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Akron company marks 20th season of ‘edgy’ theater

2/21/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

New World Performance Laboratory’s co-founder Jairo Cuesta is shown in “Gilgamesh: He Who Saw Everything,” which the theater company will perform in March.
Photo: Andrew McAllister
WEST AKRON — In the midst of its 20th season, the New World Performance Laboratory (NWPL) has matured but not lost its edge, said co-founder James Slowiak.

“I think there’s a sort of comfortableness with what we are doing,” said Slowiak, a University of Akron (UA) theater professor who founded the group with Jairo Cuesta, a Colombian actor and director. “The people in the ensemble right now have been working for a very long time together. That’s something that’s rare in the theater these days, to find actors who respond and connect on that level.”

Slowiak said he and Cuesta had worked together with Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, known for his work in experimental theater. Slowiak came to Akron in 1989 to teach, and Cuesta and others they knew interested in contemporary theater followed.

“We realized we had a company, so in 1992 we sort of officially started the theater,” Slowiak said.

In their earliest years, NWPL worked on performances and toured extensively with them in Europe and South America. Locally, most of their work was presented at Cleveland Public Theatre, Slowiak said.

“We tend to be much more experimental and much more involved in the training of actors and performers, so we do a lot of workshops and classes and things like that,” Slowiak said. “We tend to devise our own work more than use a scripted work by a playwright, and we tend to take longer time developing something. We’re not the kind of theater that does a full season of 10 plays. … We like to keep a piece around for awhile, tour it and work with it in a workshop.”

He added that NWPL is also more physically oriented in its performances and training of actors.

“In physical theater, you put more emphasis on the body than text,” he said. “It’s storytelling through action and through the work of the actor’s body.”

About 10 years ago, NWPL decided to focus more on its Akron home base and began working in the area, mostly at UA. Two years ago, the city of Akron offered them use of the Balch Street Theater space, adjacent to the Balch Street Community Center in West Akron.

“It really had been not used for about five years, so it was in pretty rough shape,” Slowiak said. “The deal with the city is we would provide some TLC and clean it up and get it functioning.”

Today NWPL hosts workshops and performances at the space. One of their more recent endeavors, and a way to connect with younger people and families in the Akron area, is monthly PLAYscape events, typically held the last Saturday of the month at 2 p.m. at the theater, 220 S. Balch St.

“It’s a way for us to collaborate with other artists in the community and allow them to come in and see our space, and to share different kinds of theater activities with families,” Slowiak said.

The next PLAYscape event is Feb. 23 and will focus on dance, he added. It’s free.

Slowiak said he and Cuesta hope NWPL can continue a recent effort to host cutting-edge touring productions. In January, NWPL hosted a successful run of “Warriors Don’t Cry,” a one-woman show about one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.

“There’s a really interesting movement in the country in terms of ensemble theaters, which do smaller, cutting-edge work that deals a lot with place and social issues,” Slowiak said. “Those are the kinds of things we will be presenting.”

In March, NWPL will be the site of the premier by Ma’Sue, a new Akron-based African-American theater group, of a play about the Anthony Sowell murder case in Cleveland called “Vision of the Victims: A Happening on Imperial Avenue.” Then in April, NWPL’s company will debut its version of “Gilgamesh.”

One of NWPL’s continuing challenges is funding, Slowiak said. It has received grant funding from the Akron Community Foundation and UA’s Center for Conflict Resolution, but they are always hoping to find new sponsors.

“The problem we’ve always had is all of us would rather be rehearsing than sitting and writing a grant,” Slowiak said. “We take contributions, and we are able to piece our programs together. No one gets paid at this point. No one is making any money on this.”

He added that he and Cuesta are happy to have made Akron their home and base for NWPL.

“I love Akron,” Slowiak said. “It’s a really well-kept secret in terms of quality of life here. There’s a lot happening and a lot going on.”

For details on NWPL, visit the website www.nwplab.com or call 330-867-3299.

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