Smile Politely

Torn between two parts in Valiente

Four young people are on a theatre stage. They are all wearing school uniforms. Three are sitting down, one woman is standing up. There is a person in black sitting behind them and watching.

The University of Illinois Department of Theatre will present Theatre Studies New Works Project on Thursday, February 16th (Close), Friday, February 17th (A Dance in the Dark), and Saturday February 18th (Valiente). These three projects are student-driven, and produced by Latrelle Bright. Student theater-makers are in the process of learning how to workshop and produce theatrical works of their own, and these plays are readings with partial staging and props.

Meliza Guitierrez is a first year acting MFA, playwright, and activist. Her theatre studies new works project, Valiente, will be read on Saturday, February 18th. We recently corresponded about the production. At the time of publishing, waitlist tickets are available on the Krannert Center for Performing Arts website.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Smile Politely: What is Valiente about and what can audiences expect to see? 

Meliza Guitierrez: After losing a memento from her late mother, Valentina recalls a difficult time in her life when she struggled to find her purpose and embrace her Latinidad. Valentina delves into her memories and watches as her younger self, Val, struggles to cope with the looming threat of her imminent future and uses poetry as a means of escape from her own mind.

SP: How did Valiente come to be? What was the creative process like? 

Guitierrez: The concept for Valiente first came to me as a theatrical challenge. What if one character was split into two actors that had to stitch themselves back together into one character again by the end of the play? This idea of being torn between two parts of oneself was a feeling I had often growing up in a predominantly white small town in upstate New York. Valentina’s story continued to develop out of my reflection on those experiences and the wish to provide catharsis for others who may have felt the same. 

Valiente’s first reading was produced by Brown Bag Theater Company in May 2020. It was then workshopped with New York City’s Workshop Theater in the Fall of 2021 before having its most recent reading produced by LA’s Casa 0101 Theater.

SP: Who are some of your favorite poets and how did poetry shape this new work? 

Guitierrez: Neil Hilborn’s poetry always inspires me with his passion and irreverent tone, and Melissa Olvado’s work was also hugely influential in navigating the exploration of self and culture through poetry. I also love Richard Siken’s work in how he uses vivid and imaginative stories to unpack his relationship with himself and his queerness. 

The poetry in Valiente came from stream-of-consciousness writing sessions where the text just fell onto the page and sang as Val wrestled with her identity and relationship to the world and herself. I never considered myself a poet before writing Valiente, so I like to say that Valentina introduced me to it. Poetry came to shape the work when I realized that the somewhat incoherent monologues, I had written were really Val’s purest expression of thought and emotions, and letting them blossom into poetry came easily once I understood that it was Val’s outlet to finally express herself.

SP: Describe your ideal world premiere. Paint a picture. 

Guitierrez: My ideal world premiere has less to do with location, size, or grandeur and more to do with people. I hope to see all the friends and collaborators I’ve made in the Latinx theater scene. I hope to see every iteration of the Vailente cast so far and every director and teacher who has helped me develop it. I hope to see every wild and dysfunctional member of my big Mexican/Ecuadorian family and my tribe of queer and BIPOC artists friends that I’ve collected throughout the years. Lastly, I hope to see faces I don’t recognize, whose hearts I can touch through my words on stage.

SP: What do you want audiences to walk away with when they see Valiente?

Guitierrez: I strongly believe in the healing power of theater. When I set out to write a play, I do so with the intention that the story may be a call to action for others to be in service of others, but more importantly, of themselves. I hope Valiente serves as one such call for audiences to re-examine their relationships with themselves and with the world. 

The script opens with a passage from the Elders of the Hopi Nation. The entire text is deeply profound and inspiring for me, but the last two lines are what stick with me most: “All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” If nothing else, I hope Valiente inspires us to meet ourselves in the present or otherwise keep waiting because we are worth celebrating.

Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave
Sa Feb 18th, 7:30 p.m.
Waitlist only

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