You can call it a pilot program,” says SAY Sí theater coordinator Joel Settles of the first annual Teatro ALAS Young Playwright’s Competition, which culminated in last weekend’s aptly titled program Wings to Fly. In March, SAY Sí extended a call for entries to dramatic writers between the ages of 16 and 21, with the goal, says Settles, of providing SAY Sí’s teen performers with the opportunity to explore and produce new work by members of their own peer group. The top plays, selected by Settles for “originality, depth, and characters,” were workshopped by the collaborative kiddos of Teatro ALAS (that’s Activating Leadership, Art & Service) and staged at SAY Sí’s South Alamo locale last Friday and Saturday for an audience of family, friends, and supportive community members.
Although four short plays went into rehearsal, J.J. Rubin’s “The Mind of Jack Piquard” had to be postponed, leaving three competition winners by two college-age playwrights, Zachary Campion and Gabriel Luera, plus the ALAS Middle School Troupe’s “The Ant, the Butterfly and the Grasshopper.” I attended the Saturday show, which was rich with a warm, all-ages energy. Settles the theater coordinator welcomed the audience and offered a concise introduction to the program. Settles the actor then began to beg the audience for change. Maybe just some warm bread? He didn’t want a handout — no sir. He would give us something in return, something that could never ever be destroyed: a story.
And so he narrated “The Ant, the Butterfly and the Grasshopper, a riff on the classic fable that revolves around a very young, very busy insect (Thomas Saucedo, with red pipe-cleaner antennae springing from his yellow hardhat). It can be a long day, building a gargantuan breadcrumb pile, and soon Saucedo wondered aloud: Should I take a break? Children and adult viewers spouted yes and no. The ant went with the former, only to be caught idle-handed by the red-and-cheetah-print-robed ant queen (Janelle Alvarado) — tossing her own antennae with the same motion Hugh Grant once tossed his floppy hair — and her assistant (Hunter Darling; best name ever).
The ant got back to work for only a short while before his labor was put to a stop again, this time by a pair of vagrant bohemian bugs, the butterfly (Molly Pat Martinez-Collins) and the grasshopper (Brenna Barborka), “who, like, never work.” They do dance and play music and recite poetry, though, and they do score some bread off the ant, who joins in their merrymaking. Naturally, it isn’t long before the queen steps in to get things on track. Come wintertime, though, she is singing a different tune, and all of the young performers — their innocence oozing and abetting their characterization — are playing together in the anthill, Saucedo dancing about like a hobbit.
The message of the play — that artists are valuable — “was something that all the kids really understood and really liked,” says Settles.
After a short set change, it was on to the Teatro ALAS Young Playwright’s Competition winners, beginning with Campion’s “Parkbench Revelations,” which tells of four very different strangers (played by Omar Hilario, Zana Ivy Perez, Isabella Martinez, and Marlowe Romero) who meet in a park under mysterious, possibly star-crossed, circumstances. A senior BFA Performance and Production major at Texas State University, Campion is clearly not too intimidated to attempt a bit of meta-storytelling, as evidenced in “Revelations,” whose ending exposes the structure of playwriting in a way that recalls Adaptation’s takedown of screenwriting and Community’s unraveling of the situational comedy. He’s no Charlie Kaufman yet, but let’s give him a few years.
The next selection, Luera’s “My Sweet Abandon,” was the program’s heaviest piece, about a tortured, bigoted, elderly man named Dennis (Settles) and the nurse (Becky Hernandez) who abides him. Rocking back and forth on his bed, Dennis refuses to go to sleep and abuses his “spic” caretaker, insisting that he must go to the museum — if he could just get to the museum he could fix things. Fix what? To know, one must follow his stream of consciousness very closely. Hernandez bluffs her maturity oh-so-well, though there may have been room for her to vary her expressions of frustration. Hate begets hate begets hate in “Abandon” — what could have been a theatrical wrist-slap on racism subtly takes on ageism to boot.
Wings to Fly was mercifully programmed to leave theatergoers on an upbeat note with “Lasagna and Romance,” Campion’s straight-ahead comedy about the terrors of blind dating. The easy-going protagonist, Greg (Hilario), a film critic, meets a string of potential mates at his favorite Italian joint. Disaster ensues. Most memorable among the dates was a performer who really blossomed this year, according to Settles: Kiana Garcia as Jessica. She appears to be a crazy cat-lady from the start, but Garcia catapults her character into the stratosphere with demands for “sprrrring rolls” and a mini panic attack over an empty pill bottle.
All of the plays were directed by Settles, who prefers an organic process to a “mechanical, dictatorial” one. He encourages ALAS students to pitch ideas: “When we try something and it feels good, we go with it.” •