TELLING THEIR STORIES: The ensemble of the LatinX Theatre Project, now in its fourth year: (top row, left to right) Alex Nilsson, Jasper Logan, Martin Garay, Damian Dena, Gabriela Arroyo, Felicia Deatherage, Justine Ryan; (middle row, left to right) Michael Del Rio, M. Sativa Vela, Yesenia De Loera, Betty Brutus; (kneeling, left to right) Daniela Martinex, Gabriela Torres.

For the ensemble of the LatinX Theatre Project, telling heartfelt stories about the Latinx community in Northwest Arkansas is a way to spark conversations about the political and social issues that impact their lives.

“We don’t typically try and simplify what’s going on, we just kind of tell our stories,” Rebecca Rivas, program director for the Northwest Arkansas company that is producing original works for the stage, said. “And then that ends up touching on really complicated issues in our country.”

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The project, created in 2017 by a group of young Latinx creatives and supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation and with help from TheatreSquared, is approaching its fourth season. Its productions are original works conceived and written by the ensemble, such as “Blanket Statements,” which explores the personal ramifications of immigration policy through spoken word poetry, song and comedy, and “The Crossroads,” about a young couple migrating to the United States and discovering how stories tie generations of families together. 

The Project has also created shorter educational pieces, like a workshop on rap that it led at the Fayetteville Public Library.  

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Justine Ryan, a theater veteran who joined the ensemble in August 2019, said the LXTP is unlike any project she’s been a part of. “We’re not just acting in the pieces, we’re also creating them. We’re writing them, we’re talking about how one scene affects another, deeply talking about and really resonating with the work that we’re doing and how it affects the community,”  she said. Each piece begins in one of the Project’s workshops, collaborative events that often welcome the community as well as the ensemble.

“It’s a different process every time, depending on the subject matter or what happens to inspire us in the moment,” Rivas said. She recently relocated to Arkansas from El Paso, where she had taught in the theatre and dance department at the University of Texas. “It’ll start with anything from writing prompts to prompts that might be more active, like movement-based. Everybody starts at one table, breaks off, starts writing, then comes together at the end. We end up with a bunch of different puzzle pieces, then we start putting it together. And, little by little, it forms into something that had a whole lot of hands and heads making it.” A lot of those hands and heads belong to young people, who remain the focus of many of the Project’s operations. “I think because it began as a group of young adults writing,” Rivas said, “that ends up being the community that we definitely want to engage with and help encourage their ideas and their voices.” 

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The works are dynamic and multifaceted, often combining mediums like hip-hop and poetry with more traditional forms.

The ensemble, which started with nine people, aimed to “create adequate representation for the Latinx community in the Northwest Arkansas region,” said Martin Garay, a founding member of the Project and its design coordinator. 

Gabriela Arroyo, a recent graduate of Rogers High and an ensemble member since 2019, works with the Project to set up community workshops and writing sessions. “For me, hearing and reading poems and raps of people I know from around Northwest Arkansas motivates me to keep advocating for minority groups and sharing art,” Arroyo said. The workshops form the heart of the Project’s outreach and engagement work, Arroyo said, giving the community “a place to express their feelings in a group that understands their POV.”

Ryan remembers being nervous at first about sharing her ideas in workshops. “I write privately; I don’t write to share. That’s one of the things that I’m working on in the LXTP,” she said. “I’ve just had to go ahead and do it, and people will be like ‘Oh my gosh! That’s really good!’ ” Having people connect with and understand her ideas in workshops have been some of her favorite moments with the LXTP. Creating a safe space for sharing and connection, Ryan said, is especially important for Black and Brown artists, who may not otherwise have access to those resources. “It just reinforces that, you know, you’re not alone.”

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The process of creation is organic and ongoing, even after a work has made it to the stage. “We have new plays that continue to be developed for years and years,” Rivas said. In early March, the ensemble traveled to the Arkansas Theatre Festival to perform “The Crossroads,” which had entered development almost a year earlier after the concept emerged from their performances of “Blanket Statements,” and it took on a life of its own. Rivas said that next time the play is on stage, it may have evolved even further. “It just depends on where that show wants to go. That’s one of the great things about creating original work, is that it’s yours and the company gets to continue to mold it and shape it, fine tune it, make it more specific, make it more detailed. Or, on the other side, broaden it so that it encompasses more in some areas.”

Over its four years, the Project has “expanded our range in storytelling and production. We have gained experience and knowledge to help us discuss bigger issues that affect Brown people nationwide,” Garay said. “Any time we do a show, we want to be able to sit down and talk or walk out into the lobby and talk with people about what they saw,” Rivas said. “I don’t think we ever imagine that the work is going to change the world, but I think it hopefully will shift a thought in someone’s mind or make their hearts beat a little bit faster or slower about something that they hear and see. Which will then hopefully influence how they treat somebody.”

Ryan, who also does digital outreach for the LXTP, said that connecting with people outside of the Project is a big focus of her work. “A lot of times you don’t know how to engage with certain groups of people in general. If you don’t know them, how do you communicate with them?” Ryan, who is Black, said that while she’s not fluent in Spanish, she can see the impact of the Project’s Spanish-language performances on their audience. “That’s gonna feel like home,” she said. “That really does make a difference. We’re bringing home culture to the stage.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic has placed a hold on in-person collaboration, development of the Project’s latest piece, “Heroes and Monsters,” has moved to the virtual workshop. The play, which premiered Sept. 25 at TheatreSquared’s New Play Festival, looks at social media and its adversarial dynamics. Infused with elements from lucha libre wrestling, Latin American mythology and superhero lore, the piece illustrates how winning and losing in online life can translate to the real world. “We began to meet virtually for our rehearsals in March,” Rivas said, “which is actually a very appropriate place to create the work, since the world of ‘Heroes and Monsters’ takes place in URL, not IRL.”

Virtual theater is not without its challenges. “It’s like trying to paint the Mona Lisa blindfolded,” Garay said. “Theater is very much a hands-on type of work. And to not be able to be there on stage and run lines organically without the lag of a Zoom call, or to physically be there with your team, it’s much more difficult.” But, even with the challenges, Garay remains undaunted. “Our whole lives have been about adjusting and working with what we got. This isn’t any different.”  

“A lot of our great ideas come from being in person and physically interacting, but since the pandemic, we have a different dynamic,” Arroyo said. “It has made us more motivated to think outside the box and try new things.” 

In lieu of in-person performances, the Project is looking forward to sharing its work online, Rivas said. It’s working with the audience, she said, that allows the Project’s plays to connect with the Latinx community, whose underheard voices they strive to represent. “When we do our shows, it’s kind of everybody. The whole community is out there,” she said. Even though most of the cast are young adults, the Project’s audiences are multigenerational. Speaking about the performance of “The Crossroads” at the Arkansas Theatre Festival, Rivas said, “We had some kids laughing in the audience, real little ones. And we had some moms and tias crying, also. So, I think it’s everybody, really. We want to be able to offer and allow them to get access to the work that represents them.”

The Project hopes to have a physical space to call its own someday. “We started as this kind of traveling group,” Rivas said. “But I would love to see us be able to plant some roots, so people know where to find us and so that those doors are open to more of those young voices and just to the community at large, to come in and do the work and have the conversations and share the voices and share their stories. I think, ultimately, if we can find a safe space for people who have something to say and want to say it on their own terms, we’d like to be facilitators of that on a larger scale.”

“We’re not rock stars or anything like that,” Garay said. “But that act of going out in the world and doing what you love to do, that’s not a common idea for us. And when our people see us do what we love and find success in it, I feel like it gives people that motivation to do it for themselves. To go out and truly live that life they want. Even if it’s hard. Even if the support you get is much less than the doubt you get. It’s worth it. Always will be. And I can only hope that that is what LXTP does for our community.” 

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