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How to Launch a Latinx New Play Festival

Growing up in San Diego, I have felt fortunate to be surrounded by so many thriving regional theatres—La Jolla Playhouse, The Old Globe, and San Diego Repertory Theatre, to name a few. They all impacted my view of what theatre could be. But it wasn’t until I saw my first Chicano-focused play, Luis Valdez’s Mummified Deer, in 2000 at San Diego Rep that I really noticed the absence of characters on stage who shared my background, or the background of 32 percent of the community’s population. San Diego is, after all, a border town with a wide and vibrant Latinx community.

In almost two decades since, I am now thrilled to say that I have witnessed an expansion of Latinx artistic expression emerge. While San Diego Repertory has produced stories by Latinx  writer and about our culture since 1988, other theatres in town are starting to feature Latinx stories more regularly in their seasons. This mirrors a national trend towards showcasing Latinx theatre in festivals like Ingenio at Milagro Theatre and many more.

Last year, I had the chance to develop and produce San Diego Repertory Theatre’s first Latinx New Play Festival. I made some mistakes, found some successes,  and learned a few lessons that will hopefully prove useful to other’s looking to start a similar festival.

1. Find a partner with a commitment to Latinx work
When I joined the San Diego Rep as a National New Play Network (NNPN) Producer-in-Residence last season, I was joining an organization with a deep commitment to producing Latinx work on the mainstage. At San Diego Rep I was positioned in a lead role with Amigos del Rep, a theatre advocacy council comprised of community members and artists who promote Latino theatre at San Diego Repertory Theatre. Founding Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse shared with me his longstanding commitment of bringing Latinx voices to the San Diego stage, and asked me to work to further San Diego Rep’s Latinx theatre initiatives.

San Diego Rep has produced over fifty Latino plays over the course of its forty years, but more recently, Rep Literary Manager Danielle Ward brought forward a vision of developing an annual Latinx New Play Festival. San Diego Rep houses Kuumba Fest, San Diego’s longest-running celebration of African American expression, culture, and heritage, as well as the Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival, and decided to compliment these offerings and deepen their commitment to Latinx theatre with a festival of readings, performances, and panels that fit with San Diego Rep’s mission by Latinx playwrights. The Rep’s established network of Latinx actors, playwrights, and designers gave me a springboard from which to begin producing the festival.

[T]he festival created conversations about the expanding breadth of Latinx dramatic themes and the definition of what defines a Latinx play.

Latinx New Play Festival organizers Vanessa Mendoza, Maria Patrice Amon, Victoria Yvette Zepeda, and Sylvia Enrique. Photo by Josie Gonzales, QuasiStudios.

2. Develop a Timeline—and Stick to It
When my NNPN Producer-in-Residence fellowship was renewed for second year, San Diego Rep committed to having me produce a trial 2017 festival. The timing of this decision and the needs of our season planning schedule meant that the festival would have to be  produced in a condensed five month (May-September) timeframe. We set 2-3 September as our festival weekend based on San Diego Rep’s season selection process, the artistic team’s schedules, and theatre space availability. The shortened timeline was our largest hurdle, necessitating a swift pace, deliberate organization, and creative answers to challenges around soliciting submissions, reading scripts, and marketing the festival.

In this trial year we had to develop a new network of playwrights and organizations to send out our call for submissions. While San Diego Rep has a long history of producing Latinx work, we wanted the festival to focus on new works, expand our reach, and establish relationships with new playwrights. We solicited scripts and playwright contacts from Trevor Buffone’s 50 Playwrights Project, shared the call with the Latinx Theatre Commons and my academic Latinx Theatre network, and made direct requests to many of the Latinx playwrights who had submitted to San Diego Rep in the past. The majority of submissions came from the Latinx Theatre Commons, plus direct referrals from artists we have worked with in the past.

With our short timeline we originally anticipated receiving thirty to forty submissions, but ultimately received over seventy. This doubling of anticipated submissions speaks to the current abundance of Latinx playwriting talent and desire to tell Latinx stories.

The condensed timeline also meant a shortened time frame for reading scripts which led to large reading loads for our volunteer readers. Readers were selected from members in Amigos del Rep and existing San Diego Rep readers. The festival readers were assigned a larger number of scripts to read over a short, but very intense, period. We fortunately had an established institutional structure for play selection to rely upon and focused our selection criteria on contemporary plays by self-identifying Latinx playwrights that fit to San Diego Rep’s mission of intimate, exotic, and provocative theatre. Ten finalist scripts were selected by a committee of Amigos del Rep members and the ultimate four scripts were selected by San Diego Rep artistic leaders.

We stuck to the timeline that we originally created closely which allowed us to plan effectively for both the play selection period and readings. It was difficult to meet the deadlines, especially getting evaluations back from readers, but the adherence to the timeline was invaluably helpful later in the process when attention had to shift to new needs.

3. Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Marketing
Marketing the festival presented an interesting opportunity to consider both branding and the purpose of the festival. I lobbied to use the term Latinx for the festival in meetings with our artistic and marketing departments in early in May. The Latinx Theatre Commons had recently changed their name to reflect the emerging trend towards greater inclusion and I wanted San Diego Rep to join on this trend. San Diego Rep had not used the term “Latinx” in their marketing and there was some initial concern that it would be unfamiliar to audiences. Ultimately, the term created the opportunity to have conversations about gender and inclusion as it operates in our theatre and in the Latinx community and it did not seem to affect audience sizes.

Herbert Siguenza, Ric Salinas, Hannah Trujillo, Richard Trujillo, and Elsa Martinez in El Cipitio by Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas based on the novel by Rany Ertll. Photo by Josie Gonzales, QuasiStudios.

4. Be Clear about Your Purpose
The various purposes/goals of the festival was something that I was constantly aware of as I produced this initial 2017 festival. In addition to sharing new plays with our artistic staff to consider for our mainstage season, I wanted the festival to create opportunities for local Latinx artists, expand the breadth of Latinx theatrical themes, and bring new audiences to the theatre.

The festival created opportunities for Latinx artists to be seen by our Artistic Director and artistic team. Each of readings was directed by Latinx director with a Latinx stage manager and roles that did not specify a particular race or culture were cast with Latinx actors. Fourteen of our twenty-two actors were new to San Diego Rep and audiences were vocal about the strength of their performances. Additionally, the four readings were directed by four directors new to working with San Diego Rep. In future years, I plan to expand the presence and recognition of Latinx theatre artists in the festival by incorporating panels featuring local Latinx designers as well.

Instead of selling tickets, we decided to take free reservations which allowed us to significantly expand our reach to new audiences. I connected with local universities to develop large audiences of students. Our first three readings had audiences between one hundred and one hundred and fifty people made up of San Diego Rep subscribers, interested community members, and theatre producers and administrators from San Diego, Orange County, and LA. Our final reading, however, swelled to over three hundred people. This large audience was pulled from director Peter Cirino’s San Diego State University courses. This audience was largely composed of new theatre patrons who invested into the new experience and left the theatre buzzing about what they had seen.

Notably, the festival created conversations about the expanding breadth of Latinx dramatic themes and the definition of what defines a Latinx play. The plays challenged audience assumptions about the definition of Latinx work as two of our four readings featured themes that are not commonly seen on the American stage. Diana Burbano’s Fabulous Monsters featured punk rock woman (at least one of whom is noted as Latina) who discover what it means to grow into their own. Lily Padilla’s comedy (w)holeness, set in a support group for sex addicts, explored the universal theme of identity and included one character played by a Latina actress. Neither script was centered around Latinx culture and some audience members noted that within the context of a Latinx festival. Listening in on the informal audience conversations that followed these plays was an incredible opportunity.

Destiny Girley, Antonio Perez, Marda Rose, Catalina Maynard, and Ryan Stubo in Guadalupe in the Guestroom by Tony Meneses. Photo by Josie Gonzales, QuasiStudios.

5. It’s Never Too Early to Start Thinking About Next Year
Overall, the trial festival was a great success in terms of high artistic quality, expansion of the variety of Latinx plays and playwrights to our community, strong Latinx artist exposure, and strong audience building for future festivals. Moving forward, we are already planning the next festival for late Summer/early Fall 2018. We plan to initiate the name Adelante: Latinx New Play Festival at this time and hope to include a fully realized one-person show along with the five readings of new work by Latinx playwrights. I look forward to these new challenges and opportunities!

If you’d like to submit a script, please email it to [email protected] by 23 February 2018.

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