Farmington theater group opening play by Shiprock author
FARMINGTON — It's a phrase that practically anyone who eats in a restaurant in New Mexico on a regular basis has heard a thousand times. Hint: it's not "You want fries with that?"
No, playwright Bruce Chandler tapped into a much more specific sampling of the local vernacular when he was casting about for the title of his new work, which recently won the Theater Ensemble Arts one-act play writing competition. The branch librarian at the Senator John Pinto Library on the Shiprock campus of Diné College opted for "Red or Green," the eternal question applied to a diner's choice for the variety of chile desired as a topping for chile rellenos, enchiladas and other New Mexican fare.
There's a near-universal grasp of the meaning of that question in these parts, but Chandler was hesitant to describe its connection to his play, which TEA is staging this weekend. To explain its relevance, he said, would give away the plot, though he did say the play — which is set in a Four Corners town in the near future — is built around a job interview and explores the pressure the applicant feels in that situation to say the right thing.
Chandler described the question "Red or green?" as a code word in New Mexico.
"If you don't know it, people know you're not from there," he said.
TEA secretary Karen Brewer describes "Red or Green" as a charming play about a girl with a secret. She said she was disappointed that the one-act play contest received only six entries, but she said Chandler's submission stood out because it was well written and, just as important, it was producible.
"That was big for us," she said.
Chandler, a veteran actor who has written several other plays, two of which have been produced, said one-act plays are particularly hard to write, and this was his first. A recent transplant to the Four Corners — he moved to Shiprock in January from Tsaile, Ariz., where he had lived only since November 2014 — Chandler was surprised and delighted to have the chance to write a one-act play that might be produced by a local theater company.
He said he attended the most recent TEA production, a drama called "Song of Extinction" by E.M. Lewis. Chandler described it as a bold choice for a community theater group and recognized he might be in the company of kindred spirits.
"I knew I'd found the right theater company," he said. "I'd been looking for a way to get my foot in the door not only as an actor, but as a way to do new plays."
With "Red or Green," Chandler believes he has written a distinctly New Mexico/Four Corners/Arizona play — one that features plenty of geographical references that a local audience can enjoy. That will no doubt lessen its attractiveness to other theater groups across the country, where such references likely would fall flat, but Chandler is pleased with the choices he made, especially a decision to craft one of the characters as a Navajo woman — a role being filled by Lori Tapahonso. The playwright said his research and archives job at the library has put him in a position where he is immersed in the culture and traditions of the Four Corners, and he relished the opportunity to put some of what he had learned to use in "Red or Green."
Chandler spent five weeks writing and rewriting the play, so he was very happy when he got a call on April 1 informing him he had won and that TEA would be mounting a production of "Red or Green." He was particularly looking forward to seeing a dress rehearsal of the play last week, explaining that a previous obligation to be in San Francisco would force him to miss the play's opening this weekend.
The play's director is 18-year-old Karly Miller, a recent Farmington High School graduate who will be continuing her drama career at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces in the fall. Miller's most recent theatrical experience involved serving as the assistant director of an FHS production of a "Star Wars" version of "Macbeth," so even though "The Force and The Scottish Play" may not have much in common with Four Corners dietary preferences, Miller was feeling pretty comfortable last week after putting her cast and crew through its first dress rehearsal.
She said serving as the director for "Red or Green" has taught her a lot about how to talk to actors, and this play in particular — which doesn't feature much physical action — has helped teach her how to maintain a good pace in those circumstances.
"There are subtle things you can do that can make things happen," she said.
Miller said she was approached by Brewer after the original director dropped out.
"She asked me to do it, and I thought it was a great idea," Miller said.
She recalled being charmed by "Red or Green" the first time she read it, though it had a different ending then.
"But I think this one works, too," she said.
Chandler describes his latest effort as an actor's play, meaning he tried to draw the characters in a broad enough fashion so that the actors would have plenty of room to interpret them in their own way. Brewer said based on what she's seen in rehearsal so far, Chandler succeeded.
"I'm very excited," she said. "It's going to be really cute. The actors are moving in that way toward self-expression."
Chandler is looking forward to seeing how that self-expression manifests itself.
"The most exciting part for me is seeing an actor say something in a way I could not have imagined," he said. "In this show, the idea was to let the actors and director find out for themselves what the play is like. That's really an exciting thing."
Chandler acknowledged it may be a bit unusual for a playwright to be so willing to turn over his or her artistic vision to a cast and crew, but he had no regrets about that decision.
"I think that's because I come from an acting tradition where it's such a collaborative thing," he said. "A good director will push you in a direction, but it's up to the actor to figure out what's going on."
The author said he was happy that the closing production of the show would be staged in the library where he works, which he described as a beautiful facility unfamiliar to many members of the community. The man for whom the library is named, state Sen. John Pinto, was a code talker and is the longest-serving member of the New Mexico Senate. Chandler described the library as the focal point of the Shiprock campus.
"My hope is that some people from Farmington who have never been here will come to the show and see it for themselves," he said.
Already at work writing his next play, Chandler was still reveling in the experience of seeing "Red or Green" come to life last week as the cast and crew prepared for opening night.
"I had to shift from being a librarian to being creative," he said of the experience of writing the play. "But that sparked me to get back into what I really love — that's theater and play writing and being an actor."
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