Guest Artists

Throughout the week, students are given the unique opportunity to meet working professionals from various fields within the artistic world and make invaluable connections that last far past the end of the Festival. These guest artists travel to The University of Texas at Austin from across the city, state, nation, and world to encourage creativity by providing constructive project feedback, participating in panel discussions and networking with the general student body throughout the Festival. We had the great pleasure of visiting with and learning from the guests below in 2017:

2017 Guest Artists

profeta-headshotKatherine Profeta

Katherine Profeta is an NYC based dramaturg and choreographer, and a founding member of Elevator Repair Service, an award-winning New York City theatre company. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Drama, Theatre and Dance at Queens College, CUNY, and has experience teaching at Barnard and Yale Colleges, and at the Yale School of Drama. She recently published a book, Dramaturgy in Motion, which, according to her website, “examines the work of the dramaturg in contemporary dance and movement performance.

Profeta is currently working on Elevator Repair Service’s Measure for Measurea play by William Shakespeare that straddles the line between comedy and tragedy. It will be performed at Elevator Repair Service’s 25th Anniversary Gala, which will be hosted by Stephen Colbert on May 22, 2017.

We asked Profeta if she had any advice for her younger self and she shared the following:

“Just get yourself to the place where the kind of work you like is being made,” shared Profeta. “And then also, make it yourself with your friends.”

Profeta holds a Master of Fine Arts and a Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Yale School of Drama, and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Studio Arts from Yale College.


Ken Cerniglia

Imagine developing over fifty shows for professional, amateur and school productions and adapting Broadway shows like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid for junior audiences. That is exactly what Ken Cerniglia has done since becoming the literary manager for Disney Theatrical Group in 2003. Cerniglia is a dramaturg based in the New York and San Francisco Bay area where he works on plays, musicals, operas, films and symphonies. He has been working as a dramaturg for more than 14 years, and has developed plays for both on and off Broadway.

“I knew when I was in my later college years that theatre was my vocation,” shared Cerniglia. “It wasn’t until grad school, and then an internship at Arena Stage, that dramaturgy as a specialty rang my bell.”

Cerniglia is currently working on Hadestown with Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin. According to Mitchell’s websiteHadestown is a folk opera “based on the Orpheus myth and set in a Depression-era-esque political dreamscape.” Cerniglia has been workshopping the piece with Mitchell since 2013.

He enjoys working on projects that cross disciplines and with accomplished artists who are trying a new discipline. As a dramaturg, he gets to work in several areas of theatre from working with writers to helping develop a way to promote and pitch their projects.  `

Cerniglia has a B.A. in theatre and psychology from the University of California, San Diego, an M.A. in theatre history from Catholic University, and a Ph.D. in theatre history and criticism from the University of Washington.

Malgorzata Komorowska

Malgorzata Komorowska is a painter and stage designer from Poland. She has been working as a set and costume designer for productions in Poland and other countries, and for the past few years she has also devoted her time to painting.

When asked about what kind of new work excites her, Komorowska was straight to the point and shared that she enjoys new paintings and writing.

Komorowska was a student of Richard Isackes, who is currently the professor of Design and Technology in the Department of Theatre and Dance at The University of Texas at Austin. Professor Isackes is bringing in Komorowska to serve as a guest artist for the Cohen New Works Festival.

Komorowska attended Jagiellonian University and the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, where she worked for many years. She also graduated also from the University of Illinois.

If she could go back in time and give herself any advice at the beginning of her career, Komorowska said she would tell herself “listen to yourself and pay attention to [your] inner feelings.”

sherry-kramer-photoSherry Kramer

Sherry Kramer is a playwright, whose work has been seen at theaters across the country and abroad, including the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Yale Repertory Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, New York’s Second Stage and more. She is recipient of NEA, New York Foundation for the Arts and McKnight Fellowships, a New York Drama League Award and the LA Women in Theater New Play Award.

Kramer is currently working on a book about playwriting and a new play, Three Quarter Inches of Sky, which will be performed through Rude Mechs in Austin, Texas in April 2017 and at the Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin on April 20, 2017.

We asked Kramer what kind of new work excites her, and she shared with us that she enjoys:

“work that makes new meaning, work that trades in metaphor, and most of all, work that changes the way we see, both what we see, and how we see it. I believe that when we are changed by something, we become open to new understandings about ourselves and our world. We become capable of things that before were not possible.”

Kramer has an Master in Fine Arts (MFA) in Fiction and an MFA in Playwriting from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and was the first national member of New Dramatists. If she could go back in time, she would tell herself to “hold on tightly, let go lightly, trust your first impressions [and] don’t work with anyone whose initials are CR.”

willa-headshot-16Willa J. Taylor

Willa J. Taylor is a storyteller, writer and the Director of Education and Community Engagement at the Goodman Theatre, where she oversees all of the theatre’s “community and education programs and projects.” Taylor is currently managing the development of the reading of Every 28 Hours, and “the upcoming productions of two new plays, Destiny of Desire and Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees,” both of which open this March.

Taylor works to reach youth through the arts as much as possible. She established the Allen Lee Hughes Fellows Program at Arena Stage, which is one of the first theater-run apprenticeships designed to increase participation by people of color in professional theater. After establishing the program, she created The Urban Ensemble, a multidisciplinary project that served at-risk youth at the Lincoln Center Theater.

She shared in an interview with the Chicago Defender that she believes in the importance of teaching kids because, regardless of whether or not they go on to become actors, artist’s skills “are some of the skills that young people need to just function in the world.”

Taylor is US Navy veteran, has an MFA in Film from American University and a culinary degree from Kendall College.

annwrightsonAnn Wrightson

Ann Wrightson is an Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) award recipient and a Tony-nominated lighting designer. She has worked as a Lighting Director for HBO Downtown Productions and their show, Politically Incorrect. She is currently working on Taylor Mac’s HIR for Steppenwolf Theatre Co.

We asked Wrightson when she decided to pursue a career in lighting design, and she shared with us that she came upon the decision her freshman year of college.

“[I] did not get an acting part so [I] went down to the shop,” said Wrightson. “[I] decided those were the people I liked. My TD/teacher at the time introduced me to an Adolph Appia book and had me do a dance lighting project. End of story really.”

Since then, Wrightson has gone on to work on various productions, such as Intimate Apparel at Guthrie Theatre, Souvenir at Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, August: Osage County, which was nominated for a Tony, at both the Imperial Theatre and Music Box Theater on Broadway, as well as many other productions.

She is excited by original work because it initiates new conversations between all collaborators involved, even though the process can be messy.


Courtney Sale

Courtney Sale is no stranger to The University of Texas at Austin. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Directing from the Department of Theatre and Dance and has taught at the university. This April she will be returning as a guest artist for the Cohen New Works Festival.

Sale is the Artistic Director for the Seattle Children’s Theatre in Seattle, Washington where she is currently planning the 2017 – 2018 season for the Seattle Children’s Theatre, which includes two world premieres. Sale is also working on two new commissions for the theatre, which include an adaptation of Black Beauty by James Still and a new piece about Jimi Hendrix’s boyhood by Idris Goodwin.

When asked what kind of new work excited her, Sale said:

“when [work] functions like the gull wing doors on a DeLorean and opens [her] mind and heart in ways [she] didn’t know possible. When it asks [her] not to figure it out too soon, [or] when it screams at [her] that there is nothing to figure out here. When it tells [her] secrets that are only for [her]. When it is built laterally from a collaboration of very different sensibilities, [and] when it is kind.”

Sale has developed new work for festivals and theaters, including the Denver Center Theatre Company’s Summit New Play Festival, The New Harmony Project, The Orchard Project and more. She has also collaborated with Katie Bender, Steven Dietz, Allison Gregory, Kirk Lynn and others.

When asked what planted the seed in her to pursue a life in theatre, Sale shared with us that she didn’t have much access to an art community growing up, but it didn’t stop her from imagining, creating and becoming the theatre professional she is today.

“I grow up in rural Virginia with limited access to professional arts,” shared Sale. “I spent my shoe-free summers making up stories in the woods behind my house. Acorns, twigs, and blades of grass became characters. It was the space I felt the freest, the most liberated, the most engaged. Day dreaming and stories always occupied my alone time. The joy of getting lost in a creative pursuit was how I spent my summer vacations.”


PJ Raval

PJ Raval is a filmmaker, cinematographer, University of Texas at Austin alum and an Assistant Professor in the Radio-Television-Film Department at The University of Texas at Austin. He also currently serves as the President of the Board of Directors for the OUTsider Queer Transmedia Arts Festival for which he is a founder of, and has been named one of Filmmaker Magazines “25 new faces of independent film 2006” and Out Magazine’s “100 OUT 2010.”

Raval is excited by new work that makes him think, feel, inspires him, is a reflection of the human condition and helps him learn something new about himself.

“I tend to choose my projects from ideas that I can’t shake,” shared Raval. “These ideas come from everyday life experiences, watching the news, listening to stories of others’ experiences – just living in the world. These ideas percolate and start to evolve and it becomes clear the idea needs to be further explored in an art form, so you jump off the cliff and commit [and] let the idea start to take on a life of its own without expectations on where it will lead you.”

Raval is currently working on “several documentaries as well as some new CHRISTEENE music videos!” He recently completed Before You Know It, a feature documentary that premiered at SXSW and follows the lives of three gay senior men. According to the film’s website, the three men are “go-go booted bar-hoppers, love struck activists, troublemaking baton twirlers, late night Internet cruisers, seasoned renegades and bold adventurers.”

When asked what advice he would give his younger self if he could, Raval said “be active, be bold, be patient, be humble, be open to experiences [and] be vulnerable. What you are making is part of a larger body of work, so don’t rush through it. Respect the work. Enjoy each experience, learn from it and move on to the next.”


Joseph Keckler

Joseph Keckler is a singer, writer, musician and performance artist that has been named “Best Downtown Performance Artist in New York” by the Village Voice, and a “major vocal talent” by The New York Times.

Keckler’s desire to work in the arts started when he was around five or six years old. He comes from an artistically creative family that were all very supportive of his dreams.

He is currently working on several projects, including an album of songs that will come out later this year. Other projects include a book of essays, stories and performance texts that are also scheduled for release in 2017. Additionally, Keckler is developing “Let Me Die, a performance piece that will involve many operatic deaths from the operatic canon combined with original material.”

When asked what kind of new work excites him, Keckler shared that he is “interested in work that is soulful, generous and dangerous.” He enjoys projects that portray urgency, “duende, virtuosity, wit and depth of vision.”

We also asked Keckler what advice he would give himself at the start of his career, if he could go back and impose wisdom on his younger self. Keckler said, “If time travel were possible I’d like to think I’d embark on a somewhat more thrilling mission. However, I might tell myself to be bolder, trust my gut, stop fighting myself and to simply say no to projects I clearly found repulsive. I think it is important for anyone to invest in developing their work over a long period of time. Also, it’s good to remember that distinctive voices are not pleasing to everyone’s ears, so it’s necessary to become accustomed to rejection.”


Anu Naimpally

Global citizen, dancer, choreographer, artistic director, performer. Those are only a few words that describe Anu Naimpally. Naimpally’s dream of becoming a dancer began at the young age of 13 after she saw a performance that incorporated traditional live Bharatanatyam music. Something in the sound of the drum resonated deep within her and she was hooked.

She is now the Artistic Director of Austin Dance India where she teaches classes and directs diverse cultural projects, but she doesn’t stop there. According to the Austin Dance India website, Naimpally “conducts assembly performances on Indian dance and culture in Central Texas schools and libraries” because she is passionate about arts in education. She is currently working on Girl Power!, a project that brings together diverse artistic elements to bring awareness to female empowerment and community advancement. Naimpally, along with her students, presented this piece last October, but she is planning on taking it further with professional dancers.

If Naimpally could go back in time and give herself any advice, she said she would tell herself not to “let anything or anyone say [she] can’t do something.” She believes “if you work hard with good intentions, the universe will respond.”

Naimpally has a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and a Master of Fine Arts in Dance from Canada. She has been named Best Dancer by the Austin Area Critics’ Circle in 2001, and several of her performances have won awards.


Andrew Kircher

Andrew Kircher is a dramaturg, creative producer and the Associate Director of Devised Theater at The Public Theater in New York.

Kircher has worked on an array of new work, which include Gob Squad’s Kitchen, Guillermo Calderón’s Neva, The Debate Society’s Blood Play, Saori Tsukada’s Club Diamond, Lars Jan’s The Institute of Memory and many many more. He is currently working on The Fever by 600 HighwaymenThe Fever explores human connection and disconnection, and the notion that friendliness can be contagious. There is only one row of seating for the audience in order to incorporate the audience in the piece. 

“I am excited by work that is made without preconceived notions of form, medium, best practices, or professional designations,” said Kircher. “It is rare to find such authentic work, but when you do, it is unimpeachable. Be it good or bad, it is necessary.” 

When asked when he knew he wanted to live a life in the theatre and what planted the seed, Kircher responded by saying his “mother enrolled [him] in an after-school program with the School of Performing Arts and Cultural Education (SPACE), which was wonderfully political and wildly experimental. [He] was 8, and [has] known since then what [he] expects of the theater, and what it should expect from [him].”

Andrew Kircher has an M.A. in Theatre History from Brooklyn College and is pursuing a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center. He believes working in the arts always feels “like you’re at the start of your career.”


Shana Merlin

Shana Merlin is the owner of Merlin Works, a company founded in 2013 by Merlin where improvisers are trained in performance, improv comedy and more. Merlin does improv herself and has been awarded “Best Improv Teacher” and “Best Female Improviser” by the Austin Improv Collective.

She began doing improv after she saw the guys on stage at Dad’s Garage Theater Company in Atlanta, Georgia. She saw how much fun they were having and wanted to experience the same joy, so she began taking classes and doing shows. In college, she played with the Oxymorons in San Antonio, Texas where she started getting paid to do improv comedy. Merlin thought she “was in heaven” because she was getting paid to do what she loved.

Merlin still does improv when she is not teaching others the technique and is currently working on two different projects. She is a performer in “The Cowgirl Cabaret,” an improvised musical inspired by small towns, country music and musical icon Dolly Parton. She is also currently training “medical professionals [on] how to communicate better, improve patient outcomes and reduce burnout.”

When asked what kind of new work excites her, Merlin said she likes “the intersection of edgy and accessibility.” She enjoys fresh pieces that are meaningful but are still made to entertain an audience.

Shana Merlin currently resides in Austin, Texas. Her company, Merlin Works, can be found at Zach Theatre on 1500 Toomey Rd. She advises theatre makers not to get “stuck in the ‘research phase’ [because] most things can’t be figured out by thinking it through.”


Patdro Harris

Patdro Harris is a director, choreographer and writer. He is well-known around the world for his innovative and creative talents, which have led him to win a Drammy Award for Best Choreography in 2002 and the Dance Ministry Magazine’s Trailblazer Award for Dance Choreographer of the Year in 2007. Formerly a choreographer and lead dancer for Stevie Wonder, Harris now spends his time working on projects across the U.S.

When asked what made him want to go into theatre, Harris said he used to perform around the house with his brother and he has always loved music, but a college instructor made a career in the arts seem possible.

“I didn’t plan to be a performance artist, didn’t know I could be,” said Harris. “My college instructor encouraged me that this could be a viable career direction. I’ve been hook[ed] ever since.”

Since then Harris has gone to serve as a choreographer, artistic consultant, and movement director for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Kennedy Center, The National Black Theatre Festival, Portland Center Stage, Broadway’s Royal Theatre and more. He enjoys new work that allows him “to take a journey inside people’s stories” and “causes our communities to have conversations that push us to make life better.”

He is currently working on Ain’t Misbehavin’ for the Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, New York, Simply Simone for the Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta, Georgia and The Ensemble Theatre in Houston, Texas, and The Wiz for The Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Patdro Harris is an Alabama State University alum and currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia. He believes “you can gain something helpful from the process even when it seems like you’re in a bad situation.”


Rupert Reyes

Rupert Reyes is a playwright, actor, director, producer, founder and former Artistic Director at Teatro Vivo. With a versatile knowledge of all things theatre and having grown up in a predominately Spanish speaking household, Reyes creates bilingual work that diversifies the theatre community in Austin.

Reyes is currently involved in the collaboration between Teatro Vivo and Zach Theatre to bring a play for young audiences to the ESB Mexican American Cultural Center. The play, JJ’s Arcade by Jose Casas, isn’t the first time the two theater organizations have collaborated.

“We have had a good relationship and success in previous productions,” said Reyes. “We reached around 6,000 students and parents, [a] mostly Latino audience, I might add. So we really knew after the second [collaboration] that it was a relationship that we wanted to continue.”

These collaborations began through networking when Teatro Vivo hosted a new play reading of Mariachi Girl by Roxanne Schroeder Arce. Nat Miller, from Zach Theatre, found out Teatro Vivo was interested in producing Mariachi Girl and he approached them about a collaboration.

When asked about his thoughts on new work, Reyes expressed his excitement for the evolution of art in all forms.

“The idea of creating ‘new’ art is exciting,” said Reyes. “We can look at art just like technology. Who would have thought, 10 years ago, that we can do so much with a small device we hold in our hands? Every time I see new art, a new play, a new painting, dance or song, [it] excites me.”

Rupert Reyes is a University of Texas at Austin alum and currently resides in Austin, Texas. He believes art “never gets easier, you just get wiser and more experienced.” JJ’s Arcade will open early April and run through May of 2017 at the Mexican American Cultural Center.


Suzan Zeder

Suzan Zeder is a freelance playwright and the former head of the playwriting in the Department of Theatre & Dance at The University of Texas at Austin. Not only is she one of the nation’s leading playwrights of plays for young and family audiences, she also lead the formation of the Cohen New Works Festival in honor of David Mark Cohen.

When did you know that you wanted to go into theatre?

I knew when I was 5 years old that I would have a life in theatre. I saw my first play in New York starring Ethel Merman and I was a goner! Playwriting came later, but no less passionately!

What are you currently working on?

An epic musical titled: The Battlefields of Clara Barton, a Civil War activist, nurse, relief worker, feminist and the founder of the American Red Cross.

What kind of new work excites you?

All kinds, but particularly new work done by students, both graduate and undergraduate, who literally hold the future in their hands, hearts and minds.

If you could go back and give yourself advice at the start of your career, what would you say?

The BEST is yet to come!

Zeder’s work has been seen all over the United States, and she has been produced and published in Great Britain, Germany, Australia, Japan. Israel and Switzerland. She is a four time winner of the Distinguished Play award from the American Alliance of Theatre and Education, has chaired the Playwright’s Fellowship panel for the National Endowment for the Arts and Theatre Communications Group, and in 1997, she was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre. She has played an integral role in the Cohen New Works Festival since it was established as the New Play Festival in 200