January 24, 2024 535 PM
MARFA –– The New Year brings many things: to some a fresh start, to others the promise to live a better life, and to Marfa High School students –– another installment of Marfa Live Arts’ Playwriting Program.
The 2024 workshop, which is being taught this week by Houston-based writer Jasminne Mendez, marks the 13th year of the program. Mendez is a Dominican-American award-winning author, poet, playwright, translator, director and actress. Along with writing plays staged at The Globe Theatre in Odessa, Texas, and Milagro Theatre in Portland, Oregon, Mendez has authored several children’s books and is a co-host of the poetry and writing podcast “Inkwell.” Mendez is also a co-founder of the Latine literary arts organization Tintero Projects. On Sunday her novel Aniana Del Mar Jumps In received the Pura Belpré Award at the Youth Media Awards.
This week Mendez joins MISD English teachers Linda Ojeda and Donel Lara in leading the students through techniques to unlock the creativity within them. Though this is Mendez’s first time working with Marfa students, for over 15 years she has taught high school students in theater and creative writing. “Teaching workshops for high school –– especially theater and creative writing workshops –– is probably my favorite job. I even like it more than writing or performing myself,” Mendez said. “I love the unique personal stories the students come up with. Even if they’re nervous or hesitant at first, I love seeing how their voices and stories grow with each draft and workshop.” The students, she added, also have a flexibility that promotes creativity and experimentation.
“I love being able to laugh and experiment with students and encourage them to take risks. Often some of the best writing I’ve ever read comes from teens because they’re not jaded or clouded by how they ‘should’ write or what they ‘should’ say,” she said.
Mendez’s Afro-Latine Dominican background, she added, also helps in connecting with students of a Hispanic heritage. “As an Afro-Latina, Latine students in Texas are often surprised that I’m Latina since I don’t look like who they’re typically used to seeing as a Latina,” she said. “But when they find out that we have a shared background, language and values, it definitely allows them to open up more and feel safe and connected to me and my teaching methods.” For Mendez, this connection helps expand the student’s understanding of how much they can experiment with language and dialogue. “I love it because I get to encourage them to use Spanish, English or Spanglish in their writing, and it’s a sort of permission that many Latine students haven’t been given with their writing in the past,” she said.
For the workshop itself, Mendez’s philosophy is simple: “Students should come prepared to play! Experiment! Take risks! And above all, be willing to tell their stories,” she exclaimed. “I believe we all have a story to tell and all our stories matter. My hope/goal for this week is to find that spark of a good story in each student and teach them the playwriting craft tools and elements that will help them tell their story on stage.” Throughout the week, she said, the students have been led through character building, which emotional states they wish to convey to an audience, and different methods used to tell a story. They also have been given a crash course on how to edit and revise to “hopefully write something they can feel proud of in the end.”
The playwright’s residency brings her into Marfa for the first time, which adds extra excitement for Mendez. “I have really been looking forward to learning and connecting with the Marfa Shorthorns. I always learn something from students and am always able to take nuggets of their wisdom with me,” she said.
The Marfa Live Arts Playwriting Program, she added, has been a boon to the community, as it has helped connect the local population with the arts. “I think that any time the community can bridge the gap between schools and the arts community, it’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “I think the work the organization has done and is doing is necessary. It’s the only way to build future theater audiences, theater makers and artists. To be able to provide the space, time, resources and platform to have young people’s voices and stories be heard is one of the most empowering and wonderful things any organization or person can do.”
In the 13 years of the Playwriting Program, over 1,350 one-act plays have been written by students. And as always, the program will culminate with a live performance of student works at the Crowley Theater with local actors taking on the roles created by the student playwrights.
For more Marfa Live Arts information, please visit www.marfalivearts.org.