It was standing room only at the first Austin Latino New Play Festival last year.
Teatro Vivo artistic director and co-founder Rupert Reyes hadn't necessarily anticipated an overflow crowd.
After all, the three plays featured were brand-new, not familiar fare, and presented as staged readings, not fully realized productions. It was the kind of free, workshop-style event that attracts a mostly theater-insider crowd fond of chewing over new scripts in post-show discussions.
And so Reyes booked the small black-box theater room at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, which accommodates 80 people.
But when many more than that showed up, extra chairs had to be found and some folks had to stand.
"It wasn't just the number of people who showed up that was so surprising," said Reyes, a veteran theater artist. "It was the sense of people wanting to have their comments about the scripts heard. Everybody stayed for the talk-backs. Everybody was really engaged with the plays."
For this year's festival, which runs Thursday to Saturday, Reyes has booked the larger theater at the Mexican American Cultural Center, which holds 150. (Like last year, the event is free but reserving a seat online is recommended. See www.teatrovivo.org.)
Given the success of last year's endeavor, Reyes and Teatro Vivo leaders widened their scope, soliciting scripts nationally instead of just from Texas playwrights as they did last year. And they partnered with the University of Texas' theater department to select one script from a student writer. UT theater major Arthur Bryan Marroquin got the spot with his play "Rosalia." The other scripts on the festival roster are "Cura," by Austin playwright Raul Garza, and "Guapa" by New York-based Caridad Svich.
Though actors will be reading from scripts, they will use some props and costuming and engage in essential stage movement. Basic theatrical lighting and a few sound effects also will be to put to use.
"We're a small organization," Reyes said. "But by presenting new plays as staged readings, we can help promote Latino playwrights, give our audiences exposure to even more theater and call attention to new work."
(And as for calling a three-day event a festival? "Austin has so many festivals, how could we not call ourselves a festival?" Reyes quipped.)
Svich has more than 30 scripts to her credit along with a slew of awards and fellowships, including the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play "The House of the Spirits," based on the popular novel by Isabel Allende. Several of Svich's plays have been produced in Austin. She currently teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Despite her accomplishments — or maybe because of them — Svich sees the need for a Latino-focused new play festival.
"Latino theater shouldn't necessarily be a separate category all the time, but (a focused festival) is particularly important for nurturing new writing," she said.
Svich's play "Guapa" focuses on a young woman who lives in a city very much like Austin and dreams of being a professional soccer player.
"I wanted to write something that was aspirational, something about a family that was happy and functioning," Svich said. "There are lots of plays that deal with the violence in or victimization of the Latino community and that have female roles that aren't necessarily as full as they might be. It's a bit more rare to see characters who are striving."
There's a very personal motivation behind "Guapa," too.
"I wanted to write something for my parents," said Svich, whose Argentine-Croat father was once a professional soccer player. (Her mother is Cuban.)
After its Austin reading, "Guapa" will get full productions with theater companies in Arizona, Oregon and Indiana.
" ‘Guapa' was written for Texas, so I'm curious to see how the audience in Austin will respond to it," said Svich, who will be in town for the Saturday presentation of her play.
Teatro Vivo is in discussions with UT to mount a full production of "Mariachi Girl," a musical for young audiences by Roxanne Schroeder-Arce that was presented at last year's festival and that garnered enthusiastic audience feedback.
Leveraging the move from page to stage: That's mission accomplished for the Austin Latino New Play Festival.
Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at email@example.com or 445-3699