Now in its third year, the 11-day devised theater program, led by the Texas Tech University School of Theatre & Dance, focused on the topic of healing.
Since 2016, Mark Charney has headed to Marfa, a small Texas town close to the Mexico border, on a hunch. The first year, it was Marfa itself. In 2017, it was borders. This year, the hunch was healing.
It might be easier to call these hunches “themes,” since each served as the focus of that particular year's Marfa Intensive, an 11-day immersion program of devised theater created by Charney, director of the Texas Tech University School of Theatre & Dance.
But a hunch, by definition, is an idea or feeling based on intuition instead of an existing fact. The whole purpose of the intensive is to push the students, who start with only their own perspective and experiences, to take that hunch and work together, from scratch, to create an entire performance around it. They move through the steps that would typically take at least a year to complete: collaboration, writing, designing, directing, acting and, finally, performing.
“That's why it's called an intensive – it's only 11 days,” Charney said. “With devised theater, there is not an existing text. It's a really organic process, and in the end, they will perform, but it's based on their own personal experiences and how they feel about it.”
The intensive has evolved each year, going from a handful of theater students the first year to last year when Charney invited students from the Texas Tech schools of art and music, housed with theater and dance in the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts (TCVPA).
This year, Charney cast an even wider net, bringing together a group of more than 20 arts, theater, music and dance students and professionals to Marfa, including Clemson University visual arts student Samantha Taylor. Two other students, Rengim Köse and Damla Makar, traveled more than 27 hours to Texas from Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, globalizing a program that, for the first time this year, also offered course credit for the participating students.
One of the things that has remained constant in the program is an understanding that all participants will contribute in all the areas needed to bring a performance to fruition. In Marfa, established roles vanish, with actors designing a set, artists choosing music and musicians writing scripts. The result is interdisciplinary collaboration that encourages creative growth and the expansion of individual perspectives.
“Everyone does everything,” Charney said. “These people get very close because they're producing art together in a central way. It's really intense.”
For Makar and Köse, who came to the U.S. for the first time to participate in Marfa, the experience gave them tools for use in future creative endeavors.
“It was so important for me to learn other parts of theater: not using a script but using some elements on stage, transforming them to forms, creating movements, letting people create their own stories for themselves and not for others' stories,” Köse said. “Now, if I want to direct movies and plays, I can use some of these things. I think having this experience will be really inspiring for me in the future.”
Makar and Köse, both third-year students in Bilkent University's five-year theater program, first learned about the Marfa Intensive when Charney and Cory Norman, director of marketing and communications for the School of Theater & Dance, visited their university in the spring.
During the visit, which they hoped would help pave the way for a partnership between the two universities, Norman and Charney provided information about Texas Tech, the School of Theatre & Dance and some of the summer programs offered to theater students, like the WildWind Performance Lab and the Marfa Intensive.
“Rengim and I are always trying to do something more in the theatre department, not just being a student,” Makar said. “I want to go everywhere in the world, and Marfa was another adventure for me. So I asked questions about the process for being involved and if there was an audition needed.”
Charney said he knew having two students from such a prestigious institution join the group in Marfa would be beneficial to everyone involved.
“Bilkent University takes very few students, maybe eight one year and five the next year, out of 300-400 people,” Charney said. “So we knew these girls are very talented. We were so impressed with their education and, in particular, what they bring to it as well. We knew our students were going to learn a lot from meeting them. To have their experiences among our guest artists and our students, we knew it would be a real amalgamation of perspectives, and that's something so valuable. We knew they would get to meet many more people than just us in Marfa.”
Köse said the chance not only to widen their perspectives but also build a network of people with different backgrounds and perspectives is something that is crucial to success in their industry.
“Theater is all about connections and reconnections, and when you are doing all these things internationally, it's really important,” Köse said. “This was about process and how we created with all these members of different ages, genders and cultures.
“The world is a book, and we are willing to read the whole book. Having this Marfa experience is like reading another page of the world, and I think the people we met and this experience will lead us to read even more pages. I'm willing to create something with other people that, in the end, we can say was a mix from all of these things we are bringing from our past and it will also change something in the future for our vision.”
Healing on a hunch
Heading into Marfa, Makar said she was most excited about the moment they would meet the rest of the group and come together from different backgrounds, cultures and skill sets to focus on one subject: healing.
“We haven't had this type of camp or intensive that is both multidisciplinary and also sticking to one topic,” Makar said. “Healing is such an incredible subject, something we need nowadays. I wondered, ‘How I can connect with my past and present time doing this?' Having this experience and taking this and giving it to other people means really little things can then change the big things. If you take one sentence and share it with them, maybe it touches their life, creating some difference.”
While focusing on healing, Charney said the group also made an effort to draw inspiration from Marfa while avoiding any direct references to the city. In doing so, he hoped the final product would be something anyone, no matter their location or background, could relate to.
“Last year, the hunch was borders and we really got lost in how dark that was,” Charney said. “Our nation is in a terrible time right now, so we thought maybe we could find some solutions through art. Maybe our coming together will create something that gives us an avenue towards something that will heal the divide.”
Köse said she hoped that healing would extend past the United States.
“The world has thousands of problems, all of these environmental problems, global warming, politics,” she said. “So it's not just about healing myself or healing somebody else so they are physically and psychologically healthy, but it's also about healing our world.”
Letting loose in Marfa
One of the hardest things about the Marfa Intensive is letting go: of control, of established roles, of familiarity. Every person is expected to be a holistic creator, taking part in each aspect of the production, regardless of their prior training.
“For me, I'm a real control freak, so sometimes not being in control was difficult for me,” Köse said. “Then I realized the good part was that everybody was in control of everything, and it was so better in this way.”
Using her own experiences as inspiration for the show was a surprise for Köse.
“I was aware of the topic of healing, but I was unaware we would use our own stories,” she said. “I told about one of my memories, and it was something so nice and so romantic. I wanted to direct the piece, so I did a little casting, I directed the scene and I used the most romantic music for it.”
The final surprise came once the piece was finished and in the hands of a fellow creator.
“While we were devising, they sequenced this scene with another one,” Köse said. “It turned into a comedy.”
For Makar, losing control was cathartic.
“I really liked the part where we tore apart objects,” she said. “I went back to my childhood and forgot everything. It was healing, and it was gorgeous.
She said she enjoyed helping create the visual component of the performance.
“We created objects, we created new moments,” Makar said. “There was so much pressure on my shoulders because I didn't know what I was going to do, and then I got used to, ‘Don't think, just do it.'”
Struggling with scriptwriting, Makar reached out to one of her new friends for help.
“I ran to him and said, ‘Please, teach me something,'” Makar recalled. “We worked together, I got ideas from him, and we created scenes together. Being in a group was so much more enjoyable than just doing it alone.”
Norman said by the end of the 11 days, Makar and Köse were part of what had become a tight-knit group of artists.
“Even the language barrier didn't get in the way,” Norman said. “They asked questions whenever they were confused. Devised theater wasn't something they really knew about, as they primarily study acting, and this asked them to design and write. But they brought a real love of the art and a real commitment to collaboration.
“When you have a diverse group like this, the way they each see healing differs. They have a different perspective on many things, and that's what resonates, and that's what sticks. Sharing those small things is what is most important, because it's the small things we share, the cultural exchange, where you're taking a little piece of something that you may not even be aware of back with you, and you're leaving a little piece of something behind. Somehow, that's going to carry through. I really believe that.”
Taking Marfa to Turkey and beyond
Makar said she has continued to experience the effect of Marfa since returning to Turkey.
“I no longer have limits for creating art,” Makar said. “I have the courage to do that thanks to the devising theater workshop. I can get rid of my actor tag, and I can be director, playwright or anything I want.”
Köse said she has continued thinking about healing and how to use, in current and future projects, what the Marfa Intensive taught her.
“Healing was an obsession there, and still it is an obsession,” she said. “I feel like this process opened my eyes to creativity and other forms to do theater. We will start to do a new play this semester as junior project at school, and I can imagine that some parts of the exercises we learned in Marfa will help me a lot. The people I met there gave me so much inspiration and perspective that I will always use.”
Sharing about their experience in Marfa, Makar said, has created an interest about the intensive, the university and the country among her friends in Turkey.
“I will keep telling people about Marfa and Texas Tech,” Makar said. “They think it was an amazing experience for me and Rengim. They started to research immediately, and got a great respect for Texas Tech because this opportunity is so important for artists.”
Here in the U.S., word of the Marfa Intensive also continues to spread. On Nov. 3, two Texas Tech doctoral students involved in the program, Randall Rapstine and Cole Wimpee, will discuss the impact of the Marfa Intensive at the 2018 Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities national conference. The panel discussion also includes Western Washington University's Rich Brown, who has served as artistic director of the Marfa Intensive since its inception, and Clemson theater faculty member Shannon Robert, who served as a guest artist at this year's intensive.
The panelists will examine how devising in Marfa forces students to confront, embrace and understand how an environment can help create art and how art can, in turn, affect an environment. They also will share how the interdisciplinary work of theater and visual-art practitioners collaborating emphasizes the creative growth and expansion of an artist's views.
This broadening of perspectives is a big deal at Texas Tech and a major priority for those in the TCVPA. Charney said the Marfa Intensive is just one more way the college accomplishes that objective.
“One of the strategic goals of the university is globalization,” Charney said. “TCVPA Dean Noel Zahler really embraces the idea of being a global university and understands the need to bring in and integrate other perspectives. It's great to learn the history and it's great to explore a country, but I think the real thing is people. The more you know people, the more you know the country.
“The college wants us to commit to global initiatives. I can't imagine a more significant goal at a university. The more integrated, the more diverse, the better.”