The director of Texas Tech University's School of Theatre and Dance works to expand Red Raiders' horizons at home and abroad.
Learning by doing – whether it's at their own university with their own professors, while abroad and exploring new places and skills, or learning from others already experienced in the field – is a crucial component of a student's education. It's something Mark Charney, director of the Texas Tech University School of Theatre and Dance, feels particularly strongly about.
Since his arrival five years ago at the school, housed within the J.T. and Margaret Talkington College of Visual and Performing Arts (TCVPA), Charney has collaborated with others to develop immersive programs that do just that. From the monthlong WildWind Performance Lab, which is in its fifth year and runs through the end of June, to the second year of The Marfa Intensives, an 11-day devised-theater program to be held in Marfa from July 23 to Aug. 3, Charney is intent on finding new ways to hone the skills studied in the classroom.
“These complement the learning we already do,” Charney said. “Classroom learning is very significant, but it's very exciting to develop programs that take us everywhere or bring people to us. That's my goal with all of this; we need to serve students by bringing in people they can work with who provide a different level of instruction, or we take people places they normally would not go.”
Fulfilling that goal can mean many different things – from creating a theater company like the BurkTech Players, where theater students work with students at the Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research, to adjusting workshops to better fit current student needs. It can also mean working with other national theater institutions or serving as a festival artistic director abroad, like Charney did this spring at the International Schools of Southeast Asia Cultural Festival in Kuala Lumpur.
“Mark Charney brings a particular skill and point of view that infuses Texas Tech curriculum,” said TCVPA Dean Noel Zahler. “But I think what's more important is what he brings back, which is an understudying of theater around the world. It means that our students get a fresh perspective through his eyes.”
Bringing talent to the South Plains
WildWind, which is a required summer program for theater students, was created after the students themselves requested a new way of learning.
“When I came here five years ago, we had a summer repertoire program where we did a lot of shows at the same time,” Charney said. “The students felt that wasn't serving their purposes anymore, that they primarily had the same training during the year, and they wanted something different.”
Now, the program changes each year to fit the needs of the current students. Those participating in the performance lab this year will have the chance to work with professional playwrights, actors, dramaturgs and producers from across the country.
“If our students aren't going abroad, the world is coming to them,” Zahler said. “It's a very important aspect of their education.”
This year's lineup of visiting artists was created by the laboratory's artistic director, Michael Legg, who also serves as director of the Apprentice Program at the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville.
“They get to meet 18 professionals working in the field and be trained in ways we're not training them,” Charney said. “They have all these avenues for new mentorships and professional development.”
Participants spend three hours in the morning focusing on acting or design training. Afternoons are split into workshops on directing and developing plays and musicals students have written, and panel discussions with visiting artists who discuss their journeys and careers.
“One of the things we try to do is make certain that our students are not inhibited by West Texas, but that they use it as a springboard,” Charney said. “I believe in education for education's sake, but I also think we need to be realistic. If I can get people like Matt Chapman from the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, Rich Brown from Western Washington University or Hilary Bettis, who writes for FX's ‘The Americans,' they can be mentors for our students or help provide avenues for success.”
Evenings are dedicated to the professional play development process with the help of the visiting playwrights and screenwriters.
“In four days, we develop that play with some of our students acting and some of our students designing and they get to see what it looks like when professionals do it,” Charney said. “It's a holistic training lab that concentrates on process over product.”
Taking Texas Tech on the Road
WildWind also gives the students time to perfect the one-act play they will present Sept. 21-24 during the 12th annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival at the Tennessee Williams Institute.
Six years ago, Texas Tech became the first university to partner with the institute and has taken students to the festival each year since.
“That's developed into something sort of wonderful because they got to like us so much that last year, they invited us to bring a performance,” Charney said. “We were the first university to join professional groups who perform there, and this year we're doing it again.”
The students spend the months leading up to the festival preparing by reading a tremendous amount of material, Charney said. At the festival, they participate in a graduate-level immersion course.
“They write, they read and see plays, and they meet artists. They get to see eight or nine shows, and they get to study with the best Tennessee Williams scholars in the world, but it's always a different theme,” Charney said. “This year, it's Tennessee Williams and William Shakespeare.”
Last year, the group presented “Kirch, Küche, Kinder” (“Church, Kitchen, Children” in German), a one-act musical and satire piece written by Williams in 1979. It was the first time the play had been performed since it was written.
This year, Texas Tech will present another of Williams' lesser-known plays, the absurdist drama “Gnädiges Fräulein” (“The Lovely Maiden”), described by the festival as a “hilariously bizarre one-act play about ragged souls trapped in a cruel, surrealist version of Key West.”
“We're bringing in Anthea Thompson, an actress in from South Africa, who is working with one of our professors, Rachel Hirshorn, we have a student or two in the production and invite a few other professional actors to come in,” Charney said. “We'll have the opportunity to be reviewed by the New York Times and the Huffington Post.”
Different methods, new skills
While WildWind and the theater festival cultivate skills within the students' established talents, The Marfa Intensives use the method of devised theater to give the students a completely different experience.
“It is a different way of putting theater together where you actually shed yourself of your role,” Charney said. “If you're a playwright, an actor, a designer, you give all that up, you strip yourself of what your normal concentration is and you learn holistically, the entire process. In Marfa, it's so great that we don't have to worry about a grade, we're just working and experimenting.”
“It's spontaneous and extemporaneous and experiential, and you're involved in the creation of something from a prompt or a ‘hunch,'” Charney said. “Last year, our hunch was Marfa, and 11 days later we put up a play. Everybody wrote, everybody designed, everybody acted and everybody directed; it was a real group thing.”
The theme for 2017 is borders, a topic Charney said is important because of the current national debate and how a wall between the U.S and Mexico would affect the small, West Texas town that is just an hour away from the border.
“Environment is really important in Marfa,” he said. “Everything we do there determines how we move and what we create.”
This won't be the first time Charney has focused on this particular theme. During the spring semester, he traveled to Kuala Lumpur where he served as artistic director of the International Schools of Southeast Asia Cultural Festival. The festival includes schools from Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Taipan, Taiwan and Malaysia.
“As artistic director, I helped shape the thrust of the festival, trained other guest artists and added a collaborative emphasis between theatre, dance and art based on the theme of borders,” Charney said. “It seemed great to have our students discuss the idea of borders metaphorically, literally and physically. That crosses boundaries between art, theater and dance as well.”
Work at the festival also focused on the overarching theme of relevance, Charney said.
“When we choose a season, we need to all consider why, in the 21st century, do we produce this show now?” Charney said. “Each school brought a 40-minute theater piece, a 20-minute dance piece and art. Each chose what they wanted to work on by themselves, but were asked to discuss its relevance to the 21st century.”
Serving in international positions like this – in addition to several national positions he holds with various theater organizations – doesn't just expand Charney's own experience. It allows him to continue positively impacting his students at Texas Tech by promoting collaboration, engendering community and bringing cultures together.
“I bring back knowledge I didn't have before,” Charney said. “The administration at Texas Tech realizes that through these exchanges, not only does the world hear about our university, but we affect the world around us. Texas Tech understands that its reach must be international or we are not really understanding or affecting the world around us.”
More opportunities to collaborate beyond Lubbock are already appearing. Charney said schools and universities have begun to show interest in partnering with Texas Tech to bring WildWind to their own institutions. He said he hopes each of the programs he has helped create continue to evolve as more students choose to attend Texas Tech.
“I really believe that if we are cognizant strategically of what's going on in technology and what's going on in the world around us, we can't build a program and leave it that way,” Charney said. “I love Texas Tech and the possibilities here. I just don't think there's a better program.”