One of the co-champions of the LTC TYA Sin Fronteras Festival and Convening, Roxanne Schroeder-Arce buzzes around the room welcoming University of Texas at Austin students (both graduate and undergraduate), faculty, and staff who came to hear about how they could be involved in the LTC convening in January of 2019 in Austin, TX. The excitement of being involved but the inquisitiveness of not quite knowing how this convening was different (or similar) to any other conference was funneled through the act of socializing and breaking bread – well actually, breaking cookies. This communal activity was my first exposure to what the convening would be like and feel like – both symbolic and literal all the same time. It was there that the impact of LTC’s goal of “radical inclusion,” without ever hearing the definition, was already being felt. The work was already happening. In the weeks following this, I was able to sit down with some of the organizers of the 2019 LTC TYA Sin Fronteras Festival and Convening to learn about the purpose, process, and product.
Abigail Vega (Producer) is an actor, director, and the producer of the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC). She has produced eleven LTC convenings in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Princeton, New York, and Austin and has performed or directed in over 25 cities across the US. She is a graduate the 2016 NALAC Leadership Institute, and is a member of artEquity 2016 cohort. Abigail Vega was a participant in the Leadership U: One-on-One program, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by Theatre Communications Group.
Emily Aguilar (Co-Champion) is a queer xicana educator and theatre artist working to ignite gender and racial justice. She earned her MFA in Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently on faculty at Bowling Green State University.
(Co-Champion) is a scholar, director, and playwright and is currently director of fine arts education in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. She has published articles in journals such as Youth Theatre Journal, International Journal for Education & the Arts and Theatre Topics, and her plays are published by Dramatic Publishing. roxannearce.com
Assistant Production Manager
Samantha Omari-Cendejas (Assistant Production Manager) is a second year B.A. Theatre and Dance student at the University of Texas at Austin. She is excited to be working on Sin Fronteras and hopes to connect and learn from everything the festival and convening has to offer.
In your own words, what is the Latinx Theatre Commons Festival and Convening?
This is the 11th public convening produced by LTC in the last five years or so. This particular event, the 2019 LTC TYA Sin Fronteras Festival and Convening is two things: a festival featuring five companies from the United States and Latin America doing work that’s in the lens of both Latino or Latinx and Latin American TYA. The point is to showcase work that’s not normally seen in Texas so that Latinx youth can see themselves on stage. The second part is the convening component where the LTC’s effort, work, and expertise comes in. The Latinx Theatre Commons is not a theatre company; we produce engagement and events around theatre or convenings, places for dialogue to happen. When this project was pitched to us a couple years ago, it really came to the forefront that TYA does not have a place in the national conversation around Latinx theatre, it’s not being represented. The average Latinx person in this country is a teenager in terms of average age, and we’re missing out on cultivating future audiences. We’re just not serving this large portion of our population as well as we could. The convening is centered around seeing the work with young people, hearing from them, talking about the work, and the afternoons are filled with time for shared learning. LTC believes in horizontal mentorship: everyone has something to learn, everybody has something to teach. So, we’re going to be having sessions about the history of Latin American or Latinx TYA from some of the leading scholars in the field; sessions on the nuts and bolts of producing TYA; and sessions that introduce people to the canon of work for young audiences. Sometimes people want to do this work but they don’t know the artists or they just don’t know where to go. This event is for folx who have a willingness to do this work but may have a lack of information.
Attending the Latinx Theatre Commons festival this summer in Chicago was the best decision that I’ve ever made. I find it so beautiful that at the festival there are all these people from different backgrounds and different cultural dynamics, and we were all just able to be one. The thing that makes it so amazing to see is that the way we all connect with each other is through learning. So instead of hearing “No, that’s wrong” or “No, that’s not how I say it,” it was like, “How do you say it again?” That’s what I get from the Latinx Theatre Commons, that the convenings show how differences really do connect.
Everyone has something to learn, everybody has something to teach.— Abigail Vega
What are your overall goals for this festival in regards to its impact in the field?
Space for the Latinx community, they are here. Space for early career folx and peer mentorship. Also, we’d like to bring awareness to the fact that there’s a lot of funds out here and a lot of the time big institutions are the ones getting it and when we talk about who’s best to serve these young people, it’s not always large institutions. Sometimes the smaller theatres and organizations should be thinking about this work. A year later we are going to be asking, “Are more companies doing this work?” That’s how we’ll know if we’ve been successful.
This is not advocacy in order to be accepted in predominantly white theatres and institutions. This is about connecting Latinx theatres to Latinx artists while centering youth voice.
There are folx coming that are really entrenched in the TYA field, like Robyn Flat from Dallas Children’s Theatre, José Cruz González, Jenny Millinger, Gillian McNally, a lot of folx who are in the TYA world are coming. But the impetus wasn’t to think about the general TYA world; really the impetus was to think about the Latinx theatre community in the country and in Latin America – but in some ways our Latin American guests are in service to the goal, which is to impact what is happening in Latinx Theatre. So in some ways it’s not all reciprocal, and we’re conscious of that. While Latin American theatre will be represented, the people who will be present and listening will be mostly US folx who are working in Latinx Theatre. I think the impact isn’t about getting TYA folks together to learn about Latinx TYA. The impact on the field is that the TYA field needs to be bringing more people in rather than only educating the people who are already in the room.
What are some best practices you’ve used to develop relationships for this convening?
First off, our events are always free. That’s been a pretty big sticking point since our inception, and it doesn’t look like that’s changing. We’re trying to create ways for the fewest amount of barriers to exist for participation. We also give out some travel funding to support folx getting there who are not already in Austin. It’s important that we always give out something for folx to be in the room with us and not just funding the “important folks” to speak. And one of the things we’ve been trying to be very intentional about is asking ourselves these two questions: “Who can come?” and “Who is it for?” Typically the answer to who can come is anybody. But the answer to who is it for – it may not be for you. That doesn’t mean you can’t come, it just means you won’t be served. We are trying to be clear about that and I think actually people aren’t offended by that because then they come with a different expectation. How can we be as equitable as possible and make room for as many people as possible knowing that we have to make a priority for who needs to be in the space?
These are relationships that I’ve been engaged in for a long time. For example, John Morán González at the Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS), I work with them a lot and I support the work that they’re doing. When I brought this to John quite some time ago, I not only asked him about CMAS supporting this event but also asked, “What do you imagine? What do you think? Why do you think this is important?” I’ve always seen myself as someone who is working in the community and not just thinking about it – you gotta really do it. Even with the students, it’s not like “Hey come hand out lanyards.” No we want you to come and be a part of this dialogue. You have an important voice here. You’re youth essentially, so you are part of who we really want to represent and support here. I think that best practice is, you have to cultivate relationships and they have to be meaningful – it’s reciprocal. It’s investing in each other, you have to be present.
During the planning process of this festival, what is something that you have discovered?
I have discovered how little I know about TYA, and I didn’t consider myself a neophyte in that area. I’m not talking about the canon as much as I’m talking about the considerations, you don’t run a talkback in the same way and the talkback can be the most important part depending on the piece. Then when we talk about super titles for TYA, whoa, that completely changes the conversation, maybe we just want to leave it without? That was one of our major things when we were selecting pieces, is there enough honesty, wonder, and awe to capture and keep people because the second they feel like they’re being lied to, they’re going to check out. I’m still learning this: how do we navigate conversations about the piece where the youth are allowed and encouraged to lead but the adults can participate?
We always run into how to make the convening accessible, logistically in terms of language. Since this is an international festival, we’re going to have people in the room who speak different languages. How do we make sure everyone can take in what is being said, what is being presented and performed on stage? So we’ve been having interesting conversations about when is it important or necessary to translate and when translating actually takes away from the work. For (our second) Encuentro, a festival which we produced in 2017, people had headphones with live translations happening but then you just miss so much. When things are being translated you actually miss so much (live). Then there is also so much anxiety around language – we have people that are in a variety of areas on the spectrum of their knowledge of various languages, and they may not necessarily feel comfortable saying, “Hey, I’m not fluent” so they may not even say, “Oh, I need one of those” and they may miss it. So there’s a lot of things to navigate when it comes to that. Every festival we are learning things about how to do what we are doing better but also every convening that we have is different so we’re not ever going to produce the same thing twice. We have to just take what we can take in terms of helpful knowledge onto the next one.
I’m still learning this: how do we navigate conversations about the piece where the youth are allowed and encouraged to lead but the adults can participate?— Abigail Vega
Who are some of your planned speakers, presenters, and artists?
José Cruz González, we are going to feature and his play Tomás and the Library Lady and he’s presenting on his play Dialogue/Diálogos: The Long Road Today. Miriam Gonzalez, we’re doing a reading of her play Óyeme the Beautiful. Ramón Esquivel and his play Dulce directed by one of our graduate students Khrisían Mendez, which is awesome. Some of our undergraduate students will be facilitating the “¡Caleidoscopio!” event. They’ll be the MCs and Kim Peter Kovac will be working with them to curate that since he has such experience with playwright slams. We have the Proyecto Teatro Youth Company that we’re going to be featuring, and Xanthia Walker, her youth company Rising Youth Theatre will be doing a workshop. José Casas will be working with some of our students who will be reading from some of the plays in his anthology; we’ll definitely be featuring him and hopefully ensuring that people know about the book, Palabras Del Cielo: An Exploration of Latina/o Theatre for Young Audiences, because when people say, “There is no such thing” – it’s not only there, it’s compiled and contextualized with all the scholarship. The Children’s Theatre Foundation of America has endorsed this. Also, Robyn Flatt, Nat Miller, Jenny Millinger – these folx are really going to be in the position of sitting and listening which really makes me happy. The Latinx voices will be featured in these spaces because that’s how it should be while seasoned professionals in the TYA field are coming like, “I’m ready to come listen and learn in a field that I’ve been working in for 35 years, and I still have a lot to learn and more specifically I have a lot to learn from this community so I’m coming not expecting to have my voice centered.” Georgina Escobar will be there. While we were working we noted there are a lot of Latinos – we needed more Latinas so that was a revelation too but we have many that will be featured. Those are some of the people that were are excited to share.
What would you say to other theatre practitioners who want to continue to cultivate diverse and inclusive spaces for this work around the country?
One thing LTC has been doing and needs to do better is reaching out to other alliances of color to share knowledge. We’ve produced so many convenings by now, had so many events, and we’ve learned some things. I’d like to document those things and share that with those alliances of color that are like ours. We’re always looking ahead to produce more inclusive convenings so I definitely want to share that out. One of the things that I was learning and was really on my mind almost a year ago now is how racist many of the funding structures are in terms of arts funding in our country. There are some really amazing foundations or individual contributions who will support our work and some of those say, “I don’t want to fund your anti-racism training or fund your convening for young people, I’ll only fund this other thing.” So, I was saying to the steering committee that I’m not interested in accepting money from these foundations that aren’t interested in funding these specific things because that’s saying to me that the money is only going to these things that are not publicly about race or publicly about supporting young people. I would love to share those learnings with other alliances or common spaced organizations if they’re interested in that because we’ve learned a lot.
There are so many things. Right now, bring some people to the theatre to something they may not see. Think about, how are we coming together – that’s immediate, today, do it. What is being represented in your space? What’s being represented on the wall? What is being represented? Think about things from the perspective other than the only one you’ve ever been presented with. So how do we include? A lot of the time my students will say I want to do something or “I want to impact what’s going on on the border.” That’s awesome and … what’s happening, what’s already happening? How do we support some of the work that’s already going on too? Invest in something that someone else is doing because I think when we all are starting up things we really need to come together, and I think that’s important. If we are thinking about more inclusive and diverse spaces, then we’re probably talking about spaces that aren’t, which is a lot of our spaces that have a lot of support. Some companies are saying, “Okay, I have to do this work so I can check this box.” I can bring 7,000 children to see this show and then my diversity numbers go up greatly but what did that really do? And yes it is doing something – 7,000 kids seeing those brown faces that they may not otherwise see on stage, that’s awesome! But every year you’re going to do the same thing and just bring in those 7,000 kids to see one play, what is that really changing? We have to think bigger … bigger … bigger. How is what you do really changing things happening on a daily basis? Otherwise, just bringing them in means that you’re serving those people but you aren’t really engaging with those people and those communities.
Among all of those interviewed, they all stressed throughout our conversation the desire and intentionality behind this convening serving the Latinx community. It’s not for the masses, although everyone is welcome – allies, advocates, and enthusiasts are welcome, and there is a space for them, but the space is there to engage Latinx artists, theatre companies, students, and youth. “This is huge, and there are so many people that are making this happen and it’s awesome, and I’m so happy.” Roxanne’s excitement was palpable as she added this last comment before we parted. After having spoken to four people involved in making this convening happen, these things stuck with me: the specificity, the intention, the advocacy, and the love put into these convenings are what creates what Sam experienced as being safe, secure, and driven by passion. The message that she would like other students and youth inspired by or interested in this work to receive is “Keep growing and don’t stop, PLEASE (emphasize the please!) and … ¡gracias!”
I second that emotion, please and thank you!