40 Years of Chautauqua New Works Festival

Student theater performances explore human emotions

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Loving yourself means being scared, screaming and being true to your emotions. The Chautauqua New Works Festival’s acts encapsulate the human experience through emotionally moving  performances.

UC Santa Cruz’s Barnstorm Theater presented its first weekend of Chautauqua New Works Festival, now in its 40th year, at the Barn Theater on May 23-26. Inspired by a century-old theater festival that started at Lake Chautauqua, New York, the Santa Cruz festival will continue May 30 through June 2. 

The two-weekend, student-run event features a total of six student-directed performances. Chautauqua is an opportunity for artists to connect with the audience through works charged with passion.

“There isn’t really a particular meaning to this, it’s not like we made a painting that’s supposed to represent something or a play that has a moral,” said co-director of festival piece “Flood” Kumi Maxson. “It’s just sort of like an experiential thing of all the performers, being in the space and experiencing all the process of making it […] and seeing what they’re doing.”

Chautauqua is a space for creative exploration where artists are encouraged to venture toward new forms of theatre. Oftentimes, performances blur the lines between spoken-word poetry, dance and traditional acting. 

“It blew my mind how the different episodes expressed so much and were so different,” said attendee and UCSC student August Thompson. “It made me question who I am and what anything is.”

Opening night of Chautauqua featured three performances that reflected the broad spectrum of human emotions. The night started with “Coup-ed Up,” a play that follows a tumultuous military coup in Turkey, written and directed by UCSC fourth-year Begsy Inal. 

“Coup-ed Up” is an intense sensory experience. Inal uses gunshots, explosions and bright lights to immerse the audience in  feelings of panic and fear unique to war. The piece builds tension through the thoughtful mobilization of silence and noise, allowing the audience to sympathize with the emotions of individuals affected by violence.

Up next was “Flood,” a conglomerate performance incorporating dance, poetry, live music and performance art. Fourth-year students Kat Brault and Kumi Maxson directed a cathartic performance dealing with internal suffering. Brault’s inspiration for “Flood” came from a period of overwhelming and conflicting emotional states in their personal life. To cope with this, Brault started going to the ocean to reflect, leading to the concept of “Flood.” 

“As humans, we can never know water and there’s this inclination to mastery or containment that’s just impossible and it’s like a losing battle, and we’re hurting ourselves,” Brault said. “We ourselves are also bodies of water, and we can collaborate with water to learn more about ourselves.”

Brault’s visions of human vulnerability are translated through visceral performances that invites the viewer to ruminate on identity and healing. Although the actors did not exchange lines, dance and non-traditional forms of communication, like screaming and sighing, conveyed the ethos of the performance.

“[‘Flood’] has allowed me to experience the full capacity of life,” said performer and first-year Arianna Nocelo. “And what that means to me and how being a vulnerable person and an honest person at every instant is so healing and so cathartic.”

Theater arts graduate student Isabel Cruz wrote and directed the final performance of the night, “The Playboy of the Golden West.” Set in 19th century Monterey County, it tells the story of Christopher “Christy” Mahon, an Irish immigrant who claims he killed his foreman while working on the railroad. Now a fugitive, Christy runs into a cantina owned by the father of Margarita Reynoso. The news of his crime spreads throughout the town and captures the hearts of women, including Margarita. Cruz’s witty writing captivated the audience with  funny and quirky characters. 

These performances offered a space for audience members to heal and see their emotions reflected in art. Chautauqua helps students develop as artists and as individuals. The performances are meant to leave the audience with a better understanding of who they are.

“[I want my art] to show people that these are things that you could also do,” Brault said. “I feel like if everyone in the world just started screaming, if it was socially acceptable for people to just scream when they needed to, people would be a lot happier.”


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