It’s a beautiful, sunny morning in May, and the excitement in the air is palpable on the northern end of downtown Main Street. Event organizer Philip Hernandez is directing volunteers and assigning locations, while students from local high schools are beginning to gather outside of the Las Cruces Community Theatre (LCCT).
The volunteers disperse along Main Street, where workshops will begin at 11 a.m. Singing can be heard coming from one group of students loitering nervously on the sidewalk. One of the volunteers leans over and whispers to another, “I love theatre kids. They’re entertaining, even when they’re bored.”
It’s the opening volley of the Las Cruces One-Act Theatre Seminar, which will bring together six high schools – Las Cruces, Mayfield, Gadsden, Centennial, Alma d’Arte and Los Montanas – and more than 160 students for two full days highlighted by student performances. It will also feature workshops presented by industry professionals at surrounding businesses, museums and meeting facilities.
The brainchild of Las Cruces Community Theatre president Hernandez, and a collaboration with that organization and the American Southwest Theatre Company (ASTC), Eastern New Mexico University, The Doña Ana Theatre Association and some of the brightest lights in the Las Cruces theatre community, this historic event is changing the way students view theatre in their home town.
At 9 a.m., students fill the auditorium at the LCCT, some dressed flamboyantly, some a little more understated, but not much. Teachers confer nervously with judges – many of them theater owners, artistic directors and actors themselves – and ride herd over their respective broods. The lights dim and ASTC artistic director Tom Smith takes the stage to give the keynote address.
His rousing speech, addressing community and the importance of teaching an age-old craft, will echo throughout the two-day event. He elicits laughter and applause from the assembled students, by reminding them that their drama teachers give up large portions of their lives on a daily basis to teach them how to be expressive individuals with a voice and that, without them, there wouldn’t be a one-act festival.
“When I look out in this theatre, I see a room full of teachers,” Smith says. “We can all teach each other something. It carries great responsibility to be a teacher. That responsibility is now yours. In a room full of teachers, you’ve got a lot to learn from one another, so with an open mind, open heart and open ears, let’s do just that. And remember to find a moment today to thank your drama teachers for being amazing people and doing everything they do for you.”
Over the course of the next two days, six different one-act plays will be performed on the LCCT stage. Sixteen industry professionals from across the state will lead a total of 34 workshops, on such topics as vocal technique, improvisational movement, handling auditions and more. Some will also act as judges. It’s an event that will be fondly remembered by all involved.
“I feel like this is really special,” says Steven Trujillo, a student from Mayfield High School. “Having a bunch of schools here and everybody supporting each other, it gives us all the confidence to go out onto the stage, in front of judges, and do our best. And the big applause at the end, from other theatre students, is an amazing feeling.”
Would he do it again? “Absolutely,” he enthuses, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Hernandez, who, in addition to organizing the event and teaching a workshop on creative producing, is a constant presence throughout the two-day run, answering questions and solving logistical problems. The result is a smoothly operating event that draws praise from everybody involved.
He is very quick to point out, however, that none of it would have been possible without community involvement. “It absolutely would not have been possible if everybody hadn’t been willing to work so hard,” he says. “From the students and their teachers, to the volunteers who helped organize the workshops, to the adjudicators, many of whom drove miles to be here for no pay – these are all people who are here because they truly believe in it – if none of them had done what they needed to in order to make it happen, we wouldn’t be here today.”
What impresses Hernandez most about the event, he says, is the kids themselves.
“I’m blown away by the interest these kids have displayed,” he says. “Our workshop hosts keep commenting about how respectful they are. They are blown away by how much interest they bring to the workshops and the fact that they are taking notes. They’re taking it very seriously.”
Hernandez pauses to take a phone call from a volunteer, calmly directing her through her options, then hangs up and picks up right where he left off.
“What really astounds me is that, during lunch, I’m walking around and hearing the kids talking to each other and saying, ‘I really like what you did in your one-act,’” he says. “They’re complimenting each other, they’re pointing out technical aspects of each others performances. To have other kids that they don’t know, from other schools, taking the time to make these connections, is phenomenal. Tom hit it exactly on the head during his keynote speech; everyone here is learning from everybody else. Everyone here is a teacher and it is incredible.”
Acting as judges for the competition, Ceil and Peter Herman, owner operators of the Black Box Theatre, have nothing but praise for the event. Having actively championed student works and produced several one act plays for high school students during the ten-plus years they’ve been in operation, the Hermans recognize this as a great opportunity.
“We love being involved, because we’re looking at our future theatre professionals,” says Ceil Herman. “We have six schools coming together to share their work and learn their craft from industry professionals, all of whom are happy to pass their knowledge on. It’s just been a great experience.”
“We’re really hoping that it will continue,” Peter Herman adds. “This year’s event has been promoted as the first annual and we’re really hoping that it proves true.”
In the end, it’s a learning experience for everybody involved. There are no winners. There are no losers. The judges present their tallies, which are then shared with the students when they are back in the classroom the following Monday. Hernandez gives a closing speech, in which he thanks everyone involved, students, teachers, judges, workshop hosts and volunteers alike.
The two-day event closes just as it began, with nervous energy and an overarching feeling of something significant having occurred. The students gather together, chatting with friends old and new, then expend the last of their energies in a mass dance on the LCCT stage.
Hernandez is pleased.
“I consider it an overwhelming success,” he says simply. “It accomplished everything we set out to accomplish and more.”