Some theater festivals lure audiences with breezy promises of something for everyone. Not so The Next Thing (TNT) Festival, which ArtsEmerson unveils at the Paramount Center over the next 10 days.
“The terrain we’re working in is contemporary devised work, and that’s not how something like ‘My Fair Lady’ gets made,” says David Dower, ArtsEmerson’s director of artistic programs.
“It’s not for everyone in the sense that it’s familiar or accessible to everyone immediately,” Dower says. “It is for everyone in terms of the experience. I would never say, ‘Oh, don’t come. This probably isn’t for you.’ ”
The lineup includes performances of the Debate Society’s “Blood Play,” Boston’s own Sleeping Weazel’s “Birth Breath Bride Elizabeth,” and “American Utopias” by Mike Daisey.
ArtsEmerson executive director Robert J. Orchard says he’s especially interested in seeing director Richard Maxwell’s work in Boston for the first time. Maxwell’s New York City Players will perform “Vision Disturbance” by Christina Masciotti. A video and film series will refract the live performances with works by Young Jean Lee and Reggie Watts.
So, what’s devised theater?
In traditional theater-making, a playwright writes a script that is handed to a producer to bring to the stage. “They start with a story, with a script,” says Polly Carl, director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College. “Devised work doesn’t start there. Maybe you start with an idea. All companies devise differently.”
For devised-work ensembles, creation tends to be an ongoing, communal process that takes place in the rehearsal space and even during performances. The work changes over months and years, and a set script may be the last step in the process, rather than the first, if one arrives at all.
“These are all artists saying . . . we want to tell a different kind of story, and we want to tell it differently,” says Carl.
Besides completed works, the festival will offer glimpses into the creative process. On Feb. 24, the New York-based Universes ensemble will offer a free public presentation of their work in progress, “Spring Training.” And six troupes will share their methods at free workshops for festival passholders Feb. 21-23.
The creators of devised work tend to be younger and not to have the resources and infrastructure of traditional theater groups, Carl says. Traditional groups “start with the infrastructure and then they make plays. These are artists who aren’t starting with institutions and infrastructure; they’re really starting from the art.”
So, more than many festivals, TNT is aimed at the artists themselves.
“One of the big challenges for [artists] is getting their chops together, their organizational structure as well as their skill set together, to be ready to tour,” Dower says. “A lot of artists are making work without a real infrastructure or thinking how to tour it. This festival in particular has been an opportunity for these artists to think about the work they’ve created and how it’s going to be available to be presented in other communities.”
For example, Dower says, several of the companies in the festival didn’t have touring sets when they began to plan for TNT. “We’ve been helping them on the production side and on the technical side, with paperwork and so forth, to be ready to tour.”
Whether it’s art or process or touring chops, the organizers hope TNT will lead to plenty of unplanned conversations among artists and audience members.
“I would very much like for the Paramount building to be a real mini-crossroads for 10 days,” says Orchard.
“Festivals in the US are often not really festivals,” says Mark Russell, artistic director of New York’s Under the Radar, an eight-year-old festival. “It’s like, one or two companies each weekend for six weeks. It’s a marketing concept, but it isn’t really a festival concept.” A real festival, he says, brings artists and audiences together in one time and place where ideas can cross-pollinate on- and offstage.
Dower and Carl began planning TNT Festival a couple of years ago, when they worked at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., as leaders of the American Voices New Play Institute. They brought the idea with them when they moved to Emerson last year. The festival came together as a collaboration with Under the Radar, especially associate artistic producer Meiyin Wang.
“We’re trying to create a whole cultural experience within the confines of Emerson,” says Russell. “It’s not so precious where the audience comes to the theater and leaves. This is where you’re supposed to come and hang around.”
It’s a formula that’s worked well at Under the Radar, and they’re interested to see how it works here, Russell says.
“From my experience of Boston, it really needs this kind of festival. It needs a place where the arts community and their fans and the rest of the community can come in,” Russell says.
One festival participant who’s already well known to Boston audiences is Daisey, who’ll perform “American Utopias” Friday and Saturday on the Paramount’s main stage. The monologist was already penciled in on ArtsEmerson’s schedule before the festival was set, and tickets to his show are not included in festival passes.
Orchard has a longstanding relationship with Daisey, and says he wasn’t put off by the controversy that erupted in 2012 over fabrications in Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” for which the performer eventually apologized.
“There’s an example of an artist who is evolving in ways that come from both positive and negative experiences, as we all do,” Orchard says. “I totally and fully and confidently back Mike Daisey the artist. If I was bringing in Mike Daisey as a journalist, I would have some second thoughts. But I’m not.”
At the other end of the state — and the theatrical spectrum — Shakespeare & Company in Lenox has announced its 36th season, featuring “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (June 22-Sept. 1) and “Richard II” (July 5-21) as well as the previously announced “Mother Courage and Her Children,” with Olympia Dukakis (July 26-Aug. 25). All three of those productions will be on the Tina Packer Playhouse stage.
In the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, the company will offer Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” (May 24-Aug. 18); Tom Stoppard’s translation of Gérald Sibleyras’s “Heroes” (June 13-Sept. 1); and Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” starring Packer and Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Aug. 8-Sept. 15). Tickets are on sale at www.shakespeare.org and at 413-637-3353.