A conversation with Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber and Dean Khristina Gonzalez follows the November 6 matinee
The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Programs in Theater and Music Theater at Princeton University presents two musicals that give voice to the experiences of Princeton students who are from immigrant families and the first in their families to attend college. Early Decision by Adam Gwon and Late Bloomer by Jaime Lozano and Georgie Castilla are directed by faculty member Elena Araoz. Performances are November 5, 11, 12 and 13 at 8:00 p.m. and November 6 at 3:00 and 8:00 p.m. in the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center on the Princeton campus. A conversation with Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber and Associate Dean of the College and Director of Programs for Access and Inclusion Khristina Gonzalez on the themes of access and inclusion amplified in the musicals will immediately follow the November 6 performance, starting at 4:00 p.m. All performances on November 5 and 6 and the conversation will be open captioned.
Early Decision follows Owen, an Asian American high school senior, and his friends, who are caught up in the stress of college applications. When celebrating his acceptance into Princeton, what seems like a small mistake has huge impacts on his immigrant family. Early Decision was commissioned by McCarter Theatre as part of “The Migration Plays” project in 2019. McCarter partnered with Princeton’s Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) to commission five theater artists to write short plays inspired by the research and programming of the PIIRS research cohort, “Migration: People and Cultures Across Borders.” Those artists engaged with the migrations cohort to create pieces that explored the nature of migration, how it is represented culturally and the ways in which it shapes the world. The new plays received a staged reading at McCarter directed by Araoz.
Gwon is a playwright, composer and lyricist whose musicals have received more than 200 productions worldwide, including at Roundabout Theatre, Signature Theatre, South Coast Repertory and Trafalgar Studios. His songs have been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center, by such artists as Audra McDonald, Kelli O’Hara, and Brian d’Arcy James. His honors include the Kleban Award, Fred Ebb Award, Richard Rodgers Award, Loewe Award, and ASCAP Harold Adamson Award. He has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the Dramatists Guild. Gwon will teach in the Program in Theater at Princeton this spring.
Araoz wanted to mount a full production of Early Decision as part of the Lewis Center’s theater season. As a companion piece, the Lewis Center commissioned Lozano and Castilla to create a second short musical, through the Center’s Roger S. Berlind Playwrights-in-Residence Fund. During the initial stages of creating this new work, Eisgruber selected the Class of 2025 pre-read, a book chosen each year to be read by the incoming class. Serendipitously, the pre-read choice, Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility by Jennifer M. Morton, had a direct link to the project. Araoz provided the book to the two writers as background inspiration for the new musical. Late Bloomer also draws from interviews with two recent alumni, who were first-generation (first in their family to attend college) and from immigrant families, and from the writers’ own experiences.
Lozano is a musical theater composer, arranger, director/music director, and orchestrator who has been heralded as the “next big thing” on Broadway by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda wrote the liner notes for Lozano’s 2020 album, Jamie Lozano & The Familia: Songs by an Immigrant. His musicals have been produced on Broadway, off-Broadway, at regional theaters throughout the U.S. and in Europe and his native Mexico. He is currently a voting member of the Latin Grammy and Grammy Awards.
Castilla, who wrote the lyrics for Late Bloomer, collaborated with Lozano on the song “Castles in the Sky” from the Songs by an Immigrant album. He is a New Jersey/New York City-based lyricist, production designer, and costume designer for film and theater, and a freelance comic artist and illustrator. Born and raised in Yucatán, Mexico, he is an active artist in the Latinx community. His work in musical theater has been published by Broadway Records, and he has collaborated with companies such as Teatro SEA, Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, IATI, and Repertorio Español, among others. He is also a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee.
The two musicals help to tell aspects of the story of the Princeton student community that are not readily heard, and stories that have not necessarily appeared frequently on Princeton’s stages.
“Having been a first-generation college student myself,” said Araoz, “I’m thrilled that these musicals dissect a few of the unique challenges faced by some of our Princeton University first-gen students. The production applauds the impacts, not just of a Princeton education on our students, but the wonderful influences our FLI (first-generation, low-income) students have on our campus and larger communities. With these two new musicals, the Programs in Theater and Music Theater, which I see as campus culture makers, are actively celebrating a wide breadth of our student experience.”
Striving for greater inclusion in the Theater Program, Araoz, who serves in the new role of producing artistic director of the Programs in Theater and Music Theater season, and Program Director Jane Cox reinvented the audition process. Try on Theater Days, the name of the new effort, focuses on an open-door, no-experience-necessary casting process, which dismantles the hierarchy between performers and show directors, by utilizing theater games, group exercises and workshops for interested and curious students. Through observing at these multi-evening events and discussions, show directors and project leaders invite students to be part of their productions as performers, designers, or production staff. Following the first Try on Theater Days event, two students quickly approached Araoz saying this project told their story and, while they did not already have a great deal of theater experience, they were interested, and Araoz was struck by their strong inherent performance abilities. Both will appear in the production.
Araoz teaches courses in acting, directing and theater making at Princeton. As a director of theater, opera and multimedia performance, as well as a writer and actor, she works internationally, Off-Broadway and across the country. The Latinx Theatre Commons named her creation of Two Arms and a Noise, a physical theater piece about the life of an indigenous Peruvian woman, as one of “thirty-six plays and writers that everyone should know;” the piece most recently played in Bucharest, Romania. The New York Times has praised Araoz’s productions as “striking, primal, wild, stirring, and refreshingly natural; The Boston Globe as “riveting, dreamy, and vivid;” and The New Yorker as “refreshing.” Time Out New York notes, “Elena Araoz is a director with deep wells of imagination; she seems drawn to magical realist work.” During the pandemic she has been on the frontier of virtual live theatre, having conceived and directed the interactive website experience The Manic Monologues with McCarter Theatre Center, which was nominated for a 2021 Drama League Award. She also directed the acclaimed premieres of the operas Alice in the Pandemic and A Survivor’s Odyssey (White Snake Projects), the first virtual operas to live-sync singers from remote locations, blended with CGI and facial motion capture, prompting The Wall Street Journal to note “Under Elena Araoz’s direction…a remarkable new environment for operatic experimentation.” Her virtual production of Virginia Grise’s a farm for meme was dubbed by The New York Times as “form-busting” for its unique combination of “box puppets, shadow play, live film and archival footage into a gorgeous mise-en-scène that feels theatrical in its purposefully homemade aesthetic.” At Princeton, she founded and leads the research project Innovations in Socially Distant Performance, which studies the aesthetics, philosophies, tools, and artists who are transforming the fields of virtual live performance and socially distant productions. The project is being archived by the Library of Congress and recently received a grant through Princeton’s Innovation Forum for the next phase of development: creating a performer-audience feedback loop during virtual performance.
Joining Araoz on the professional production team are Mila Henry and Vince di Mura as music directors, Dina El-Aziz as costume designer, Nathan Leigh as sound designer, and Minjae Kim (Princeton Class of 2021) as stage manager. Senior Isabella Hilditch is designing the versatile set as her senior independent work. Students in production roles include Reed Leventis as lighting designer and Lev Ricanati and Felix Chen as assistant stage managers.
The cast, some of whom are performing roles in both musicals, includes Julien Alam, Emily Cruz, Andrew Duke, Matthew Gancayco, Sydney Hwang, Raquel Ramirez, John Venegas Juarez, and Aaron Vetresca.
In addition to funding from the Roger S. Berlind Playwrights-in-Residence Fund, the production is supported through the Lewis Center’s Alex Adam ’07 Award Fund, established in memory of Alexander Jay Adam ’07 by his family. A gifted student, Adam’s artistic interests focused on creative writing and theater.
Both shows together run 60 minutes with a brief break in between.
The Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center is an accessible venue; review McCarter Theatre accessibility details. The performances on November 5 and 6, including the conversation with Eisgruber and Gonzalez, will be open-captioned. Assistive listening devices are available upon request when attending a performance. Patrons in need of other access accommodations are invited to contact the Lewis Center at LewisCtr-Comm@princeton.edu for assistance at least one week prior to the selected performance.
Tickets are $12 in advance, $17 purchased the day of performances, and $10 for students at McCarter Box Office. Purchase tickets through McCarter or by calling 609-258-2787. Each ticket for each person attending must be reserved through a separate online transaction (however one person can submit multiple transactions on behalf of different attendees). All guests are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, to wear a mask when indoors, and to show proof of vaccination and a photo ID at the door (Princeton students, faculty and staff only need to show their PU ID card); children under 12 are not permitted in campus buildings as they are not currently able to be vaccinated.
To learn more about this event, the Programs in Theater and Music Theater, and the over 100 performances, exhibitions, readings, screenings, concerts, and lectures presented each year at the Lewis Center, most of them free, visit arts.princeton.edu.