Faculty and friends of the University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Theatre and Dance recently launched a novel effort to prepare a production that will celebrate the Paso del Norte region and its people based on ideas provided by area residents.
While the concept of “Letters to You” has been years in the making, UTEP’s work on the project started in earnest in February as it set up decorated receptacles at a handful of rotating sites around town. That is where the public could submit attached postcards that request in English and Spanish a response to a series of prompts such as “I should have said this sooner …” and “I’ve never told anyone …”
A New York-based playwright with El Paso roots will review the content of those cards in early summer and create a script for a production that will have a four-show run at UTEP starting Oct. 19. It will then move to other venues around the community for a few more performances.
Kim McKean, associate professor of theater and the project’s ringmaster, said that this production’s goal is to explore and celebrate the diverse stories of residents that take the narrative beyond the national headlines that too often focus on crime, immigration and negative aspects of the border.
She has called this style of production documentary theater, where organizers investigate themes that are inherent to a community. While she has purposely not taken a deep look at the existing 100 or so submissions, she said that some involve family, religion and drug use. She suspects that almost all of them are anonymous. She hopes that the playwright will have at least 500 submissions from which to prepare a script. The deadline to offer a response will be sometime in April.
“We would love as much community participation as possible,” McKean said. “There are no bad stories. There are no wrong stories. It doesn’t even have to be a story. It can be a thought you have. We’re really encouraging people to share their voice.”
In affiliation with the production, local artist Laura Turón, a member of the “Letters to You” team, will use the collected postcards as part of an immersive and interactive art piece. Turón’s art, which is found displayed around the region, is focused on repetition and the exploration of things that often are taken for granted.
McKean said that the concept for “Letters to You” comes from the experimental Tectonic Theater Project, a New York stage group that launched in 1991. It has performed around the world and bases many of its productions on interviews done with community residents.
The UTEP professor said she pitched the idea to a couple of colleagues, including playwright and a long-time collaborator Georgina Escobar, who recently completed a three-year residency as an assistant professor of instruction in UTEP’s theater department. Escobar, who specializes in fantasy and science fiction genres, will be a guest artist lecturer of playwriting at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire this spring.
Escobar wrote the project’s grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts, which awarded it $20,000 in 2022. Both artists wanted to create something impactful where the main source material came from the community. While Escobar will write the piece, she added that it will be in consultation with McKean, who will direct the show made up of UTEP student performers.
“I want to make sure to tell a story that invigorates our imagination and the speculative stories that are uniquely from la frontera,” said Escobar, who was born in Ciudad Juárez and raised in El Paso. “The most important thing for me at this point is to (read) with an open heart and see what stories percolate from people’s submissions, and then the frame and style of the piece will come together around grounded characters with identifiable needs, wants and dreams.”
Among the early submissions were from Flavio Cortez and Karen Urbina, who shared their stories during a March 4 promotional event honoring Turón’s work at UTEP’s Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts.
Cortez, an East Central resident who graduated from UTEP last year, said he responded to the “I will never forget …” prompt. He wrote about the natural beauty he witnessed during an Alaskan vacation in 2017.
“I think it’s important for all of us to share our stories,” he said.
Urbina, an architecture major at El Paso Community College, attended the event with four members of her family. All submitted postcards. The 2022 Bel Air High School graduate replied to the “I’m happy when …” prompt.
She said that she was pleased to be recognized for her volunteer service to her community through Bel Air, where she helps as a tutor with the engineering programs and assists low-income residents with tax preparation as a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) worker.
While organizers would prefer handwritten responses, they have created an opportunity for people to submit replies electronically.
Adriana Dominguez, assistant professor of theater, will serve as the project’s dramaturg, an expert in the field who provides the director and production team with insights and information to enhance the product.
Dominguez, the “Letters to You” community engagement director, thanked the project’s partners for their help to build momentum for postcard submissions. Those partners include schools, businesses, a community center, a retirement village, a place of worship, and a homeless shelter.
“We are incredibly lucky to have a diverse group of partners so that we can garner multiple community perspectives,” Dominguez said.
Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.