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STI 'sets the bar' for other schools, NYC director says

June 2, 2015

Stephens theatre students have set a new standard of expectations for other schools, according to Matt Opatrny.

“We teach at a lot of other places, including other countries, and Stephens is the bar for us,” he said. “We always compare other places to Stephens, and that includes graduate-level programs.”

It’s high praise from a wildly successful professional. Opatrny and wife Jessica Burr are co-founders of Blessed Unrest, a revolutionary theatre in New York that recently received the New York Innovative Theatre Award recognizing the company’s body of work. They have been invited to perform their work, “Doruntine,” a collaboration with Teatri ODA out of Kosova, in Switzerland in 2016.

This is the second time the duo has been to Stephens to work with students in the Summer Theatre Institute. Last year, they produced an original show based on the life of a cave explorer. This year, they’re guiding students through the creative processes.

“Last year was our first time here, and we weren’t sure what to expect,” Burr said. “This year, knowing how amazingly resourceful and creative the students are and how hard they work, we gave them more control over the creative process.”

Six student writers have created various narratives around the theme of separation. Others have choreographed dance numbers.

Creating an original, high-quality piece in two weeks is challenging; students are working from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Even with long hours, it’s not something Opatrny would tackle anywhere else.

“We would not take on a two-week devised theatre production at other places like we do here,” he said. “At other places, we have to teach how to work first. We come here and just start working—we don’t have to teach them how to work first. It’s a pleasure to work.”

The end result will be a tapestry of narratives that will tell a clear story but that will still leave room for audience imagination and interpretation. Attendees can expect tales of separation, beautiful costumes and a minimalistic set involving water.

“What’s unique about this project is it’s not girls putting on a play that’s been done a hundred times,” Opatrny said. “It’s a beautiful show. There’s a lot of movement, great humor and wonderful singing.”

Burr and Opatrny held their first production in New York just days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In the nearly 15 years since, they’ve seen other companies embrace devised theatre.

“A wave of experimental theatre came about in the 1960s, but died in the ’80s because of political and cultural changes,” Opatrny said. “We’re seeing a resurgence of it. Theatre is more physical and dance and theatre are overlapping.”

Having the opportunity to experience devised theatre has allowed Stephens students to explore a wide range of freedom, Burr said. “We’re empowering them as actors and creators. And we hope they continue to work on and create their own work because they’re so good.”

Audiences can catch the original The Blessed Unrest Project at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Warehouse Theatre. It’s free and open to the public.

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