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NMSU theatre community gathers for weekend of plays

Theatre lovers gathered over the weekend for the High Desert Play Festival, a production which encompassed two evenings of excerpts, a musical, and multiple full-length plays written by professional and local writers. The festival took place at the ASNMSU Center for the Arts on Friday, Feb. 16 and Saturday, Feb. 17. 

Friday evening’s agenda included student excerpts directed by Eva Cullen and Yasmine Jahangiri, along with a dinner break provided by Green Chile Paddy Wagon and a reading of “La Manda” written by Maiya Corral and directed by Monica Mojica.  

Saturday evening’s agenda featured student monologues, including Act 1 of “The Golden Door” which is a new musical written and composed by NMSU faculty member Lisa Hermanson and directed by Mike Wise. The festival also presented another reading of a play written by Benjamin Benne and directed by Larissa Lury.

NMSU students and actors acknowledge the audience and behind-the-scenes parties during applause for the student and local excerpts portion of the High Desert Play Festival Friday, Feb. 16, 2023. (Photo by Kylie Garcia/Kokopelli)

The High Desert Play Festival comes from a collaboration between many Las Cruces and NMSU entities. According to an NMSU assistant professor and High Desert committee chair, Larissa Lury, the festival showcases written pieces that have gone through the High Desert Play Development Workshop. 

According to the NMSU Department of Theatre Arts, High Desert Play Development was formed in 2005 to “support playwrights works-in-progress and to introduce students to the play development process.”  

The workshop occurs every other academic year, and this year the High Desert committee reached out to about 20 professional writers across the country, Lury said. The committee shared information about the program and extended an invitation for playwrights to submit their work for consideration.  

“Part of what we looked for in the plays we selected through the national invitations were plays that we thought would specifically speak to our community here in Las Cruces,” Lury said. “[Plays] that had roles that we thought would resonate with our students and give our students strong and challenging material to work on.”  

The committee ultimately selected professional playwrights Maiya Corral and Benjamin Benne. These playwrights in residence were sponsored by the NMSU Department of Theatre Arts and the American Southwest Theatre Company. According to the head of the theatre department and ASTC Managing Director Wil Kilroy, the workshop included a group of volunteers, NMSU students and help from other programs who fundraised for the event. 

Through the workshop, Corral and Benne were able to see their plays undergo a rehearsal process with student actors and a production crew. The pieces were rehearsed within two weeks, and the playwrights could adjust their work as they received feedback from the participating parties.

Spotlights shine down on the stage before the first excerpt reading of the High Desert Play Festival. The two-night event took place at the ASNMSU Center for the Arts on Friday, Feb. 16, and Saturday, Feb. 17. (Photo by Kylie Garcia/Kokopelli)

“Since plays are meant to be performed, not read silently on a page, it’s important when writing one to have the opportunity to hear it out loud and to see the way that movement, and interaction between actors, changes what needs to be said,” Lury said. “For example, sometimes we discover when workshopping a play that something that needs a lot of explanation on the page can be said with a simple look on the stage.” 

High Desert Play Development, in collaboration with the NMSU Department of Theatre Arts, also chose to workshop seven plays and excerpts from local writers and students, including a new musical from NMSU professor Lisa Hermanson.  

Student volunteers developed and strengthened local and national plays through their acting, directing and overall participation. They also learned directly from the professional playwrights, who shared insights about the process of playwriting and their overall career path, Lury said.  

“It was great,” NMSU student and actor Joel Gonzalez said. “The playwrights did a really good job writing the characters. Honestly, flowers to them because without them, we wouldn’t be on the stage. I had a lot of fun playing my character and getting to just be on stage with my fellow actors.” 

“Festivals like this one can be a great way to bring people together,” Lury said. “It was exciting to hear all of the conversations happening in the lobby, and I hope that those conversations continue as everyone who attended continues to think about each of the different plays and the ideas, feelings, images, sounds and questions they evoked.” 

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