The founders of New Manifest Theatre Company, a newly-established Austin troupe, want to give their audience something timely and relevant.
And so the “Manifest miniFest,” the company’s inaugural short play festival through Aug. 4 at the Motion Media Arts Center, offers a manifold mix of six plays authored by local Austin playwrights. The medley of scripts includes a play set 10 years after Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” a dark comedy featuring two elderly women, a feminist political comedy sketch, an immersive look at gentrification, an intergenerational family drama, and a one woman show about microaggression.
New Manifest leaders say they wanted to create an annual event that would embody their mission statement — to tell a variety of stories from a variety of different perspectives and uphold a collaborative working relationship with playwrights and actors.
“We really thought of ‘miniFest’ as being about how many local playwrights can we get to submit their work that are all from different styles, telling different stories, even breaking what is the normal genre or style of theater, and put them all together in a way that’s complementary in the way that they’re so different from each other,” says Simone Alexander, producing artistic director.
New Manifest has set its ticket at $10, a gesture to entice people that might traditionally be unlikely to support theatre. And there’s an ASL-interpreted performance on Aug. 3.
Alexander and Elisa Regulski — both Oklahoma City University theatre alumnae — created New Manifest in order to diverge from the traditional theater practices they were taught in college. Once in Austin, the duo were frustrated by larger local theater companies who they felt put on the same shows year after year. They found themselves more interested in showcasing new works.
“I think that there are too many voices that are not being heard,” says Alexander. “And that’s the guiding light behind why we produce the work we do, and why I feel it’s much more important to me to know who a playwright is, know why they create the work they do, and know the full story behind it. We give that amount of time to Shakespeare, we give that amount of time to Tennessee Williams, so I don’t really understand why we don’t with other artists.”
New Manifest’s first-ever show, “The Realness” by Idris Goodwin, a 1996 hip-hop love story, premiered January. Many actors in the production went on to join the company’s ensemble, a troupe that consists of women and people of color, some of whom Alexander discovered through her involvement on the nominating committee for the B. Iden Payne Awards, the longtime Austin theater honors.
Alexander says while finding the right actors is often an arduous process, it is worth the effort to bring a more authentic story to the stage.
“If I’m telling a story that’s predominantly black, I need to find those actors. I need to find a range of those actors who can play against each other,” says Alexander. “And that means I’m going to go do my homework, and I’m going to plan four months ahead of the start of rehearsal to find these people who will do a good job and who have the bandwidth and are right for the role.”
In the current era of #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, media makers race to address diversity. But New Manifest seeks to go beyond surface-level attention of only casting diversity by incorporating a variety of voices into the design and directorial processes in addition to frontward facing actor roles.
“I feel like you’re really missing part of that storytelling, when you’re putting all of the onus of the voice of it on an actor, instead of coming at it from a directorial visionary point of view of ‘I want all aspects of this show to reflect this voice’,” says Alexander.
Deja Morgan, creator of the one woman show “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear,” part of ‘Manifest miniFest,” breaches the fourth wall in her performances, posing rhetorical questions related to microaggressions to the audience.
“As an artist, I definitely am trying to figure out the balance between my speaking my truth and still having it accessible so the audience can learn something and take something away from it, even if it is hard to sit through,” says Morgan.
Morgan says she was concerned when writing the piece that Black audiences would find it triggering, since it is based on real events that have happened to her since living in Austin. However she’s found the reaction has been positive so far, with African American audiences finding it refreshing to see themselves reflected on stage. And yet white audience members can have different reactions, Morgan says, which is just part of bringing difficult topics to the surface.
“It doesn’t have to be a burden. It could just be like taking it in,” Morgan says. “It may make you uncomfortable. But figure out why it makes you uncomfortable, then keep it moving. I’m not really here to terrorize people. It’s just to be like, ‘oh, pay attention and check yourself.’”
Decidedly not shying away from political topics, New Manifest’s next feature-length production, Kristiana Rae Colón‘s “Good Friday,” addresses gun violence in schools. “Good Friday” will premiere in late February, 2020 at The Vortex.
Alexander says she sees a need for theatre to evolve and take on these relevant topics in order to engage new audiences.
“I don’t think I started the company with the intention of doing inherently like activist theater work,” she says. “And I do think there’s a time and place for activists theatre work. But also I feel like it would be ignorant of us not to reflect what is happening.”