Latina/o Talent Front and Center: Texas Playwrights at Carnaval

The 2013 Latina/o Theatre Commons Meeting.

Octavio Solis.
Octavio Solis. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Already bursting with talent, Chicago will be overflowing with creativity from July 23-25. That’s when the groundbreaking Carnaval 2015 is taking place at the Theatre School at DePaul University. Playwrights, artistic directors, scholars, and other theater leaders will gather for the third event in a three-year plan incepted by the Latino/a Theatre Commons and Emerson College’s HowlRound.

The first two gatherings, in Boston and Los Angeles, took the pulse of the Latina/o theater community in the U.S. Now, participants will discuss and explore more performance and production opportunities—and not just for Latino/a-focused companies.

“Since it is an artist-led endeavor, Carnaval can champion the cultural and aesthetic diversity of our work and create a vibrant dialogue about the many-faceted experience that is Latinidad in the twenty-first century,” says Lisa Portes, the head of the Theatre School at DePaul University and chair of the LTC Carnaval Task Force.

Of the nearly 100 plays submitted nationwide, eight were selected to receive presentations and four more to be distributed. Of those lucky 12, four have Texas ties.

Vicki Grise.
Virginia Grise. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Dallas-raised Octavio Solis is one of those playwrights, lending a Mexican twist to Mother Road, his continuation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In it, the last surviving member of the Joad family is called upon to take over the Oklahoma farm, and he happens to be Mexican, a former migrant worker. It’s an epic undertaking, Solis admits, and will most likely be written as two plays. Finding someone to not only produce but nurture this work is something he hopes to find at Carnaval.

“These readings are going to cause this play to get produced in one way or another, because relationships will be forged that otherwise might not,” says Solis. “An experience like Carnaval raises the bar on the quality of work. When you’re mixing it up with artists, you just can’t help but be influenced to create your own waves.”

The format of Carnaval, with not only readings and presentations but panels and networking events, encourages collaboration. It was at the Boston gathering that Solis connected with David Lozano, artistic director of Cara Mia Theatre Co. in Dallas. That meeting led to a critically acclaimed production of Solis’ mystical family drama Lydia earlier in 2015.

Amparo Garcia-Crow.
Amparo Garcia-Crow. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Lozano was drawn to LTC when the Theatre Communications Group held its national conference in Dallas in 2013. Cara Mia was one of the local companies that offered a production to the visiting members, and during a group discussion held at the Winspear Opera House, the decision was made to formally found the LTC.

“All of a sudden you’re in the same room with Latino writers, producers, directors, scholars—everything you need as a Latino artist is in this room,” says Lozano. “The people we work with at these meetings multiply our network even further, and as the producer of a small, independent Chicano Latino theater company that aspires to produce with a regional model—a full season of four or five plays—we need plays. We need scripts by Latino playwrights about Latino themes, and we need to be leading the charge. Some of the most exciting and vital Latino playwrights in the nation will be at Carnaval.”

Playwright Virginia Grise, a native of San Antonio who now lives in New York City, sees the extreme value of presenting her work to a wide range of companies.

“As a playwright, your work is never finished until it’s on the stage,” says Grise. “It’s not just the finishing of the draft; you can’t get to the next step until it is living. Until it has breath, it’s only halfway through.”

Mando Alvarado.
Mando Alvarado. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Siempre Norteada: Always Late, Always Lost follows two artists from Texas who move to New York to pursue their dreams. Though things don’t exactly turn out well for both characters, Grise explains that the play is really about making your way in a place that’s not familiar. How do you identify yourself? What is your center of gravitational pull? It’s something that all minorities deal with regularly.

Amparo Garcia-Crow’s APPEAL—The New American Musical of Mexican Descent will be distributed at Carnaval, and the Austin-based writer hopes the pre-recorded presentation of songs will pique the interest of companies around the country and—as she puts it—help find her show’s “tribe.”

“It’s about a landmark case that was argued around the same time as Brown v. Board of Education, but most people don’t know about the Mexican side of equality in juries,” says Garcia-Crow. “I’m really excited that they’re allowing four additional plays to have a 10-minute presence, so that people will go, ‘That’s what I want! That’s what I’m looking for!’”

Garcia Crow says she takes a lot of pride in being a native Texan, and that her family’s experiences informed the musical.

“In 1954 the Supreme Court asked ‘What is a Mexican American? What is that animal?’” she says. Her family was one of the original Tejanos, living in Texas before it was even a state. “We never crossed the border, the border crossed us!”

This particular experience of her ancestors is one that she points out is not necessarily in the history books, so devising other ways to tell stories and expand people’s horizons is imperative.

“It’s all about exposure,” explains Mando Alvarado, whose play Parachute Men will receive a presentation. “Having this many Latino artists gathered together not only creates visibility, but it also answers the question ‘Are they’re any plays by Latino playwrights out there?’ I get asked this all the time and it drives me crazy.”

Originally from the Rio Grande Valley and now based in Los Angeles, Alvarado is using his latest play to explore his own childhood, in which he was also the “man of the house” with a widowed mother and two younger brothers.

“Sometimes, this career makes you feel like a lone ship at sea, constantly in search of a port that feels like home,” says Alvarado. “So I’m really excited about anchoring in a harbor with really cool people, theater practitioners that are at the top of their game.

“This conference brings Latino talent front and center. Not only are we dealing with NY or LA, but a national scope of talented artists that are creating, supporting, producing, writing, and acting in thriving, challenging, thought-provoking theater. Basically, it’s like a large bronze hammer knocking on the American Theater door. They have to open up and take notice.”