Poetic Portraits of the 2018 New Frontier Story Lab

Words by Zahra Ash-Harper
Illustrations by Paisley Smith

In May 2018 I was invited to join Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab in Utah as a Creative Observer. As an inclusion producer from the Pervasive Media Studio at Watershed in Bristol, UK, it was a treat to be invited to observe a naturally intersectional and representative lab process in the U.S.

Visiting Sundance was a first for me, and something that has left me forever changed. The role gave me a chance to watch, listen, and contribute where appropriate to the Lab participants’ journeys—the beauty and rarity found in being able to focus in on a creative moment with singular ambition.

For over a decade the New Frontier team has been trailblazing: inspiring and incubating a multitude of creative voices and personalities to experiment with and revel in storytelling through emerging digital media platforms. This invitation to independent thinkers looking to innovate and intuit story-worlds makes hard work and honesty essential, with the promise of being held by experienced and generous hands.

These advisors are as varied and intersectional as the participants themselves. I sought to spotlight the people behind the polish, to showcase that which so often eludes biography, to invite those who want to develop creative people to share in the big secret: that even before establishing common interests, we must demonstrate our common humanity.

The creative advisors profiled below include Joan Tewkesbury, Katerina Cizek, Alex Rivera, Mark Monroe, and Shari Frilot. Submissions for the 2019 New Frontier Story Lab are open through October 17. Apply here.


I watch Joan. I like her style.

I like the way she has the ageless focus of a hawk.

I like how she pushed her glasses up her nose and smooths the skin out by her cheeks, before she stops abruptly, and recommends you ‘cut the shit’—if you, as a storyteller are t really pull the vulnerable histories out of yourself.

Job done. Teased and released she’ll exclaim ‘jeez-louise – you’ve got it now!’

And those hopefully looking to her,
to cut and paste,
and push and yank their creativity to life, will merely express a wheeze of relief.


She gets shit REAL quick. She has a way about her.

A way with words, wit, and wile.

You’ll need to talk right out of the centre of your truth, mind.
Or she’ll tell you straight, ‘I can’t hear you.’


‘So tell me,’ she begins. Then she listens.

She keeps her expression elastic.
She has a look of readiness about her.
A twinkle in her eye. A smile two steps behind it.

I can feel the trust she has in people. She believes in their commitment to progress and progress is fuel that connects her to their work.

She’ll suggest, ‘Well…
Do you wanna do it now? I mean, it’s an option?
…But we don’t have to do it now?!’

To all their credit, they usually take the plunge.
They do. They develop, right then and there, safe and in-hand.

In Kat you can find the lifeblood of co-creation. She’s superbly generous and in the moment. She is not afraid to join them in breaking down, building up.

As they do—ideas, processes, and identities emerge, resolved.

She’ll ask, ‘how does it feel?’
They return, ‘what did you think?’
Using humility and uncertainty as her tools she cuts through and defers ‘well, I don’t know.’

And together they continue to explore,

Passion, pace, and empathy endure.


Where he breaks the surface of your creative pool you will find few waves.

Gentle tones and careful words punctuate any assumptions like a needle on a sewing machine.

He makes rapid, precise contributions filled with reverence and form, memorialized nuance.

If you are watching him speak he’s your conductor, hands editing, separating, balancing, weighing ideas. He lists—levels and weaves his perspective to life.

But mostly he listens, he listens, and listens some more—the look in his eyes do the rest.


Full stops speak volumes. And reality checks dryly speed toward you with humour.

It will start when he scratches his head, winds his ankle 360 and back again.

He’ll have been wordlessly wondering which of his many points it’s worth making—or which in fact will be most efficient to break a stalemate and get where he wants to go.

…If he’s there, he’s listening.

But are you?

And, if all fails he’ll say finally…’you should make a documentary’…

As, the truth, is better than making ‘mumbo-jumbo.’

But, I found..if you wait him out.

He’ll pull an amazingly generous, genius idea from his back pocket and slap it on your creative kitchen counter.

Then his laugh, filled with merriment, will bring your engagement to an end—polished off with… a joy filled exclamation of ’wouldn’t that be fucking great!’

What a guy.


Has there ever been a more generous outsider.

Or, one who wears her insides so quietly
…As a technicolor coat of armour on her outsides.

She leads with a whisper that cuts through a humid night.
The moisture,
made up of fears and failure about projects that may never see the light of day,
just clear evaporates—under the fierce spotlight of her careful attention.

Her curation now spread deep within the spectrum of lights signaling future paths, pinning value and renewed vitality patches onto maverick scout sashes.

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