Carlos Murillo is the Playwright-in-Residence at Adventure Stage in Chicago, IL through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about his residency experience here and learn about the impact of the program at large here.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s National Playwright Residency Program asks playwrights to periodically document their residency experience on HowlRound, as a way of sharing knowledge, models, challenges, and impacts with the wider theatre community. Adventure Stage and Mellon Resident Playwright Carlos Murillo launch their chronicle by going back to the beginnings of their collaboration on the world premiere of Augusta and Noble in 2013. The project launched a new era for the theatre and laid the groundwork for the work they aim to accomplish through the Mellon residency in the next three years. This essay by is a condensed version of the introduction to the forthcoming Dramatic Publishing Company edition of Augusta and Noble.
Opening performance. I sat in the audience as the lights went down, feeling anxious about how Sandra and Cristina would feel once the lights came up again (names have been changed to protect their privacy). Though the play is a fiction (combined with a healthy dose of fantasy) spun from many sources, I had no doubt they would see themselves, their story, at the heart of the action unfolding on stage. The undocumented mother fighting to make ends meet and keep her family together while the ever-present specter of possible deportation loomed. Her US-born tween daughter caught between family obligations and the opportunity to attend a better school in a far off neighborhood. The conflicts that arise between mother and daughter, and the crisis that unfolds when they come face to face with the daughter’s true origin story. Ninety minutes later, in the cafeteria where the opening performance celebration was in full swing, my eyes meet Sandra’s across the room. Seeing me, she began walking through the crowded room towards me. To understand the weight, the anticipation of this moment, I have to take you back two years prior.
The title Augusta and Noble refers to the intersection of two streets in the heart of Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, a site where the Northwestern Settlement House has stood since 1901. For more than a century, the Settlement House, the longest continually operating institution of its kind in the country, has provided education and social services for generations of immigrants adapting to their new lives in the US, from the massive wave of Poles landing on US shores in its early years, to the large numbers of Mexican and Central American immigrants arriving in the present. Among the many services and programs of the Settlement House is Adventure Stage, a Theatre for Young Audiences company devoted to creating heroic stories about young people for a middle school age audience. They seek to “encourage everyone to think critically about the community we inhabit and challenge all of us to act heroically in order to be the change we want to see in the world.”
Having lived in Chicago since 2000, I knew Adventure Stage’s work by reputation. My first direct encounter with the company was in May 2011 when I met Tom Arvetis, Adventure Stage’s Artistic Director at a Cornerstone Theater Company weekend intensive hosted by New Dramatists. Los Angeles-based Cornerstone has long been one of the nation’s leaders and innovators in creating original community-focused work—their expertise in building collaborations between their ensemble and specific communities to tell stories vital to those communities is a model and inspiration to many. Cornerstone’s weekend intensives provide theatre practitioners an experiential peek into their highly successful methodology. My interest in the intensive stemmed from my twin role as a playwright and theatre professor—learning other practitioners’ methodologies fuels both my creative work and my teaching. At the time, I was thinking a lot about the power and potential of hyper-local work created by and for specific communities.
On the first day of the intensive, Tom spoke eloquently about his reasons for attending. Adventure Stage was at a crossroads. After a decade of producing mostly plays from the contemporary TYA cannon, he was seeking to deepen the company’s engagement with the West Town neighborhood and to produce work that spoke directly to the needs of the community served by the Settlement House. Committed to continuing the theatre’s tradition of telling stories about young people on a hero’s journey, he aimed to find those hero journeys within the community, grow them, and put them on stage, reflecting with immediacy the urgent issues facing the young people that are the heart, soul and promise of West Town. The question for him at that point: how to shift gears from producing existing work (which often has the marketing advantage of name recognition) to generating original, community-specific works that meaningfully engage the community in their creation? During the intensive Tom and I bonded first as fellow Chicagoans, second, as enraptured students of Cornerstone’s eye-opening pedagogy, and finally, as collaborators and fellow travelers on a creative journey that led to the play Augusta and Noble.
Back in Chicago, over the ensuing months Tom and I met frequently over coffee. Those conversations invariably returned to the Cornerstone work and hypothetical discussions about what a community driven project at Adventure Stage might look like. We agreed on the principle that to tell a West Town focused story, we needed to begin with no preconceptions about what story to tell. Instead, we believed it necessary to approach a process with a blank slate, devote a lot of time to listening to the voices of families living there, and operate on the faith that through thoughtful, direct engagement, a vital story specific to the community would arise organically.
In the winter of 2012 those coffee conversations bore fruit. Tom took a bold step: he not only commissioned me, but set a production date in the 2013 season for a play that had yet to be conceived, let alone written, using a community engagement process that had yet to be defined and implemented. We felt the combination of giddiness and discomfort that comes when entering terra incognita. For the next fourteen months, we dove deep into the community, experimented with various methodologies, and sought out a theatrical language that on the one hand followed the universal “hero journey” model, and on the other told a tale so specific to the neighborhood that it could be unfolding in an apartment down the block. Our shared aim was to put on stage a story that truthfully and unflinchingly reflected the lives of the young people that came to see it.
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, each with a distinct feel that gives the city the quality of a manic urban quilt stitched together from small towns. Even though it lies just west of the city center, West Town is one of those neighborhoods long-time Chicago residents and newbie tourists might never set foot in. It's also a neighborhood undergoing transition: working class immigrant families vie for space with gentrifying urban migrants occupying the pricey modernist condo developments sprouting throughout the area.
Tasked with writing a West Town story, my first step was to acclimatize myself to the neighborhood: walk its streets, frequent its businesses, familiarize myself with its history, its demographics, and its challenges. I also did a crash course on the Northwestern Settlement House, its significant impact on West Town’s evolution, and the decisive role it played in countless immigrants’ lives as a bridge between “the old country” and the new one. What struck me most was that the stories and struggles of immigrants that came a century ago from Eastern Europe are not so different from the immigrants arriving from Latin America today.
Throughout the spring of 2012, I regularly attend Trailblazers, Adventure Stage’s free theatre program for young people. The Adventure Stage artistic staff and ensemble teaching artists mentor Trailblazers through theatre games, improvisation, and storytelling exercises, culminating in a show they put on every May. While intended for youth, I was immediately struck by the intergenerational cross section of the room: elementary school kids played “Zip, Zap, Zop” alongside middle school and high school students as well as parents. The room mirrored the cultural richness of the neighborhood—recently arrived immigrant families from Mexico interacted with African-American students as well as young Polish Americans whose working class families have called the neighborhood home for generations.
Late spring, we embarked on the next phase of our work: organizing story circles to begin the process of identifying possible directions for our play. This methodology is one of the core tools we learned during the Cornerstone sessions, and proved very effective in our process. Essentially, a story circle functions as an open forum in which members of the community share personal experiences around a given topic. They provide an opportunity for the artists to listen—not only to the specific stories themselves, but to more general themes, shared preoccupations and concerns. In an almost magical way, the sessions allow spirit of a community to reveal itself naturally. Details from the lives of real people open up perspectives a writer might never conceive on their own, opening the imagination to a wide range of possibilities.
Our initial sessions centered on the theme of home, which opened a Pandora’s Box, especially for immigrant families with US born children. To parents, home was the place they left behind. Home was a part of their heart and soul they were willing to sacrifice in order to pursue the dream of building a new and better home for their children in an alien and often unwelcoming land. For the children, the homes their parents left behind existed solely as an abstraction—home was here, defined by their modest apartments, the love of their exile parents, their friends, their school, the Settlement House, and the grid of streets that define West Town. Both parents and children exist between worlds; while they live very much in the concrete reality of Chicago, a part of them is always from elsewhere. This dynamic resonated with me very personally—being a child of immigrants, I grew up hyper aware of my parents’ sense of having their feet planted in two completely different worlds, which shaped my own sense of belonging, and how I perceived myself in relation to the world where I grew up. During story circles, I could see in the parents and their struggles my own mom and dad, and in their children I could see myself at that age grappling with my own understanding of my identity.
We were still far off from settling on a story, but we started to think that our play might revolve around an immigrant family in West Town struggling with notions of home.
In the story circles, Tom and I observed that both parents and children, while forthcoming in many aspects of their stories, often seemed to withhold things. From the parents, we sensed their need to protect their children from some of the more harrowing parts of their experiences. Similarly, from the children, we sensed a desire to protect their parents from having to confront their most private observations of their family situations. This led to the next phase of the project, when we telescoped down from group story circles to one on one interviews. Since our story would inevitably focus on a young protagonist’s hero journey, we carved out time with the tweens in the group.
In these interview sessions I got to know Cristina, who would eventually become the model for Gabi, Augusta and Noble’s protagonist. Cristina is an exceptionally bright, thoughtful and articulate, young lady, which was evident early on in the Trailblazers workshops. She was a stabilizing force in her family—a bridge, really. Her mother speaks very little English and her younger siblings carry all the rambunctiousness (and then some) you’d expect from two highly energetic elementary school boys. She calmly served as translator for her mother and child wrangler for her brothers, all the while modeling attentiveness and seriousness of purpose to every participant in Trailblazers. Interviewing her one on one she revealed that as a seventh grader at Peabody, the local Chicago public school, she took admissions exams for the CPS selective enrollment high schools at the behest of a teacher and unbeknownst to her parents. She was accepted into Lane Tech, one of the top schools in the CPS system. For reasons not entirely clear to her at the time, she faced a great deal of resistance from her parents, especially her mother, when it came time to accept the offer. They expressed concern about the distance she’d need to travel every day, fear for her safety, worry about the impact her absence would have on the indispensible role she played on the home front. While all these anxieties were genuine, they masked a deeper fear they kept from her, but would be revealed in conversations with her mother.
Simultaneous to our interviews with young members of the community, we arranged interviews with parents—mainly mothers who were undocumented immigrants. Those conversations invariably led to gut wrenching tales of their journeys to Chicago from Mexico and Central America. Guided by “coyotes” more interested in accumulating money than anything else, these mothers endured every imaginable danger crossing the border: the ever-present threat of violence, theft, the unforgiving desert, border patrol, Minutemen, and the uncertainty of whether they’d make it across alive at all. If they survived the journey, once here—and many had lived here for years—the fear continues. Being undocumented, the threat of deportation looms, which you can imagine would be an unendurable fate, especially for a mother of a US born child. Sandra’s tale followed these general contours, which explained her deep anxiety about her daughter attending Lane. If she signed the documents granting permission for her daughter to attend, would she expose herself to deportation? If she didn’t, would she deny her daughter the very opportunities she and her husband wished for their children? The very opportunities they risked their lives coming to this country to pursue in the first place? And if she had to face deportation, what would that mean for her US born daughter? Her sons? Her family?
Faced with this dilemma between a loving, yet frightened mother and loving, yet ambitious daughter, we had our story. In the fall and winter of 2012-13 I wrote Augusta and Noble, which premiered at the Settlement House’s Vittum Theatre in April 2013.
As Sandra walked towards me across the crowded room, my heart rate sped up. All of the enthusiasm for the project expressed by the Adventure Stage folks, the Settlement House staff, and the audience would mean very little if Sandra disapproved. As she got closer, I noticed tears in her eyes. Reaching me, she said nothing. She opened her arms and gave me a deep, loving hug.
Shortly after I ran into Cristina. Her face lit up. I’ve heard many theatre artists say they aspire to put on stage a reflection of the audience—that the characters and conflicts playing out are meant to serve as pictures of ourselves as we grapple to find meaning in the stories of our own lives. For mother and daughter, seeing versions of themselves wrestle with their lives on stage, they not only began to see each other anew, they also knew they had been seen and that their story needed to be told.