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The making of the Cohen New Works Festival

In a city that’s full of festivals, how does one stand out? Well, the Cohen New Works Festival happens to be the largest collegiate festival of its kind and is taking place March 28-April 2.

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Nicole Barnes has been busy.

Both a student actress and marketer, Barnes dashed from Shakespeare class (she’s working on “As You Like It”) to a quick interview with the Austin Chronicle’s Robert Faires to sending out press releases during her lunch hour to promote The University Co-op Presents the Cohen New Works Festival flashmob on Facebook and Twitter from the Theatre and Dance computer lab.

Austin is home to many festivals. And in a city full of festivals, it’s difficult to create buzz. And when you are a full-time student, it’s even more difficult to find the time to create buzz.

The Cohen New Works Festival is a one-week event celebrating explosively diverse new performances. For the past 10 years, the Festival has become a centrifugal force of the Austin performance scene. The 2011 Festival is launching over 35 new works ranging from innovative musicals, bold solo works to dynamic multi-media productions. With all events free and open to the public, this showcase is the largest collegiate festival of its kind.

What makes the Festival unique is that the programming and logistics are all run by students. The Festival’s infrastructure is comprised of a team of graduate and undergraduate students, including the busy Barnes. From early marketing efforts to the week-of events to coordinating guest artists as respondents, the intricacies of the Festival are handled by students, for students.

“The Festival is a template for self-producing beyond the university,” said Sarah Coleman, assistant producer for the Festival and M.F.A. candidate in Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities. “We are equipping students with an extraordinary toolbox. They leave the Festival knowing how to market, organize and support their own work. It’s very exciting.”

As assistant producer, Coleman manages the new performances in an administrative role. Her all-encompassing position includes many tasks; everything from managing the Festival schedule to leading both the weekly executive committee and committeeat-large meetings, to facilitating post-show discussions.

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The Festival is March 28-April 2 at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo: Courtesy of the Festival

“The teams have complete artistic agency. The executive committee and I are here to help them succeed, to support them to take great risks and to promote our many talents in the college,” said Coleman.

Currently the Festival’s executive committee has multiple student-staffed subcommittees including guest artist, applications, public relations and marketing, events, technical direction and production management. As the Festival grows, other committees rise to serve the needs of the artists. This year marks the first appearance of both the dramaturgy and engaging research committees.

“It’s about intention,” said dramaturgy committee leader Carrie Kaplan, a Ph.D. candidate in Performance as Public Practice. “We work from a strong sense of purpose. We want to impart skills to younger artists and get audiences excited about new models of theater making.”

The dramaturgy committee assists artistic teams by offering developmental feedback and discussion. The engaging research committee encourages models of inquiry that situate in and around performance. Students are not only creating innovative works, they are looking at performance in new ways.

What the students learn and experience makes the multi-tasking worth it.

“The Festival inspires a new energy in the broadest sense,” Barnes said. “With all events free, we open our doors to the larger university community and invite them to be a part of new performances. Every e-mail, every phone call, every letter in a press release is worthy of that mission.”

After all, the Festival happens one week only and Barnes knows after April 2, she can have her lunch hour back.

What: The University Co-op Presents the Cohen New Works Festival
When: Monday, March 28-Saturday, April 2
Where: Sites in and around the Winship Drama Building
More info: www.coopnwf.org