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‘An Amazing Oasis for Young Artists’

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    Theatre Professor Sergio Costola participates in a past program offered by the Rhodopi International Theater Laboratory.

Nine theatre students are heading to Bulgaria this month to participate in an international theatre-training program

Nine Southwestern theatre students and two faculty members are heading to Bulgaria in July to participate in an international theatre-training program.

This is the fifth year that students from Southwestern have attended the Rhodopi International Theater Laboratory (RITL). RITL is held in Smolyan, a town in the Rhodopi Mountains near Bulgaria’s border with Greece. The Rhodopi Mountains are the mythological origins of Western theater, music and performance. This year’s program will be held July 9 - Aug. 9.

RITL is organized by Fourthworld Theatre Projects, a nonprofit company that will soon be moving its headquarters to Austin.

The program was created four years ago to advance theater technique by bringing together theater practitioners, scholars and students from around the world. Students re-contextualize and recreate international legends and folk tales – which often serve as a central source for the themes and subjects of classical Eastern and Western drama – through a variety of workshops and performances. The program also includes excursions to archaeological and historical points of interest.

This year’s program will focus on the myth of Ogun, the Yoruba god of fire, metal working, war and government. The Yoruba people are the largest ethnic group in western Africa. Ogun is said to have served as the inspiration for the slaves who participated in the Haitian Revolution of 1804.

Jared J. Stein, an adjunct threatre professor at Southwestern and the founder of Fourthworld Theatre Projects, said participants will create 15-20 pieces related to the Ogun myth or parallel myths in other cultures. He said the myth has many implications for today’s society.

“The global community, far more interconnected than ever before, is sharing its chaos in ways never-before imagined… yielding a shared need for order, or Ogun, a force that is potentially suppressive, potentially devastating, but also potentially beautiful,” he said.

Southwestern students attending the program this year are Zac Carr, Sherilyn Caudle,   Robert Frost, Rachel Hoovler, Jessica Hughes, Lauren Knutti, Alison Meagher-Manson, Leslie Turner and Christopher Weihert. Carr and Hughes are attending for the second time.

Sergio Costola, associate professor of theatre at Southwestern, has served as resident dramaturg for RITL since 2006 and will be attending again this year.

Stein said the program offers students an opportunity to learn new techniques of collaboration as well as the opportunity to “take chances and fail.” It also teaches students how to create theatre for global audiences, which is increasingly important in the theatre profession.  

Stein said participating in the Bulgaria program has helped several former Southwestern students get accepted into top-notch graduate schools and has helped others make connections that have led to jobs after graduation.  

Edward Coles, a 2009 Southwestern graduate, is among the participants who have gotten their start in professional theatre as a result of the program. He met Mara Isaacs, producing director of McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., where he worked last year. And it has led to a job with FourthWorld Theatre Projects when that organization moves to Austin this year.  

“The RITL is an amazing oasis for young artists,” Coles said. “As important as study and learning are in developing oneself as an artist, in the end you just have to get your hands dirty. At the RITL you are taken out of the normal routine and join in a group of artists as a student-collaborator. The RITL gives you a context in the form of each year’s central myth, new tools in the form of classes with artists from around the world, and an environment of artistic work where you have as much or as little guidance as you want. There is always someone to check out something you are working on or to work with you through some new idea.”  

Coles said the cultural exchange in Bulgaria is valuable as well. “The theatre tradition there is amazing,” he said. “You are walking the same mountains where Orpheus and Eurudyce fell in love, where Alexander the Great was told by the oracle he would rule the world, and where the god Dionysus was first worshiped in proto-theatrical rituals. There is an energy to the place that borders on mystical.”

Coles will be returning to Bulgaria for the fourth time this year and will serve as a professional resident. He hopes to attend a top graduate school in theatre in two years.