde Eckart, Karen Coonrod, The Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre and David Schweitzer.

Iowa's undergraduate theatre arts degree is a bachelor of arts, and those who pursue it receive a well-rounded theatre education experience, taking classes in acting, directing, design, stagecraft and playwriting. Those are complemented by studies in dramatic literature, history and criticism. Students also have opportunities to focus on performing arts entrepreneurship and theatre management. The department offers Master of Fine Arts programs in acting, design, directing, dramaturgy, playwriting and stage management. All faculty members work with both undergraduate and graduate students and serve as advisers on student productions, readings and workshops.

The Theatre Arts department produces about 25 productions a year, five of which are fully supported Mainstage shows - including new works, contemporary favorites, and classics - with elaborate scenic, costume and lighting design. Others are presented in second stage, gallery and workshop settings, and during the Iowa New Play Festival.

The department also has a social outreach component, Darwin Turner Action Theatre, which presents dynamic, thought-provoking interactive folk tales, 10-minute and one-act plays, and developmental scenes for social and cultural awareness. …

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