When the COVID-10 pandemic shut down Austin in early March, local theatre troupe New Manifest had just finished the run of their spring production at the Vortex Theatre of Kristiana Rae Colón one-act play “Good Friday” which tackles sexual assault and gun violence.
“We pretty much lucked out on being able to do the total three-week run that we were planning and that was all able to happen before the shutdown happened,” says Producing Artistic Director Simone Alexander.
While New Manifest narrowly beat the storm of programmatic cancellations which would define the Austin arts community in Spring 2020, the group has since had to rethink how it will present its second annual short play festival, originally scheduled for this August.
Manifest Minifest, which will be pushed to September, will be presented on a digital platform and include four short plays on a variety of topics (quarantine included) in addition to artist workshops on playwriting, early career producing, design and self-care. It will be free to attend, with donations encouraged. New Manifest received over 70 short play submissions from Texas and beyond, including international contributors. As selections are winnowed down, priority is given to productions that could easily be filmed with little or no person-to-person contact.
“That’s a conversation that we’ll have with a playwright once they’re selected, especially about it being moved to this virtual platform and being filmed,” says Alexander. “If that’s for sure not the playwright’s intent and they would rather us hold it for another year then we’re more than happy to do that.”
Incorporating workshops into the short play festival has been on Alexander’s brain for a while, but she was spurred to incorporate them this year with shelter-in-place orders creating a market for accessible online educational opportunities.
“I think that’s important, especially as a newer company, and almost all of our ensemble members are fairly young artists, to share that knowledge with other artists who are wanting to create and do things who maybe feel like they can’t because they don’t have the experience or the tools,” says Alexander. “I really did structure these workshops to be something that I felt like artists could get a lot out of, especially during this quarantine time where people are being reflexive and want to pick up a new skill.”
New Manifest has also decided to invest more time into a podcast it started during the 2020 season. Various members from the ensemble host guests and discuss behind-the-scenes details of their productions. Current Black Lives Matter protests launched Alexander into conversations with other Black artists in town, and she wanted to use the podcast to start a regularly-occurring dialogue with them.
“It’s obviously a really difficult time, being a Black woman artist moving through the world and being aware of this time in history. I really hope that theater can be in a place of reinvention where more people can be highlighted and their voices can be heard,” says Alexander.
Past guests have included Jeremy Rashad Brown, owner of Brown Boy Productions and Vortex board member, and upcoming guests include playwrights Jeanette Hill, and Lisa B. Thompson, who is professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas.
Alexander says while the “Black Artists Matter” mural that recently went up on Austin’s eastside is important, it’s also key to recognize the community is small and it’s important for fellow Black artists to collaborate and have an awareness of one another’s work.
“We’re trying to think of ways that we can come together and support each other’s work, in really trying to build the community that we feel like is lacking,” Alexander says. “We are all busy, but what we’ve come to recognize is that we’re all busy because we’re doing other people’s projects, instead of really having the support within our own community and knowing what each of us is doing.”
“It’s been nice to come together and think of what we can do together for the future to really make Austin a place that Black people want to live but also where Black artists are thriving, have work and are supported.”
Alexander has been inspired by the national We See You, White American Theatre campaign, Black Theatre United’s recent town hall meetings, and Black Women In Theatre Appreciation Day, hosted by Black Women on Broadway. She says seeing people with long careers open up about their past experiences and how they worked to combat prejudice has been validating.
“I think as a Black artist, you think you’re experiencing things that feel a little gaslight-y, when you’re going through those situations, and you’re like, ‘Wait, did this just happen? Why do I feel icky and weird about that?’” Alexander says. “It takes some time because o that’s a kind of trauma. It takes some time to realize, ‘Oh, that just happened to me and it was a micro or macro aggression that now I’m like trying to weed through and see how I feel in this space now’.”
New Manifest is in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Alexander says the groups is in a different place than a lot of nonprofits right now, considering they don’t have staff relying on them monetarily.
The impetus for creating New Manifest came when Alexander and other founding members noticed a lack of diversity in local theatre, in both representation and content. Founding their organization on a platform of diversity has made it clear during this time they are a step ahead of many long-standing, traditional theater organizations.
“It takes work because I think it’s hard for people to realize that they might have been creating a space that did not feel comfortable or inviting to other people,” says Alexander. “I think just now they’re realizing that so it is a much harder task to turn the whole ship around when you can just have a brand new ship and have it pointed in the right direction.”