25 Years Mature: New World Performance Lab Celebrates Major Milestone
by Josy Jones
The first quarter of life is a blur: A period of exploration and growth. Many acknowledge that turning 25 was when things started to make sense. It’s the age where you are finally becoming mature enough to navigate the world in a somewhat graceful fashion. When you make it to 25, you’ve reached a level of maturity and direction that allows you to navigate the world with more ease, purpose and influence. Turning 25 is an accomplishment for anyone, but especially for a theatre company.
This year, New World Performance Lab (NWPL), a theatre company on South Balch Street, is celebrating being 25 years mature. For 25 years, co-artistic directors James Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta have stayed true to their mission to create “theatre events and pedagogical programs, to research performance techniques from around the world, and to develop a contemporary performance methodology for culturally diverse theatre artists.”
Unlike many American-based theaters whose productions can be rushed by pressing expenses, NWPL chooses to spend much more time in their rehearsal process.
“Very often, the common way of working in the American theatre is you audition, you get cast, you rehearse for five or six weeks, you perform it for two or three weeks, and you’re done,” Slowiak says. Comparatively, NWPL likes to take at least three months (sometimes years) to refine a show and keep productions alive much longer. The company and its members make sacrifices to work in this way, yet it continues to be rewarding.
Rehearsals are lengthy in order to serve its actors. Both artistic directors, Slowiak and Cuesta, worked with Polish theatre director, Jerzy Grotowski, whose ideology that actors should have training, influenced their way of creation. NWPL describes itself as being “actor-centered,” and creates the majority of its work through an ensemble, or a dedicated core of performers who have committed to working for months at a time on exploring what it means to be an ensemble and using the “tools of performance to work on themselves.” Although they occasionally open their productions for auditions, they tend to work this way more often than not.
New World uses theatre as a laboratory to strengthen three skills that they consider vital to actor growth: The actors work on what it means to see (to really see someone), to listen (to truly hear someone) and to meet (exploring what is is to interact with another human being). These are basic humans skills, but Slowiak says we “sometimes only pretend to do them in life.”
This way of working is what Jairo Cuesta calls “Performance Ecology,” a process that encourages actors to refine and rediscover the urge to act, to work on perception, to work on their bodies, to work on attention and other skills needed to be an actor. And although the theatre has been around for 25 years and the ensemble has evolved, they stay true to this method in order to both equip actors with the tools they need to continue their craft, as well as allow audiences to attend and remember what is means to see, listen and meet another. NWPL has become a space “to remember what it is to be a human being.”
“We’re in a mature phase now,” Sowiak says. The first 15 years for NWPL was an explorative age of travel, fine-tuning their methodology and conducting many workshops. And although they have always been based in Akron, many of their performances were in Cleveland. After awhile, they realized they were better known outside of Akron and it wasn’t until they decided to create roots in Akron that things began to change for them. Five or six years ago, the City of Akron provided NWPL a space to call home in the Balch Community Center where they could bring audiences to experience their work. “The Devil’s Milk Trilogy” was a direct consequence of the company’s opportunity to engage the Akron community.
This way of working has yielded amazing results, including status as an internationally respected theatre that has performed or conducted workshops in Italy, Colombia, Lebanon and so many other places around the world. They have also been able to influence a lineage of creators, from Raymond Bobgan, Director of the Cleveland Public Theatre, to Wendy Duke of The Center for Applied Drama and Autism.
There’s no doubt that they are amazing. So what’s next for a company that has been able to accomplish so much? First, they do not want to repeat themselves. They want to keep challenging themselves, their audiences, remain globally relevant and reconnect with the intercultural curiosity that is ingrained in their identity. They’ve decided to produce the adapted, bilingual tale of “Las Aventuras de Don Quijote de La Mancha,” from a new version by Argentine playwright Patricia Suarez.
NWPL is grateful to Akron for giving it the possibility to create its work. Akron has been a gift that has allowed their artistic exploration to continue to happen. It’s time to extend your gratitude to them for making Akron their home. 25 years in, there are still people who don’t know New World exists. Let’s change that.
See “Las Aventuras de Don Quijote de La Mancha,” opening on May 4 and running for three weekends.