Coming of age onstage
Professional theater artists come to their careers from many different motivations. The lack of drawing skill and talent is at least partially responsible for steering Alvaro Saar Rios toward the stage when he thought he was headed for a career in medicine.
If he were wearing a lab coat today, we wouldn't be seeing "One Hot Texican Summer," his one-man show being staged this weekend at the Walker's Point Center for the Arts. The 80-minute piece features the Houston native telling stories about the summer he was 7 and the life lessons he learned then.
Although Saar Rios' childhood neighbors were mostly Mexican-American, the people who lived closest to his house were white. "They were the leftovers from white flight," he recently recalled. Little Alvaro didn't realize he wasn't just like them until that 1983 summer when he was 7.
Saar Rios' parents were born in the U.S., and his family was well assimilated into Houston. That made him wonder why his father always listened to ranchera music on the car radio. He asked his older brother Trevor -- "a very Latino name," Alvaro quipped with irony -- about their dad's musical tastes.
"He listens to it because we're Mexicans," Trevor replied. The answer left the younger boy thunderstruck. Alvaro was accustomed to hearing the word Mexican used as a pejorative, often accompanied by "dirty" or "lazy."
That summer also introduced the boy to hurricanes. No wonder he is still talking about it 28 years later.
Like many young men, Saar Rios wasn't sure what he wanted from life after graduating from high school, so he joined the Army. "If I'm 18 and in the military, I'm going to do the coolest thing in the world. I'm going to drive a tank," he said.
After completing his military commitment, Saar Rios enrolled at Houston Community College with the eventual goal of putting an M.D. behind his name. Faced with a choice of taking a visual arts or acting class to fulfill an arts requirement, he took the latter. "I couldn't draw for crap," he explained.
"None of my friends were actors or into theater but I thought I would see what it was about," Saar Rios continued. He quickly liked what he saw.
"I discovered you had license to not be yourself." So different from the military way of life, the young Army veteran was drawn to that. "I could express myself, and you definitely don't do that in the military."
Saar Rios moved on to the University of Houston, and he gravitated to writing. His first play was commissioned by a children's theater program at his old community college while he was working on an English degree in creative writing.
After graduation, the former tank driver was accepted by Edward Albee into the dramatist's prestigious play writing class at the University of Houston. Saar Rios subsequently received a masters of fine arts in writing for stage and screen from Northwestern University, and he moved to Milwaukee when his wife, Michelle Lopez-Rios, took a job as assistant professor of voice and speech in the UWM theater department. He teaches part time -- play analysis and introduction to theater -- there.
While in Houston the couple and three other theater artists formed the Royal Mexican Players. The group's name is a tongue-in-cheek deference to England's Royal Shakespeare Company and other classical theaters.
The Royal Mexicans mounted Saar Rios' "The Crazy Mexican Show," a five actor piece that he compares to "Saturday Night Live" sketches. The company toured "Crazy" around the country for two years, and a production of it was staged in New York at the famous Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
"One Hot Texican Summer" is being produced here under the Royal Mexicans banner, and tickets can be purchased on their website. Performances are tonight through Saturday.
Looking ahead, Saar Rios expects to be seen only in his original works. "I consider myself a performer, not an actor," he said. "I am primarily a writer, but I will get onstage at times.
"I know I can do my work well; I'm not sure I can do the Danish prince."
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