Aztec students win first place drama award

The Aztec High School Playmakers are celebrating their third first-place finish in five years at the state high school drama competition.

Joshua Kellogg
Kolbie Richardson, left, Cassie Kelso and Jasmine Lewis talk with classmate Riley Merritt about the play 'The Other Room' Tuesday at Aztec High School.

AZTEC – The members of the Aztec High School Playmakers theater group are celebrating their third first-place finish in five years at the state high school drama competition after tackling a play that deals with autism.

The group won first place at the New Mexico Activities Association One Act Production Competition on Oct. 31 in Rio Rancho for its performance of “The Other Room” by Ariadne Blayde.

The play focuses on a character named Austin — played by sophomore Riley Merritt — who is a teenager diagnosed with autism and fascinated with astronomy. Austin develops a connection with popular classmate Lily — played by junior Kolbie Richardson — who shares Austin's love of astronomy.

“The Other Room” refers to the space where four characters representing Austin’s thoughts react on stage as he develops his friendship with Lily.

Riley Merritt, left, Kolbie Richardson and Ben Chavez talk during an interview Tuesday at Aztec High School.

Merritt said he spent time researching autism in order to understand the nuances of the developmental disorder. He also spoke with the club president, senior Benjamin Chavez, whose brother has been diagnosed with autism.

Merritt said he wanted to portray Austin in a realistic way and avoid over exaggerating his mannerisms.

“I had to exaggerate a little bit so the audience would see,” Merritt said. “There is that line between autistic and making fun of them.”

Richardson described Lily as popular student who can be kind of a nerd at times. She said Lily finds Austin initially off-putting, but gets excited about a chance to talk about astronomy — a topic Lily feels she can’t talk about with anyone but him.

“I think we can all relate to that. We all have stuff we want to talk about but can’t,” Richardson said.

Aztec High School drama teacher Shane Kirkland, center, talks with some of his students Tuesday at the school.

The students said the play was important to them because it allowed them to tell a story that emotionally resonated with them and the audience.

Merritt said Lily and Austin struggle to be friends as Lily deals with her popularity being called into question for being associated with Austin. And Austin struggles with the preconceived notions many people have of autism, as well as being stereotyped as being weak and weird, Merritt said.

Chavez said the play was important to him because it showed how autistic people are more than their diagnosis and have rich personalities.

It was the first project for Shane Kirkland, the new Aztec High School drama teacher who took over for Sidley Harrison after she retired in May after 28 years of teaching.

Kirkland said the play is well written, and he believed his students had the talent and the experience to dig deep into the material and put on a good show.

It was the audience's reaction when the students performed "The Other Room" on stage that validated their hard work, some of them said.

Aztec High School teacher Shane Kirkland, left, Jasmine Lewis, Cassie Kelso, Riley Merritt, Kolbie Richardson and Ben Chavez talk Tuesday at Aztec High School.

When the lights came up following their performance in Rio Rancho and the students returned to the stage to take a bow, Richardson said she could hear members of the audience sniffling and crying.

“At that moment, I realized we really touched these people,” Richardson said. “We touched these people because they can all relate to this.”

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.