Free Street Theater's 'M.A.T.A.': A Conversation with Keren Díaz de León and Sean Parris
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
Anytime an opportunity arises to witness the sweat, stamina, and sheer collaboration of Free Street Theater's youth ensemble, there's no hesitance in accepting such an invitation. Throughout Chicago, there are many ensembles that provide resources and opportunities for storytelling and performance. I'm thrilled to see this occurrence in recognizing the value to engage and assemble young people in a medium to reflect on their current struggles and spearhead resistance, brainstorming, and community.
FST's youth ensemble sets a precedence, making it stand out from other ensembles I've witnessed. Their work is well-structured, lovingly overflows with creativity and innovation, and you can feel the eight month process embedded of finetuning in the performance, which to feel the intention of such work is a tremendous asset. Their latest production, M.A.T.A: Make America Teen Already, notably carries out FST's trend of highly creative, ensemble driven, emotionally stirring work.
M.A.T.A.: Make America Teen Already functions as both reflection and response to the current Trump administration from The Storyfront's The Agents/Los Agentes, specifically commenting on its inhumane treatment of immigrants and ICE policies. It succinctly provides snapshots of memories, monologues, and attempts to reckon with how to become empowered from feeling helpless. For fans of FST's previous production of Parched, you'll feel right at home. From a dance break with juice boxes, to a sick High School Musical takedown ("We're all in this together and it sucks"), and America getting a surface level makeover, this critique shapes out to be humorous, explicit, and vulnerable in its capacity to give so much from an abundance of young talent.
We had the pleasure of chatting with co-directors Keren Díaz de León and Sean Parris, who along with Ricardo Gamboa, guided this ensemble in bringing this glowing commentary to life. Make sure to check out what the talented The Agents/Los Agentes Youth Ensemble are up to next and Free Street Theater's upcoming project, Still/Here.
M.A.T.A.: Make America Teen Already's title reworks the Reagan campaign phrase and its Trumpian resurgence. What does it mean to make America teen already?
To make America Teen already is to go back to the source of our potential, to get back to a state of being open; open to possibilities. Teens and young adults exist in their final stage of metamorphosis. To make America Teen already is to imagine a world that is not 100% filtered through adult experiences, a world where teens are able to be treated with the same respect as their adult counterparts. Critically analyzing what power looks and acts like requires us to look at how old those in power are, if teens were treated as the powerful source of social change that they are, we collectively would be far closer to solutions to surviving on this planet.
The play showcases the impressive talent and creativity of the Los Agentes/The Agents. What moments from the show have experienced the most growth or are ones you're most proud of?
One of the moments that has been so exciting to see in progress through the run is the Trump Zone Game Show! The whole ensemble breaks off into two hosts, Daisy & Don, the audience, and Aniya who helps prep the audience participation moment. All of them have done such a wonderful job at being present during audience interaction moments of the show, like the Anti-High School Musical scene and the Selena Dance Party scene! The ensemble takes control of the theater from before audience members even enter the space, they take care of the pre-show speech and throughout the show they make it clear under what conditions they welcome audience members, especially adult audience members, into the world they have built for themselves and each other.
What devising/ensemble building techniques did you implement during this process?
In the ensemble and devising process we implemented a variety of exercises and techniques, from trust building exercises, ones that worked toward the themes of the play, like a memory tag where ensemble members had the opportunity to share their personal memories and connections to questions like, “A moment I remember standing up against what Trump represents...” or, “I knew we were in deep shit before or after the election because I remember when...” Something that was probably the most important aspect of our ensemble building process was committing to Free Street’s & Coya Paz’s praxis of critical generosity. Every ensemble member and teaching artist was afforded the same community care through the understanding that each of us as individuals hold different lived experiences.
Ensemble check-ins, journal writing and share backs, creating performances based on their real lived experiences or the experiences of those close to them were incredibly important in a play like M.A.T.A. It is a show that directly calls to the forefront systems of oppression and acts of violence. It was a crucial element of our process to prioritize intentionally practicing care. To commit to model & practice the world we want to live in, in the theater at every rehearsal and at every show. So much of what that looked like, the teens had such a large part in building together with us.
At one point in the show, audience members are asked to write down messages of hope and strategy regarding our current immigration crisis. How can we implement change toward this issue?
The show says it best, start empowering our youth! Stop thinking of them as just a puppet for adults to “drop knowledge on,” or our beliefs, or how we think they should be; start communicating with them, treating them as individuals, seeing what they have to offer, respecting them. We have learned so much, as adults, from what these young folks have offered in sharing space with them. Daisy, at the end of the show has an ASMR Manifesto scene. In it, she called the audience, and remind them, even if for a moment, remind them of what they were like when they were young, the potential they had, how purely powerful they were. It emerged as a quiet but effective manifesto, and it was funny. Daisy says a line, after the stage manager tosses a bag of tortilla chips, disrupting the moment, and then Daisy picks up the bag, and without missing a beat, opens the bag, takes a bite, and says she imagines every bite is her own form of protest, and she imagines each bite driving Trump a little crazy. It was such a powerful funny moment where the audience laughs, but also reminds you of the power of imagination filtered through the openness of a teen.
Keren Díaz de León is a director, writer, and teaching artist with Free Street Theater and Back of the Yards High School. She is the co-founder of the queer, femme, South side POC artist collective, Las Topo Chicas. Through her craft and activism, she works in a survivor-centered framework in terms of holding accountability for harm.
Sean Parris is an actor, director, and playwright. He's an instructor at the Black Box Acting Academy which he's a former graduate and is an ensemble member of Definition Theatre Company. He's worked with various companies including Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Goodman Theatre, and Free Street Theater with his two man show, Space Age, co-created with partner, Ricardo Gamboa.