Three guys push aside ivy-covered walls made of colorful stones, revealing the porch and front rooms of a house. Two people leap into the building, while another inspects a hulking staircase nearby. It’s the first few minutes of rehearsal for Nic Wehrwein’s play Back Home, and actors are swapping out pieces of the set. The play shares the stage with two other productions, all part of the 11th annual Words Afire Festival of New Plays, produced by UNM’s Department of Theatre and Dance.
Back Home is one of four new works premiering in Words Afire. Elaine Avila, head of UNM’s dramatic writing program and the artistic director of the festival, says she tries to create opportunities for writers that will match the work they’ll do in the professional world. Three dramatic writing graduate students in their third year, including Wehrwein, will see their plays fully produced in Rodey Theatre, while one second-year student’s play will receive a directed reading in Theatre X. Avila brings in top-notch directors who help the writers shape their plays and connect them to professional networks.
The playwrights have done multiple rewrites on their scripts, and all four had staged readings last fall. Wehrwein has worked on Back Home since August. “It’s essentially about a guy whose life’s falling apart,” he says. “He has to move back home with his mom and he figures out that life is never what you expect it to be.” The play explores serious topics, but it also has plenty of humorous moments, like an argument between the protagonist and his best friend over whether dibs can exist at 31. Director Shepard Sobel—founder of the Pearl Theatre in New York City—thinks Wehrwein’s writing will appeal to a broad audience. “A great play always has to be about some very specific people and circumstances,” he says, “or it won’t resonate to the other side of the metaphor.” But Back Home isn’t just about a guy who has to move in with his mom and re-examine his life. Sobel thinks it’s about anyone who’s stuck with assumptions about how the world works.
Words Afire deepened the relationship between Ricky J. Martinez, who is directing La Fea: a FlamenChoreoMyth, and Riti Sachdeva, who wrote it. Martinez, the artistic director of the New Theatre in Coral Gables, Fla., met Sachdeva when he was paired with her at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival two years ago. Sachdeva’s play Parts of Parts and Stitches premiered in Words Afire 2010, won the Kennedy Center’s Quest for Peace Award and sent her to Washington D.C. to work with Martinez.
Playwright Sachdeva calls Words Afire “invaluable” and fellow writer Escobar cites it as the reason she chose UNM for graduate school. But both say the benefits of the festival extend to the whole community.
“We quickly became strong advocates of each other and of each others’ theatrical visions,” Martinez says via email. “When the department here at UNM was searching for a guest director ... she recommended they try and get the one guy who probably would understand her FlamenChoreoMyth world the best.”
La Fea follows a young woman who tackles hardships, unearths secrets and discovers an ancient legacy of flamenco. Martinez has a background in flamenco performance and choreography. “He’s an excellent director and he’s also an excellent dramaturge,” Sachdeva says. “I’m learning a lot in terms of how to make [the play] clean, how to make it direct.”
Georgina Hernandez Escobar’s piece, The Ruin, came to her like pieces of a puzzle. The story is about two women, known as witches, who live in the jungle, as well as the archeologist who discovers them. “A windmill came to me in a dream,” Escobar shares by email. “I had another moment where I saw a girl by a waterfall cutting her hair. I figured there was a story there. I had no idea what the story was, so I explored the visual world and the feeling of that world and soon enough the characters came to life.”
Escobar—who won the Kennedy Center’s Theatre for Young Audiences Playwriting Award this year—also praises the process she’s had with her director, Acushla Bastible. “She has an incredible gift which is that she creates a work environment that is both demanding and inspiring. Everyone in the room wants to work, wants to play and create and discover.” Bastible is a multidisciplinary artist who works internationally. She is an artistic associate of The Santa Fe Opera and the artistic director of Lifesongs, a songwriting project that nurtures the work of marginalized populations.
The Story of Caballos Muertos, by Law Chavez, which will be presented as a staged reading, garnered him the Kennedy Center’s Latino playwriting award in 2011. In a reading, the focus is on the script and less on other theatrical elements, giving the playwright and audience the opportunity to intently listen to the story: a supernatural tale of two sisters’ rivalry and the dangers of obsession. Chavez’ play is directed by Tlaloc Rivas, an assistant professor of acting and directing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the co-founder of Chicano TheatreWorks in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Playwright Sachdeva calls Words Afire “invaluable” and fellow writer Escobar cites it as the reason she chose UNM for graduate school. But both say the benefits of the festival extend to the whole community. “It networks us outside of Albuquerque,” Sachdeva points out. Sachdeva’s director, Martinez, calls new work the heartbeat of a city. People are supporting the next artists coming up in the professional world, which propels the community upwards along with them. “Plus, you get to see the coolest, bravest happenings in your own hometown!” Martinez says. “That simply rocks.”