Plastic covered the room. Two rows of seats were placed neatly in front of a slanted platform of a painted Poland map, while crates and chairs formed a car seating arrangement on top of the platform.
The lights dimmed at the Balch Street Theatre on June 23 as a cast of six, dressed in modern day rags, paraded out in front of the small audience to present the play, "A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians" by Poland's Dorota Maslowska.
The play was a New World Performance Laboratory Studio 2 production and presented by the Center for Applied Theatre and Active Culture. It would be surprising if you haven't heard of these names, especially since NWPL has been a part of Akron for twenty years.
20 years of cutting edge work
The small theatre company has quietly worked to change the idea that cutting edge theatre can't be found in Akron or even in the country.
According to its website, The NWPL mission is to create theatre events and programs, to research performance techniques from around the world, and to develop a contemporary performance methodology for culturally diverse theatre artists.
"We don't just look at a script and start rehearsing," said Jim Slowiak, president of the Center for Applied Theatre and Active Culture and co-artistic director of New World Performance Laboratory. "We look for new ways of telling the story. We look for different styles and we take longer to piece it all together. It's very much a group process."
Slowiak is currently a professor of theatre at The University of Akron, while Jairo Cuesta, the other co-artistic director, is a Colombian actor and director. Together they have impressive theatre careers that span across the globe.
Slowiak said since NWPL has found a home in Balch Street Community Center, northeast Ohio is able to see more thought-provoking plays. The company explores outside of the Rubber City, and NWPL has toured its performances and conducted workshops at major national and international festivals.
The theatre company strives to make its work actor-centered. For example, NWPL Studio 2 is just one area of the company that mainly consists of young actors while all members of NWPL come from diverse backgrounds. Everyone has a voice in production creation.
"The fun of working in this environment is the physical approach we take to theatre, while also investigating global, multi-cultural approaches to the material to create inclusiveness," Slowiak said. "Gay, lesbian, black, white foreign born—the differences are pretty amazing. We aren't your mama's theatre."
Planning for the future
In 2005, the CATAC formed to provide an administrative umbrella for the NWPL as well as establishing an environment to nurture emerging local artists and cultural community programs.
"We collaborate with groups ranging from Cleveland Public Theatre to international companies," Slowiak said.
The nonprofit recently received a $2,500 grant from the Akron Community Foundation to help produce the 2012-2013 season.
"It has been a goal to do a full season of activities," he added. "We'd eventually like for our actors to receive compensation and to provide more community programs to the public."
CATAC has presented summer drama camps for middle school students and workshops for actors. The nonprofit also initiated a monthly-family oriented experience called PLAYscape!, a program inviting community members of all ages to participate in theatre activities. These have included improvisation, singing, storytelling, and even lantern making with Leandra Drumm, Ohio artist, for the University Park's annual Light UP! Lantern festival.
The 2012-2013 season will continue with the The Akron Color Line Project Performance, a provocative look at the history and ramifications of racism in Akron. Gilgamesh, a company creation, will also start production.
"We are always looking for interesting ideas and plays that will engage the audience and provoke new thoughts," Slowiak said. "We don't shy away from issues or problems in our society."
For more information about New World Performance Laboratory and the Center for Applied Theatre and Active Culture, visit http://www.nwplab.org.