Jozer Guerrero knew long before he’d ever been in a play that he belonged in theatre.
“I wanted to be onstage since I was a kid,” he said. “I was a sophomore in high school before I finally had a drama class or was exposed to that, even though I wanted to do that my whole life. I never had access.”
Then, in high school, Guerrero “got into some trouble.” He said he was expelled from school and then transferred to an alternative program at Inner City Parish’s La Academia. Su Teatro, Denver’s esteemed Chicano performing arts group, was offering a theatre class there — Guerrero’s first. He jumped right in, joining Su Teatro’s adult company within about a month of starting classes.
“I did every single thing possible,” he said. He acted in every show, took every opportunity. He built relationships with his teachers, who let him assist-teach lessons whenever he had a lunch break at school.
Now, he’s come full circle as the associate director Of El Teatro VolARTE, Su Teatro’s youth program for performers aged 6 to 20. The students learn the art of theatre through games, writing exercises and skits. They’ve performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland and won the mayor’s Excellence in Arts & Culture Global Award in 2018. Guerrero visits schools to deliver theatre programming, leads weekly rehearsals and directs new and veteran VolARTE performers in plays.
“I care about every single one of them kids like if they were my own child,” he said. “They all have different learning curves. They all come from very different places. You know, some of them different races, different economic classes. And I think the most important thing that they always learn is that – or, at least, I hope they know – is that whatever situations they’re going through, they can always count on me. And they can always tell me what’s going on.”
Many VolARTE performers, including Guerrero’s 12-year-old son, JT, attend schools that don’t have theatre programs of their own. In raising JT, Guerrero remembered what it was like to not be able to pursue his passions because of lack of access.
“Every time that he wants to try something, I try to make sure that he can,” Guerrero said.
He said he’s not comfortable calling himself a “teacher.” That word assumes a top-down relationship – that the learning only goes one way.
“I’ve always learned from each one of them. They’ve always showed me that they can do what no one thinks they can do,” he said.
Guerrero noted that typically, adult theatre companies have months of daily rehearsals before a show, plus a tech rehearsal. VolARTE’s actors only have three two-hour rehearsals a week.
“Those kids are incredible. And the more that we believe in them, the more that we ask of them, the more that they’ll do,” he said.
When COVID-19 hit, VolARTE’s lessons and rehearsals went online. Suddenly, Guerrero’s students were tasked with acting, doing exercises and creating sketches from their homes.
“They were way more creative than I think any of our adults have been, when it comes to devising work through their own screens from their own homes,” Guerrero said.
But as the months went on, he noticed that some of the students were losing focus and optimism.
“I think I was losing some of them, to be honest with you, during this pandemic. I think after a while, they were like, ‘Well, there’s only so much we can really do.'”
Guerrero said he started to notice attendance dropping. And the Zoom rehearsals also made it harder for him to check in on his students.
“Most of them won’t even turn their cameras on,” he said.
When schools started to open up, Su Teatro began making plans to safely resume in-person performances and rehearsals. This month, about a year after the city shut down for COVID, Su Teatro VolARTE is returning to the stage for its latest production, It’s All Bueno. Directed by Guerrero and performed by middle and high school actors from all over the Denver area, the play will run for two weekends, starting this Friday.
As with other shows Su Teatro has done in the last year, It’s All Bueno will only be available to audiences via streaming. But this time, the cast will perform together in person. It’s the first time in over a year that the performers have all shared a stage.
Written by Sigrid Gilmer, It’s All Bueno follows the story of a family living in Pacoima, one of the oldest barrios in Southern California. A magical tamalero narrates the story, guiding us through a world of “big box stores, scary bus rides, chola picnics, and gangster clown piñata runners,” according to Su Teatro. In the face of struggles, the characters grapple with the concept of upper mobility in the U.S., longing to leave their community behind but unable to do so. Ultimately, they learn to find the good in their community.
Guerrero said the show appealed to him for its humor, but also because it was written with young actors in mind.
“I’ve noticed that there are a lot of shows that are for young audiences,” he said. “However, not a lot of the shows include young actors.”
He also appreciated the community focus of the show, which aligns with Su Teatro’s mission and values. Guerrero said the company has been working to virtually maintain the sense of community Su Teatro offers and which so many have been missing lately.
“We wanted to continue to remind folks that this community is going to be here and that we’re almost there,” he said.
Guerrero said another reason they chose It’s All Bueno was that it follows a few different story lines, allowing the cast to be separated into groups and spaced out across the stage. He said most of the kids in the cast are related to each other in some way, so they could divide acting groups up by family or household. The company also built platforms to create even more distance between groups, and are micing the actors to make up for the fact that they’ll all be wearing masks.
“I think the main thing is, with our kiddos, they have a hard time, like, not trying to hug each other, right? And like, punch each other… rough house and things like that,” Guerrero said. “So we’ve got to keep reminding them to give themselves some space and distance.”
Guerrero’s son JT plays the character “Low” in the play. He’s in seventh grade and said his school is now doing a hybrid approach to learning – two days in-person, three online.
There aren’t a lot of afterschool activities. He said his school doesn’t have a theatre program, but because of his dad, he basically grew up in the theatre, going to Su Teatro plays since before he could remember.
“I’ve been doing shows for, like, half my life,” since he was 5 or 6 years old, JT said.
“I think he sees it as a family,” Guerrero said. “A lot of those kids, they’re all similar ages, and they all have grown up together. It’s really interesting and unique to see that. You know, these friendships that are kind of built in theatre, I think, are often the ones that last.”
Like JT, many VolARTE kids are Su Teatro company members’ children or have been in the company for years. They have a passion for being onstage. Guerrero said theatre can be an incredibly fulfilling experience for kids: rehearsing for months, putting on two weekends of shows for an audience and being met with applause. Since COVID began, theatre kids have been stripped of one of the things they love the most.
“Because of the pandemic, I think all of them were feeling a bit overwhelmed. And they felt like they didn’t really have anything to do, or any really creative outlet,” he said. “For some of these young people, their life is kind of surrounded around being onstage, and they’ve gotten that taken away from them for so long. And I’m sure it was frustrating for some of them to see athletes getting back into that, and being given the opportunity to play sports.”
JT said the two in-person rehearsals they’ve had were also the first time he had seen some of his theatre friends in over a year.
“I just kind of missed being there with all those people,” he said. “I feel like it’s a very good place to be around, and good people to be around, because they’re all loving. And they love the same thing as you, and they love theater. And I feel like just staying away from that for a year is kind of hard.”
He said rehearsals have been a bit “weird”- that it was good to be together again, and definitely better than seeing people online, but it wasn’t quite the same.
“It’s just kind of funny to see everybody else and to see how much they’ve kind of changed,” JT said.
He was surprised to see that some of his castmates were 5 inches taller than when he’d last seen them – something you can’t really pick up on from a year of only seeing someone’s face on Zoom.
JT said the two in-person rehearsals for It’s All Bueno were the first time he’d been on a stage since before the pandemic.
“I’m kind of nervous because I haven’t done this in, like, a year,” JT said. “But I feel like my dad and all the people at the theatre are ready. And we’re ready.”
The show premieres Friday. Guerrero says he’s excited for people to see the work the actors have put into the show.
“I just hope folks come in and watch it and support youth theater. I think oftentimes, people think that youth theater is less-than-good theater, or is less worthy,” Guerrero said. “Hopefully folks take youth theater a little bit more seriously. Kids ain’t no joke. And you can watch for yourself so that you can experience the future of theater in our city.”
Tickets to It’s All Bueno are free.
Friday, March 12, at 6:30 p.m. (Invited Preview only.)
Saturday, March 13, at 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 20, at 4:30 p.m.
Sunday March 21, at 1 p.m.