Dramaturg and Education Outreach Coordinator Mateo Hernandez discusses the worthwhile experiences and important discoveries made during the touring performances of The Smartest Girl in the World —
The time is 6:30 a.m. on a crisp fall morning in Austin, Texas, and the students enrolled in the Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) Tour course are meeting at the loading dock behind the Winship Drama Building at The University of Texas at Austin: actors in full makeup, stage managers loading the costumes and instruments into the U-Haul truck and everyone double checking that no one on the team overslept. Shortly thereafter we all pack into an assortment of vehicles and make our way to a local Austin elementary school. Once there, we check in at the front office of the school before making our way to the cafeteria to unload the set, costumes, props, television screens and instruments to then transform the fluorescent-lit, school color painted space into a stage for our production of The Smartest Girl in the World by Miriam Gonzales.
Over the last month and a half, students in the TYA Tour course have been touring central Texas every Monday and Wednesday morning from as far north as Killeen and as far south as San Antonio, taking this production directly to students in their own schools. The Smartest Girl in the World is a play about two Mexican American siblings, Lizzy and Leo, who have a plan to use their intelligence to win a trivia game show and then use the earnings to help their hard-working immigrant parents. But when the plan goes awry, Lizzy and Leo learn important lessons about family, perseverance and believing in others’ dreams.
According to Austin ISD, in the 2022-2023 school year, 54.1% of students in the district identified as Hispanic or Latinx, and our production features a majority Latinx cast, including our lead characters, Lizzy and Leo. While touring the play, students were delighted to see actors on stage that look like them and their own families. For many of these students, this show was one of their first encounters with theatre, and so many of them were captivated by the story as well as the magic of our production transforming their own cafeteria or gym into a theatre specifically for them.
The learning standards that govern Texas public schools mandate that all students must be exposed to theatre every school year. For many school districts, this proves to be challenging because of growing costs and shrinking school budgets. Teachers and administrators were elated for us to bring our show to their school – we had so much interest that the entire tour was booked in matter of a couple weeks. When theatre can travel to a school, it makes the arts much more accessible to a wider variety of students who may not have been able to see a play during that school year otherwise. Schools don’t have to pay for buses or worry about permission slips, chaperones and lunches. I might argue that theatre that happens in these unconventional spaces like cafeterias and gymnasiums are even more magical than the shows we see in traditional theatre spaces – our team works even harder to transform that mundane school space into a place for imagination and wonder for those students.
Finally, in the 2022-2023 school year, Austin ISD identified that 51.4% of students in their schools are economically disadvantaged. This play centers the reality of a family in that similar kind of financial situation and makes real the pressures of financial mobility for our young protagonists. Because these situations are highly sensitive and young folks may not even know how to articulate them to their peers, it can often feel isolating – believing that you are the only person dealing with those kinds of pressures at home. Our show plainly presents the reality of this situation on stage and reminds young folks that they, in fact, are not alone.
So, “why tour a play to elementary schools?” The magic of transforming school spaces, the financial obstacles it removes for schools and the greater number of students who can see theatre are just some of the reasons. But I invite you to come watch The Smartest Girl in the World for yourself at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, and then reconsider the question after seeing the play with young folks in the audience. I have a feeling their reactions will tell you all you need to know.
– Written by Mateo Hernandez
After their final touring performance on November 15, The Smartest Girl in the World team will bring the show back to the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre. The play will be open to public audiences for five performances only, November 30-December 3, 2023.