Bringing the Heat
UNM fest lights up the stage with two weeks of performances
Now in its 12th year, the festival springs from the University of New Mexico’s Dramatic Writing Program. Every outing, master of fine arts students in the program collaborate with Associate Director of Theatre and Dance and Producing Artistic Director Elaine Avila to select their most promising scripts for development and produce them for the festival. With most plays still only in directed reading form, audiences can experience the authors’ visions and then discuss each work with the playwrights after the shows. Those post-performance conversations can have significant sway over the direction of the plays, says Avila, adding that “part of the way audiences respond just physically and emotionally can be hugely helpful.”
While themes aren’t outlined for the festivals, Avila says every year she looks for emerging connections between students’ work. This year, the thread she’s found is in how the plays relate to New Mexico.
The only fully staged production this year is Señora de la Pinta by Law Chavez. Partly inspired by Oedipus the King, Señora focuses on a Chicano ex-con who seeks revenge after a young man is presumed to have been killed in the 1980 New Mexico State Prison riot. Acting as guest director on Señora is Daniel Banks, who sits on the faculty of the M.A. in Applied Theatre at City University of New York and has directed shows around the world, including at venues such as the Uganda National Theatre, the Belarusian National Drama Theatre and the Ovalhouse in London.
Christina Hjelm’s Casualties of Dreams and Sand tells the story of a woman who may lose her home at the hands of the mortgage crisis as her husband fights in Iraq. Hjelm has already received the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival’s Latino Playwriting Award for Casualties.
In Half Empty, by Zee Eskeets, a girl named Ally fights a skeleton named Belvedere in an otherworldly dimension.
When a Che Guevara portrait comes to life in The House That Che Built by Barney Lopez, Manny and Cynthia decide to forge a revolution by occupying (aka squatting in) foreclosed homes.
Words Afire! also includes a book launch and readings from Avila’s Jane Austen, Action Figure and Other Plays and Say Word! Voices from Hip Hop Theater, edited with an introduction by Daniel Banks.
What most excites Avila about the new works presented is the communal voice they embody. “They’re written by UNM graduate students, so they’re about things that students at UNM care about right now,” she says. Often, she adds, theaters choose to produce plays that are “100 years old or older.” And while there’s value to be gleaned from the past, as well as other places like New York and London, she says it’s precious to see a collection of work that “speaks to our community right now.”