Dallas' young people are proving once again that they have a voice and are ready to use it. For the first time, the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs is supporting a theatrical production featuring teen actors from the ground up.
Stand-Up Tragedy, which opens today, is produced by two of Dallas’ cultural centers, the Latino Cultural Center and the Oak Cliff Cultural Center, and features 10 teen actors.
The play is an opportunity for the teens to gain experience their teachers can’t give them because of limits on time and resources. In addition, disinterested students can make it difficult to accomplish work in school theater classes.
The play takes place at a middle school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where statistics show many of the students are not expected to graduate. It tells the story of how these kids and their teachers struggle to beat the system and features raps, boxing matches, basketball games and lots of fight choreography by Prism Movement Theatre co-founder Jeff Colangelo.
“It’s really hard not to relate to this play,” ensemble member Aden Jemaneh says. “There’s such a big difference in public and private school."
Dallas actor Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso and playwright and actor Ruben Carrazana, who are best friends, wanted an excuse to collaborate on a play while flexing their education muscles. The two teamed up and brought the pitch for Stand-Up Tragedy to the cultural affairs office. In addition to producing the play, Jasso and Carrazana proposed four weeks of free theater classes before the production.
“We wanted a way to combine our passions and work together because we’re best friends and we love each other,” Jasso says with a laugh.
According to the proposal, the classes were to build the foundation for the rehearsal process, which was to br carried out with five professional actors and five professional designers. Including professionals was an important component for Jasso and Carrazana because many of the students they work with do not have access to theater education or the Dallas theater community.
“We created a budget and proposal and pitched to the Oak Cliff Cultural Center, but we didn’t have to sell it much. They were on board and said they’d find a way to make the project happen,” Carrazana says.
He and Jasso already had a good working relationship with the Latino Cultural Center, and its performance space was well suited to the project. “[The cultural centers] have been incredibly generous with their resources. Usually, they function as performance venues, but they’ve funded it almost entirely," Carrazana says.
Private donors also contributed. In some cases, this meant cash, but support also arrived in the form of Friday night meals for the actors and directors, which became "family dinner night." Jasso says this was an important relationship-building tool, and it helped the students to grow very close.
This project is also paying all of its teen actors, some of whom joined because they'd gotten into trouble. Carrazana met several of the actors through Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program, where Carrazana worked as a teacher this summer.
Once teens are convicted of crimes, their opportunities diminish, and Big Thought seeks to place them in visual or performing arts programs. “The Dallas County Juvenile Department has the lowest recidivism rate in the state, which they have attributed in part to the success of creative solutions," Big Thought's website reads.
Cast member Hipolito Tapia says he was placed in the Big Thought program by his probation officer and had Carrazana as a playwriting teacher. “I appreciate Ruben for giving me this opportunity and the strength and confidence," Tapia says. "I was able to express myself even more, and now I get along with people more. I can speak out and share my ideas. I can really be a part of something instead of not trying."
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Cyena Rojas says Jasso has been a longtime friend of her family. Jasso reached out to Rojas and invited her to check out the project. “Within 30 minutes of meeting, everyone was so chill and ready to get down,” Rojas says.
She didn’t know what to expect and was surprised by how she bonded with the cast.
Martin Francisco Mendoza first got involved with theater when his mom was taking ESL classes. While his mom learned English, he acted in plays, and he discovered a passion for it.
Mendoza learned about Stand-Up Tragedy from Rojas. “I’m not used to meeting a group of people and immediately forming a bond with them,” he says.
Latino Cultural Center, 2600 Live Oak St., through Dec. 16, $5-$10, dallasculture.org.