By Amy J. Parrent
Maybe it was a happy accident. Or destiny. Maybe it was an innate talent and a drive to bring something different to light. But talented young playwright Emilio Rodriguez seems to have found his calling, and even the subject for some of his plays, through a kind of kismet.
Take for instance, his play "Swimming While Drowning," part of the Michigan Playwrights' Festival at Ann Arbor's Theatre Nova. It's a story of two teen boys in an LGBT homeless shelter and their struggle with wanting to love and be loved.
"At a (previous) reading of the play, one big feedback was that people never get to see LGBT people of color in a relationship," said Rodriguez. "I never thought about how rare that is in theater, but I couldn't pinpoint another play that did. It's such an important aspect of this; it gave me a focus of what I wanted to explore in other plays. My plan wasn't to make something different; the characters just fell into place as they were."
The 26-year-old multi-threat actor/writer/director, who grew up in California's Inland Empire area, got into writing after a rude rejection from an LA casting director.
"The impetus for writing came my first year after college. I sent a head shot and resume, never got an email back. So I showed up for an audition and said, 'I don't know if you made a mistake.' The casting director said, 'Oh, you're not from LA, we don't need to see you,'" Rodriguez recalled. "I thought, that's so unfair not to be seen because of the way I look. So I started writing with the intention to write for myself."
That was just four short years ago. Since then, he moved to Michigan to teach and has thoroughly entrenched himself in the local theater scene, as well as points farther away.
"Emilio is kind of a star on the rise nationally," said Carla Milarch, Theatre Nova's founding artistic director. "This play is a very moving and poetic piece, and has been picked up by a number of festivals across the country."
"Swimming While Drowning" was recently featured in the Latino Theatre Commons' Carnaval of New Work and Western Michigan University's Activate Midwest Festival. The play landed him a commission with Milagro Theatre in Portland, Oregon and a residency with the Mitten Lab. Additionally, selected poems from the play earned him an inaugural artist-in-residence slot with the University Musical Society last season.
"There are moments of myself in every character and every piece I do," said Rodriguez. "Life experiences that are tweaked and made into a storyline. But personally I've never lived in a homeless shelter and did not have my first kiss at 15. Both of the characters are kicked out by their families for different reasons. For me, that's something I cannot relate to."
Instead, he thinks the idea originates from when he started college at the same time his parents moved away.
"So the idea of having to make a home through my friends in college, making a home out of people around you, subconsciously inspired this specific story – although I would not compare going to college and being homeless."
Rodriguez, who lives in Hamtramck, worked for Teach for America in the Detroit area for two years. He now teaches freelance theater arts classes through organizations such as Matrix Theatre and Living Arts. In addition to writing and directing, he's also been involved in helping to organize various other festivals, including the 2015 Detroit Fringe Theatre Festival, and has taken on the role of literary manager for Theatre Nova.
Rodriguez said that the theater, whose slogan is "Fresh Voices, Hot Plays," had wanted to conduct a new playwrights' festival. On a limited budget, he explained, "We were trying to figure out how to fly out playwrights from out of state. I thought, why not just have the festival for Michigan writers? Festivals in California and Texas have play festivals just for people in those states. With the focus on Michigan writers, we give them opportunities to be produced and seen. We can provide them with resources."
He said the strong submissions received "proved the point I was trying to make – there's so much talent here, it confuses me why more theater companies aren't doing more with local playwrights.
"We have so many people doing things that are our stories, our experiences, things people in other states might not understand. The way we drive everywhere, the way it snows in November and snows in April," he joked. "There are all kinds of stories told from a Michigan experience that Michigan audiences relate to. I hope this festival will facilitate that process of getting other theaters producing local writers."
The first of the two-part festival runs the week of Dec. 8 through Dec. 13, with a combination of readings of full-length plays and fully staged 10-minute plays. The second week will take place sometime next spring.
Among the many featured writers included in week one are veteran Kim Carney and Wilde Award winner Linda Ramsay-Detherage.
Rodriguez also was taken with an offering from Morgan Breon, one of the 10-minute plays, called "Portrait of a Wise Woman." "She's a Detroit actress who trained with Mosaic (Youth Theatre)," Rodriguez said. "She's been doing acting in the area for so long, but people never knew about her writing. I asked her on a whim to be in the Detroit Fringe Festival. She said she had something she wrote when she was 16. I'm excited for people to see it (at Theatre Nova), excited for what it will lead to."
He added, "This festival is important because of that Michigan element, creating a sense of home – ironically, like in my play – between the actors and directors."
Michigan Playwrights' Festival
At the Yellow Barn
416 W. Huron, Ann Arbor
Pay what you can; suggested donation per reading: $10
8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8: An evening of 10-minute plays
8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 9: "Bird" by Kristin Andrea Hanratty
9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10. (after "An Almost British Christmas"): "Lisandra" by Cara Beth Heath
9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11 (after "An Almost British Christmas"): "The Side Effect of Happiness" by Linda Ramsay-Detherage
4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12: "Katherine" by Kim Carney
4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13: "Swimming While Drowning" by Emilio Rodriguez
6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13: Michigan Playwrights' Forum – a community discussion
7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13: Michigan Playwrights' Festival reception (refreshments provided)