For Carl Flink, it didn't feel right. In the midst of the Twin Cities' thriving artistic community, the University of Minnesota performing arts department sat as an isolated island. Yes, several professionals from the community taught within the department, but that just made it worse. The chair of theater arts and dance (and artistic director of the dance troupe Black Label Movement), Flink in the past year has begun to aggressively forge partnerships between the university and independent companies.
"Frankly, I'm surprised it hasn't happened earlier," Flink said. "We're looking at this as making permeable walls at the university so we're connected and entwined with the community."
The latest manifestation of this initiative is a production with the Moving Company, the new troupe formed by former Jeune Luners Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp. They have developed with students a new work called "The War Within/All's Fair." It opens Thursday at Rarig Center. Serrand and Epp intend to keep working on the project and do a professional production next spring.
"The War Within," written and directed by Epp and Serrand, wrestles with the political paralysis, the social indigestion and the new vulnerabilities that Americans feel. It is not about wars being fought outside the nation's boundaries, but rather about the battles throughout society, between individuals and within individuals.
Epp calls it a "celebration of our national stupidities." Serrand said it is "about the slow disintegration of the democratic principles."
The project began when students who had studied with Serrand in their free time asked the theater arts and dance department to make the arrangement formal.
"Dominique and I and Marcus Dilliard [university faculty and Jeune Lune collaborator] had been trying to figure out ways to bring Dominique and Steven's voices into the department," Flink said. "The tipping point was when students expressed a desire to work with them."
Serrand said part of the Moving Company's mission is to build work with students from scratch. It accomplishes three things: He and Epp get to teach; they have a laboratory in which to develop work, and they create new audiences through their involvement.
"And potentially discover new talent," Epp added. "It allows you time and resources for new work. It's like research."
Flink says the research aspect works both ways. Students get to observe artists who have been building theater for more than three decades. They also get to test their own chops and gather feedback from professionals.
More to come
Looking forward, Flink has even bigger plans for the department's endeavor. Next spring, he will team with Peter Rothstein of Theater Latté Da to produce the musical "Spring Awakening" at Rarig with a cast that includes many students.
One of the keys of these partnerships, Flink said, is that they carry no long-term obligations. Companies and students are encouraged to bring forward independent ideas and projects from various sources in what Flink calls a "harbor model."
"We allow these organizations to operate like ships slipping in and slipping out of a harbor without an annual commitment," he said.
About the time Flink rolls up his sleeves to go to work on "Spring Awakening," Epp and Serrand will be preparing for the professional production of "The War Within/All's Fair."
Asked about what the work will deal with, they mention the financial crisis, oligarchies, the loss of creativity, the relationship between art, science and politics.
"We feel our situation is so desperate that we have to find a way to laugh at the absurdity of it," Serrand said. "That's called optimism."
Epp cautioned not to consider the work on literal terms. "The War Within" is more an event than a play.
"It's not meant to be understood intellectually as much as it is to be understood emotionally," he said.
But Serrand seems just as intent on the process as the outcome. He talks about "igniting students with the idea that they can make change." Is it possible, Epp asks, to propel a movement that pushes through the impasses that stagnate our national and international moods?
"Learning while applying is one of the most effective ways of researching your artistic voice," said Flink.