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By Donna Mo

Every Tuesday night, a group of students sits in UC Santa Barbara’s Performing Arts Theater, attentively listening to theater professor Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig as a she leads another session of the Theater and Dance Department’s New Works Lab class.

Created in 2017 by Cowhig, New Works Lab is a workshop production program that gives students the opportunity to see their works come to life. It brings together student directors, playwrights, designers, stage managers, publicists and actors to put on original plays written by UCSB students.

In the fall, students submit their scripts, and a committee of students and faculty chooses the top five or six for developmental productions. Directors, stage managers, designers and actors join in the winter and produce the shows in the spring. Every two weeks, each show group performs its play in front the New Works Lab class and receives feedback from other students and faculty mentors.

This model was inspired by Cowhig’s previous experiences with production workshops. An accomplished playwright herself, Cowhig had participated in other production workshops at Brown University and the University of Texas at Austin. But she found there was a lack of faculty involvement and mentorship. “I always felt like it was a missed opportunity to grow because you weren’t given vigorous feedback through the process,” she said.

At the Performance Lab program at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater in Blue Lake, California, Cowhig found the feedback she was looking for. The Performance Lab showed new work every week, when the whole class would be present for everyone’s critique, allowing every participant to develop a common aesthetic lens.

“That’s the thing I find most important: to expose the critique part, to make it public, and make it responding throughout the process to the drafts on their feet rather than on the page,” Cowhig said. She then decided to take the best parts of the three developmental processes and create New Works Lab.

In a recent interview, Cowhig spoke more about the class and its growth since she launched it.

Q. When you’re looking at the scripts submitted by students, is there anything specific you’re looking for?

A. Yes, we're looking for a strong sense of conflict, a clear theatrical vision from the playwright and a voice. We want to support writers who have something they want to say.

Q. How have you seen New Works Lab grow since it first started in 2017? 

A. Most of what we're growing is infrastructure. So this year was the first time we had an application for stage managers, and as a result, that's why we had all our stage managers from day one of this quarter. And this is also the first year we had a rehearsal schedule for everything, so most of the growth is learning through a kind of trial and error: draft by draft, the balance between letting people have autonomy over their schedule versus imposing a schedule so that students can balance their course and job requirements.  

Q. And where do you see New Works Lab going in the future?

A. The hope is that there can just be more and more playwriting instruction so that there are stronger and stronger scripts being submitted and more and more students from across the university realizing that this program is there and that we don't privilege, at least from the playwriting perspective, concentrated or not concentrated. We just privilege someone who has something to say and who is willing to do the work. 

Gang Sines, written by Malique Guinn, was shown for Spring 2017's New Works Lab. (Photo by David Bazemore)

Gang Sines, written by Malique Guinn, was shown for Spring 2017's New Works Lab. (Photo by David Bazemore)

Q. Some of these works deal with either sensitive subjects, such as sexual abuse and themes of consent, or subjects that some might find controversial, such as religion and clashing political ideologies. What are your thoughts on that? 

A. My thoughts are that we support the freedom of speech of our students. My goal is to make what they're trying to say accessible and engaging. So it's really not about censoring the subject, but figuring out how to make it palatable and accessible to an audience, which doesn't often have to do with changing the subject matter, but helping the writer to be more specific. And often, it's figuring out how to make things digestible by not making it all dark. So if you have a really dark moment, you might want to put humor right next to it, for example.

Q. What's your favorite part about mentoring playwrights?

A. Helping people grow in the way they want to grow. So I see it as kind of being a gardener, where you want to create optimal growing conditions. Sometimes, some plants thrive in benign neglect where you give them what they need and then they grow. And other plants need more rigorous training and more pressure. And so, for me, that's the fun: trying to give people good growing conditions and then for the people who need pressure, giving them pressure. The people who need to be left along, leaving them alone.

New Works Lab will be showing at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theater from May 9-19.

Donna Mo is a fourth-year Communication major and Theater minor. She is a Web and Social Media Intern with the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.

In this video, student participants in the New Works Lab speak about their experiences.