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Smith Center Commissions Nine Works for '09-10

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

In a difficult economic climate for arts groups, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center is continuing its practice of presenting new works it has commissioned. Among the offerings for the 2009-10 season is a world premiere opera based on the life of heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

Nine new works, with the exception of the opera, are either underwritten solely by the center or co-commissioned and have a total budget of $100,000. "That has been our level the last couple of years," said Susie Farr, the executive director of the Clarice Smith Center, who is announcing the new season lineup this weekend to subscribers.

The center, a public and academic space operated by the University of Maryland, has seen what are now the standard repercussions of the economic turmoil on its current season. Attendance is down about 8 percent. "The student audience remained strong, our subscriptions are holding on," Farr said. "But the drop in our income reflected the decline in outside sales. Yet our opera season did very well."

The center took in about $752,000 for the 2007-08 season, and projects it will earn $578,200 for the current season. The operating budget for next season -- the venue's ninth -- will be $6 million, with $2.5 million from the university.

But Farr says officials are committed to the development of new works. For the new season, eight of the nine commissions will be performed by professional companies and artists.

"Shadowboxer," the production about Louis, will be performed by students from the Maryland Opera Studio, an organization within the university's School of Music. Developed by the veteran award-winning team of composer Frank Proto and librettist John Chenault, it premieres next April. The commission cost of $130,000 has been covered by the center, and the music school will pay for the production.

A musical work scheduled for February is "Yin Yu Tang: A Chinese Home," from the Kronos Quartet, the Grammy Award-winning string group, and pipa player Wu Man, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble. The piece is based on the true story about moving a 300-year-old house from China to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, an internationally known troupe based in San Francisco, will perform "Other Suns" in October with China's Guangdong Modern Dance Company. Another collaboration is between choreographer Emio Greco and composer Michael Gordon, who are doing a piece, premiering in September, called "[purgatorio] POPOPERA," a takeoff on Dante's "Divine Comedy." For two evenings in March, choreographer Gesel Mason will premiere "Women, Sex & Desire: Sometimes You Feel Like a Ho, Sometimes You Don't." Mason, who confronts assumptions about women, has been in residence at the center for two years.

A theater piece called "Wounded Splendor" is due from David Gonzalez next May. "He worked in the off-campus community and developed a relationship with the Riverkeepers, the volunteers who watch out for the waterways," Farr said. The play, which had a work-in-progress staging last month at the university, focuses on Fred Tutman, a Patuxent Riverkeeper who has been honored for his environmental work.

Another personal piece is "Disfarmer," by puppetry artist Dan Hurlin; the work follows the life of Mike Disfarmer, a hermit photographer who worked for 40 years in Heber Springs, Ark., documenting the farming community. It has its local premiere in November, and continues the Smith Center's tradition of including puppetry in memory of Maryland alumnus Jim Henson.

Rinde Eckert, a librettist, singer and winner of an Obie Award, and Steve Mackey, a composer, guitarist and alumnus of the band Pulp, are producing a dramatic music-theater work called "Slide." It will be presented in April.

The ninth commission is L.A. Theatre Works' radio docudrama "The RFK Project," which centers on Robert F. Kennedy's personal transformation during the 1960s civil rights movement. It is set for January.

Many companies are testing collaborations as a way to handle economic pressures. At Maryland, the theater department is working with Round House Theatre on a production of Charles L. Mee's "Hotel Cassiopeia," to be presented in February. It was inspired by the life of artist Joseph Cornell.

The season opens Sept. 17 with a reprise of "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" by Daniel Berrigan, about the 1968 protest by Catholic activists opposed to the Vietnam War. The play is being presented by the Actors' Gang, an experimental theater ensemble from Los Angeles founded by Tim Robbins.

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