UCSB’s Summer Theater Lab, a Meeting of Creative Minds
by Sophia Kercher
UCSB’s Summer Theater Lab, a three-week forum in which theater artists from all over the country are invited to work with students and develop works for the stage, is like a summer fling: tender, experimental, poly-amorous, and thrilling. Each year approximately 100 individuals — actors, directors, playwrights, dancers, choreographers, and music composers — gather here to form a community, bounce ideas off one another, and create passionate works of theater. These projects began July 14 and ran through August 4, with nearly all classes and performances held at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theater. Amelia Harris, a fourth-year Dramatic Arts student, said, “Summer Theater Lab is really, really fun before everything else. It doesn’t feel like doing work. I just feel like [I’m at] summer camp … you are with your friends all the time, and all your friends are other artists. So you’re just talking about art all the time, and doing art all the time. … It’s really focused and condensed.” This is Harris’s second year attending the lab, and she has taken part in numerous projects, including a site-specific dance piece, a play for the Sloan Projects, and two other new plays: Telethon and Big Baby.
The work presented at the lab ranges from traditional plays to experimental movement pieces. The performances are often a bit rough around the edges — open and vulnerable — which adds to the thrill of seeing the work performed. The audience gets caught up in this love affair with theater, and involved in the passion and excitement of all that is fresh and new, floating from artist to artist.
There have been several highlights produced in the lab so far this season. This Show Is Not “Wind Beneath My Wings” is a solo performance piece by Luis Alfaro, a renowned writer/performer who revealed glimpses of his childhood not only through his animated storytelling, but also by singing, stuffing his face with two boxes of Twinkies, and throwing back a dozen shots of tequila! The dance performance titled The Other Side of a Howling Flower, directed and choreographed by Nami Yamamoto, was zany, quirky, bouncy, and experimental. In The Book of Daniel writer/director Daniel Alexander Jones dressed up in drag as Josephine Baker while figures of himself performed by two students recited his childhood memories, accompanied by original music.
The Sloan Projects, in association with the Magic Theatre and the Sloan Foundation, featured eight original plays by UCSB students that explore the ethics of stem-cell research. The plays addressed the social ramifications of the issue, and featured clones, mythical Jewish creatures, and controversies in the White House. Telethon, a play by Kirsten Newbon that was directed by Les Waters, used humorous characters and a variety of media to explore the relationships of physically and mentally disabled individuals with those who take care of them.
The collaborative work of students and master artists is what makes this artists’ haven so stimulating to observe. Waters, the associate artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theater and an award-winning director, said the lab creates “a very good atmosphere, unlike a lot of summer or new play festivals.” Newbon, his colleague, added, “It’s like an arts vacation. I feel really sort of inspired by the other people here, by the students, by the generosity of spirit … [the students] don’t resist, which is nice. They just seem to go.”
Besides being highly entertaining, the performances are not lengthy. “You can really dip in for an hour and get inspired,” said Naomi Iizuka, the founder/organizer of the Summer Theater Lab. Iizuka — a UCSB professor and award-winning playwright — created the lab to bring theater artists to UCSB who had inspired her, to come and work with her students, so that her students could in return inspire them. Bringing together two parts of her life, she has created a tremendous opportunity for all who participate, and a supportive community of talented theater artists for novices and masters alike.
To see the products of the lab’s works is to be enlightened and inspired. If you missed out on this year’s Summer Theater Lab performances, be sure to look out for the innovative works next year starting in late July. All performances are free and open to the public.