Texas Tech University

Texas Tech Teams Up with Atkins Middle School for Tennessee Williams Festival

Amanda Castro-Crist

August 10, 2018

(VIDEO) This September, four middle school students will travel with the School of Theatre & Dance to the festival and star in “Dona Rosita the Spinster.”

Since its inception in 2006, the annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival has focused on celebrating and studying the work of American playwright Tennessee Williams through live performance. 

“Because we were championing for the depth and breadth of Williams' writing, beyond what was conventionally thought of during his lifetime, we waited years to find an educational component that fit,” said festival curator and cofounder David Kaplan. “We are here to create art. Our whole thing was live performance, and we didn't want to distract from that. We didn't want to just talk about it, we wanted to do it. And it's very unusual for people at the college level of scholarship to be interested in performance over the discussion and literary analysis of scripts.”

That began to change six years ago, thanks to Mark Charney, director of the Texas Tech University School of Theatre & Dance housed in the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts (TCVPA). Charney envisioned a collaborative, graduate-level educational component between the festival and the school. Working with Thomas Keith, the creative consultant to the festival, and Charlene Donaghy, the festival producing director, playwright and teacher, they created the Tennessee Williams Institute (TWI), an immersive course for graduate and doctoral students attending the festival.

Dona Rosita

Soon after, Texas Tech was invited to produce and present a play at the festival. The 2016 production of “Kirch, Küche, Kinder” (“Church, Kitchen, Children” in German) opened to a sold-out house and was reviewed by the New York Times and the Huffington Post.

This year, there will be an even more surprising collaboration in Provincetown, Massachusetts: four students from Lubbock's Atkins Middle School will join Texas Tech students Sept. 27-30 as they present their third festival production, “Dona Rosita the Spinster.”

“David came to Lubbock twice to do auditions, fell in love with some of the kids, and here we are,” Charney said. “As it works out, I think we're the beneficiaries because they bring a charm and an exuberance. We've loved working with them, and boy, they have been held to professional work standards, and they're rising to the occasion.”

Building a partnership

The growing collaboration between the festival and the School of Theatre & Dance began when Charney arrived at Texas Tech in 2012 and took the first group of students to Provincetown. By then, the festival was in its seventh year.

“We were approached by Texas Tech in 2012 with the idea for a graduate seminar, and this appealed to me very much, because we could teach teachers,” Kaplan said. “We could pass on what we know about Williams to directors, to critics, to people who would shape opinions about Williams for years to come. So it wasn't bringing people up to basic standard, it was really changing how artists, critics, writers, designers, directors and teachers of teachers think about Williams.”

The TWI has led to several other opportunities for Texas Tech students. After the successful production of “Kirch, Küche, Kinder,” they were invited again last year to produce and present “The Gnädiges Fräulein” (“The Lovely Maiden” in German), which was just as well-received.

At the 2017 festival, Kaplan, Charney and Cory Norman, director of marketing and communications for the School of Theater & Dance, discussed plans for the 2018 festival lineup. Each production would focus on the theme “Wishful Thinking,” which Kaplan said was inspired by the 2016 presidential election.

Dona Rosita

“It occurred to me that what everyone was feeling after the election was, ‘Something is going to happen,' and we didn't know what it would be,” Kaplan said. “We live in a state of anticipation, and not knowing can undo you. It can make you neurotic, it can make you angry, it can make you depressed. It can also make you rely on faith and produce a very beautiful thing, which is sustaining yourself. Wishful thinking is the motor that drives all these plays. In one, it's cruel and beautiful. In others, it's life-sustaining. It's the pain, beauty and necessity of hope and belief.”

One of those plays was Federico García Lorca's “Dona Rosita the Spinster.” Kaplan told Charney and Norman that he had been working on it for years and wanted to present at the festival.

The play, set in a rose garden in Granada, Spain, tells the story of 15-year-old Dona Rosita, who is in love with her first cousin. They get engaged, but he must leave for South America to help his father. He tells her he will be back. The second act is set 15 years later, with Dona Rosita still waiting and believing her love will return. In the third act, 10 more years have passed and the audience learns that he never returned.

“David said, ‘Here's my concept,'” Charney recalls. “It was about kids in the backyard playing and telling this story of unrequited love. We were really excited about it.”

Though the play is not a show for children, the idea of using children to fill the roles was one that seemed to best fit the concept.

Dona Rosita

“Why don't we present real kids?” Charney said, recalling the conversation. “Why are we going to have our students pretend to be 11 and 12?”

Because of Texas Tech's extensive local outreach during previous community initiatives, Norman knew just who to call. Soon, they were in contact with 2014 Texas Tech theatre alumna Amy Laney, the theater director at Atkins Middle School. They gave her a list of criteria, including the ability to speak English and Spanish, and asked her to find students who could audition with Texas Tech students.

“I pretty much scouted out the entire school,” Laney said. “I was looking everywhere. I would find these kids in the hall, I'd find them in the cafeteria, or in a different classroom. I worked with them for close to two months. We went through a really strenuous process, and they remember that.”

The 12 students she initially recruited met every school day for at least 30 minutes, reading through and memorizing monologues and other material Kaplan sent along and working on their projection. Then it was up to Charney to convince Kaplan to travel to Lubbock for auditions. With the help of the School of Music, Charney did.

“Dr. Charney said, ‘What would it take get you to come to Lubbock?'” Kaplan said. “And I said, ‘A live harp.' I know the play doesn't have much of a set and the costumes could be pulled together, but it requires a live, 7-foot-tall harp and someone to play it, and that is not cheap. It's serious, classical Spanish and other beautiful music.”

Charney's response?

“We have a harp,” Charney told Kaplan. “That is not a problem.”

Choosing the cast

When he arrived in Lubbock in January, Kaplan was in for one final surprise.

“David had no idea we were a middle school,” Laney said. “He thought we were a high school.”

Dona Rosita

Expecting 15- and 16-year-old students and realizing they were 12 and 13 made Kaplan nervous. At the first round of auditions, one of the children recited a poem by Pablo Neruda, moving the audience to tears. The auditions continued, with each middle school student performing from memory. Kaplan's worries vanished.

“They didn't have paper in their hands, they performed to the audience, they were genuine and it was beautiful to watch,” Laney said. “David said to me, ‘Wow, you got your kids to memorize their lines,' and I really think that was the main reason they got cast. He saw that they could do it, and he was really impressed.”

Of the four Atkins students cast in the play, 13-year-old Viviana Melendez, who plays the part of one of the spinster sisters, is the only one who had any theater experience.

“We were practicing for our one-act play, and Mrs. Laney asked us if we wanted to audition,” said Melendez, who is a freshman at Monterey High School this fall. “It's very different. It's harder because we're not in school during the summer, but we still spend four hours at rehearsal every day. It's a lot more than rehearsal for school plays.”

For each of the other students, landing a part in the play happened after they were “discovered” by Laney. Seventh-grader Esperanza Gonzales, 13, who plays Dona Rosita's uncle, said when she first heard about the play, she was excited about the once-in-a-lifetime experience of working with Texas Tech students and traveling to the festival.

Dona Rosita

“I was actually walking down the hallway, and I was talking to my friends,” Gonzales said. “Mrs. Laney came up to me and said, ‘I love your voice. Would you like to audition?' And I was like, ‘Sure.'”

Twelve-year-old seventh-grader Zaira Cervantes, who plays the part of Dona Rosita's aunt, had a similar experience.

“Mrs. Laney was our substitute,” Cervantes said. “I was talking to my friend in Spanish and she heard how fluently I speak. She had me read a poem and then prepared me for the audition. Of all people, I was one of the ones cast. He chose from Texas Tech students as well, and they have more experience than we've had, so the fact that he chose me is shocking.”

Eighth-grader Fernando Ramirez, 13, said he always liked acting, but never had the chance to take theater classes. Being asked by Laney to audition and then landing two parts, Dona Rosita's cousin and another young man who tries to court her, broadened his perspective about his own abilities.

“Before I got into this, I felt like theater was for lucky people, for famous people,” Ramirez said. “It made me realize that I can do more things. I'm looking forward to seeing other plays at the festival and seeing professional people doing what I'm doing.”

Preparing the play

Once the play was cast, work began in earnest. Atkins Principal Chris Huber allowed Laney extra class time with the actors and weekly trips to Texas Tech for rehearsals and Skype sessions with Kaplan. The work continued this summer as Laney and her husband Tom, a Texas Tech arts administration graduate student also in the play, transported the students every weekday in June for four-hour rehearsals with Kaplan on the Texas Tech campus.

“I can't say enough about Amy Laney,” Huber said. “She's a wonderful person. She's a really young teacher, but she is phenomenal and it is having a huge impact on our students. I think the people at Texas Tech, when they interacted with her, knew she was somebody who could live up to the commitment.”

Huber said the collaboration is a great example of the impact a teacher can make and how students – at any level – can be successful with the right guidance and support.

“I really appreciate the Texas Tech School of Theatre & Dance and all the people who they involved,” Huber said. “Texas Tech has not just delivered; they have over-delivered on everything they have said they were going to do. They have really lived up to the commitment.”

At the end of June, Kaplan and the cast gave one performance in the backyard of a Lubbock home that was made up to resemble the set on which they will perform in Provincetown.

“David has been very kind to them through this whole process,” Laney said “He even said he doesn't like to teach children, and that's not what he's about – he's in it for the art. So the fact that he loves these kids and he's been so kind to them and so wonderful, I think that speaks volumes.”

Still, the rigorous rehearsal schedule has been an adjustment for the actors.

“It was different because in summer, I usually could wake up at noon,” said Cervantes. “But this summer I had to wake up at 7 a.m. and head straight to rehearsal. I didn't even eat breakfast until I got home. But David makes it fun, he makes it comfortable.”

For Ramirez, spending every morning rehearsing made his days seem longer.

“It's four hours doing lines, and then you come back home,” he said. “You think it's 4 or 5 in the afternoon and it's only 12:30 p.m.”

Melendez, who said she plans to attend The Julliard School in New York after high school, said the experience taught her more about the ins and outs of theater.

“You do way more than just the acting.” she said. “I noticed some people who don't know about theater, they just think that you're reading off a script and pretending to be somebody else. There's a lot more to it.”

Gonzales said the play also taught her something.

“Like David said earlier, hope can be cruel sometimes,” she said. “It teaches you that you can have hope, but you may not always be able to count on it.”

For Kaplan, having actual children of these ages in the roles contributed a sense of purity and honesty to the essence of the play. 

“The whole point of the play in terms of production is that this is a group of young girls putting on their play in their backyard,” Kaplan said. “That impulse to play and fantasize is the essence of why we do plays to begin with, and when you have kids playing, it's an invitation to the audience to share in their fantasy. I like restoring the audiences' experience of the theater to playfulness, even in such a serious topic as this. This is the culmination of many years, and I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to present it.”

A lasting effect

Charney said for the students, the experience is about more than just becoming an actor.

“When you learn to dedicate yourself passionately to a project, I think, No. 1, it's the way you find out what passion means, but No. 2, it's about having integrity, a work ethic, an understanding of professionalism,” Charney said. “David treats them like they are professional actors, and I think that works.”

For Laney, this project is just one more way Texas Tech is changing lives. She said she has enjoyed working with the faculty, staff and students in TCVPA.

“Our students have been working with college students, with college professors, with several people that, normally at their age, they would never get to work with,” Laney said. “They have been wonderful to learn from and get guidance from, they have been very supportive of myself and the kids and they've loved everything we've done so far.”

Widening the network that a child can access is crucial to their development and success, Huber said. Children often live inside a bubble that only includes their family, their friends, faculty and staff at their school and a handful of others.

“That's a really small circle,” Huber said. “Very few kids, and not just at Atkins, know what possibilities exist outside of their world and the steps required to get wherever they wind up going. New exposure leads to, ‘Oh, you mean I really could do this?' Working with David Kaplan and what he brings, collaborating with Texas Tech and then traveling to Provincetown, it's a big world, and they're about to have a life-changing experience.”

That experience will resonate with students beyond just the four involved, Huber said.

“A rising tide raises all boats,” Huber said. “We all walk a little taller because our kids are in the news. When other kids see they are doing great things, they think, ‘That kid is just like me and he's doing something really special.' It opens their own eyes to possibilities that exist for them.”

The effect of that knowledge also extends to the staff and faculty, he said.

“It's really important for our staff to know our kids are being successful, can do amazing things and are making a difference,” Huber said. “Everybody who was here in the spring was impacted by knowledge that these are exceptional kids, but they are also normal kids. The fact that our kids were picked influences how others think of the people in our school. There are families who will come to our school because of this. This is the kind of thing that really helps enhance the reputation of the school, and it's more important than anyone can realize.”