FORT PIERCE — Five Indian River State College (IRSC) theatre students have been invited to perform a scene from “Labyrinth of Love” at the world-renowned Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival next month. Three of those students, based on their performances in the play, also have been nominated to compete for a prestigious Kennedy Center acting award.
Aileen Diaz, Julius Morano, Dillon Faustin, Nalanie Ruiz and Eric Howard will join Alex Kanter, IRSC’s Master Instructor of Performing and Visual Arts, at the Region IV Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival held Feb. 6-10 at Albany State University in Albany, Georgia.
Aileen Diaz also is one of the four IRSC English students who translated the play, written by 17th Century Mexican playwright Sister Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, from Spanish to English. The translated work had its world premiere last October, opening the College’s 2023-2024 Performing Arts Season.
The festival — which involves 18,000 students each year — is the standard for recognizing college theater works around the nation. Kanter invited two adjudicators from the festival to see the play last fall. On Dec. 14, he learned that the play had been selected as one of four semi-finalists, earning an invitation to present the play at the Region IV Festival.
“To be recognized by the Kennedy Center is the gift-wrapped bow tied on this special project,” Kanter said. “The validation of such a prestigious national organization further demonstrates just how important this work is. The semi-finalists usually are students from BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) programs, Conservatory programs, and larger schools with lots of funding — the big theatre schools. For a community college to be at that level is a great honor.”
Translating and adapting the play for the IRSC stage took two years and was made possible with the help of a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Kanter used some of that money to hire a stage combat choreographer and professional wig maker to train the students during rigorous rehearsals.
Bringing the entire production to the Region IV festival would be too cumbersome and costly for a theatre program with the staff and operational budgets of a school the size of IRSC, Kanter said. However, festival organizers instead invited the College to bring enough actors and costumes to perform one scene from the play during the festival’s closing night gala. Kanter chose a scene that centers on a costumed royal masquerade ball that erupts into swordplay—as well as some clever wordplay.
Aileen Diaz lives in Vero Beach. She plays Princess Ariadna in that scene, and is joined by Julius Morano, of Port St. Lucie, as Prince Bacchus. Dillon Faustin hails from Cutler Bay near Miami and portrays Prince Theseus. Nalanie Ruiz, also from Port St. Lucie, plays Princess Phaedra, and Eric Howard, from Fort Pierce, plays Tuna.
For the annual festival, the country’s colleges and universities are divided into eight regions. IRSC is in Region IV, which includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The festival project focuses on the 32 best plays of the year — four from each region. “The Labyrinth of Love” was among the four semi-finalists chosen for inclusion in the Region IV festival in Albany, Georgia.
Each of the eight regional festivals, held during January and February, includes professional development workshops and other events for the hundreds of college theatre faculty and students in attendance. After the four semi-finalist plays are performed, the actors, directors and faculty members get feedback on their theatrical work from faculty from schools with many of the country’s best theatre programs, Kanter said. “Those feedback sessions are some of the most meaningful experiences of the entire process,” he said. “It really touches the students and provides a profound impact on them.”
The finalists from each of the eight regional festivals advance to the National Festival in April at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The adjudicators who selected “Labyrinth of Love” as a semi-finalist for the festival told Kanter and his students that it was exciting to see an English adaptation of de la Cruz’s play. “They felt sure that other colleges will want to eat this up and perform it, too,” Kanter said. Which is exactly what he was hoping for when he applied for the N.E.A. grant, he said. “They also were impressed that it was essentially a world-premiere of a work translated by students and that it had a diversity component to it,” Kanter added. “It’s a unique piece that is very much of interest to college theatres.”
Three actors from the play—Aileen Diaz, Nalanie Ruiz and Eric Howard — also have been nominated by the adjudicators to compete for Irene Ryan Acting Scholarships. This competition, coordinated by the Kennedy Center and named after the stage, screen, radio and television actress perhaps best known for portraying Granny on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” awards 16 regional scholarships and two national scholarships each year. Winning is a prestigious honor, Kanter said. Previous national scholarship winners routinely go on to success on Broadway or regional theatre and other lofty pursuits, he said. “These are very good actors.”
Dias, Ruiz and Howard each will record themselves performing two contrasting monologues and submit them for judging online in the preliminary round of the competition. “This is the training. This is the part where they have to demonstrate what it takes to succeed as an actor,” Kanter said. “Show that they are going to put the prep time in to make it happen.”
A jury then reviews the online submissions from all the nominees and selects the actors they like the best. Those actors will perform the same monologue live at the regional festival, plus they will be required to perform one scene with another actor, up to five minutes long. Because IRSC has three nominees, they have to prepare multiple scenes, so they are ready for any eventuality, Kanter said.
“It is a lot of work. This is, ‘If you want this, you have to put in the grit. You have to put in the time and the energy.’ That is the real world of theatre,” he said. “These three actors happen to be very dedicated, and I am happy to be working with them.”
If one or more of the IRSC nominees are selected as finalists in February, they will be invited to compete for top honors at the national festival in April in D.C. Judges will narrow the finalists to just two winners—one male and one female.
“Even just being nominated is recognition that they have done great work. And that can never be taken away,” Kanter said.
The 2023-2024 Performing Arts season at IRSC continues with Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist comedy “Rhinoceros” on Feb 1-4. Tickets may be ordered by email, in person at the Box Office or by calling 772-462-4750 (toll-free at 1-800-220-9915). For the full schedule and ticket information, visit https://irsc.edu/student-life/arts-and-culture.html.