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University of Iowa News Release


May 4, 2009

Saito's Iowa New Play Festival script draws on his work with Mayan youth

Playwright Andrew Saito, a member of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and a Graduate Institute Fellow in the UI Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, will open the 2009 Iowa New Play Festival with "La Lechera" at 5:30 and 9 p.m. Monday, May 4, in the University of Iowa Theatre Building.

The festival runs through Saturday, May 9, with four evening productions and numerous free staged readings. Learn the details at

This play, directed by Sarah Ballema, is the story of Lubia, who is employed as a wet nurse years after leaving her village of El Paraíso. But she is no ordinary wet nurse: Her milk is the sweetest ever tasted, and her suckling is Conroy, the 17-year old son of wealthy parents.

While Conroy breastfeeds and fantasizes about life in the tropical paradise of El Paraíso, his father Laszlo invests in development projects to improve the village. Both men are obsessed with consuming and capitalizing on Lubia's milk, while Madeline, Conroy's mother, would rather see Lubia's lactation run dry.

Saito is the grandson of Japanese, Irish and Austro-Hungarian immigrants, and recurring themes in his plays include humans' destructive relationship with themselves and the natural world, and cross-racial relationships between different communities of color. (Sample his impassioned writing about the environment at

He says that "La Lechera" was particularly inspired by his work with Mayan youth in Guatemala. "I spent nine months during 2003 as a volunteer theater and poetry teacher in remote villages in the region of Ixcan, in the department of El Quiche," he explains.

"Through the ArtCorps program, a nonprofit run out of Massachusetts, I worked regularly in about eight villages, mainly with the children of Mayan men and women who had fled Guatemala to Mexico during the 35-year civil war, during which time the government led genocidal campaigns against the majority indigenous population.

"I was paired with Save the Children, whose mission was to educate youth about their rights under the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of the Child. I used theater and poetry as ways of giving them tools for personal expression and civic engagement.

"During a large conference on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which subsequently was signed into law, and the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), an international economic 'development' plan, I mentored three youth groups in creating and presenting original plays about the potential effects of CAFTA on their villages and lives. CAFTA and the PPP, while never named, play central roles in 'La Lechera.'"

Saito says he is gratified by the ongoing impact of his work in Guatemala: "I was blown away by how many of the youth I taught workshops to blossomed into writers, poets and theatre artists. Simply having an artist there gave these young women and men license to tap into areas of themselves long neglected. During the civil war, when daily physical survival was the most immediate concern, art went essentially unpracticed and untaught for a generation. This is particularly tragic given how central artistry is to Mayan culture and life."

In addition to his work with the Maya, Saito studied the importance of contemporary Zapotec poetry as an advocacy tool for indigenous rights in Oaxaca, Mexico. He has twice collaborated with the Andean theatre company Kusiwasi, first in 2007 on a play about how pollution defaces the sacredness of water, and this past winter on a play about how climate change threatens ceremony and lifestyle in the Urubamba Valley.

He is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied with June Jordan. He became a playwright studying with Cherrie Moraga, and he has worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Asian American Theatre Company and the legendary Peruvian theatre collective Yuyachkani, who taught him to create drama with the following in mind: the actor's body, three-dimensional space, and striking stage images that communicate across language barriers.

A finalist for a Princess Grace Playwriting Award and a Fulbright Fellowship, his work has been supported by Brava Theatre Center, Theatre Bay Area, the Zellerbach Family Foundation and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

Tickets for all the evening productions -- $6 for the general public and $4 for UI students, senior citizens and youth -- will be on sale one hour before each of the performances. Tickets will also be on sale noon to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday of the festival at the Theatre Building box office. Discounted festival packages are also available.

The Iowa New Play Festival began in the 1960s as Critics Week and developed into the more public Iowa Playwrights Festival. The festival's name was changed to the Iowa New Play Festival to stress that the production of new plays was of educational value not only to the playwrights but to all students in the department. Over the years the festival has produced scripts by numerous young playwrights who have gone on to distinguished careers in theater, and it remains the most ambitious college festival of new student theater.

The New Play Festival requires the deployment of all the UI Department of Theatre Arts' resources -- acting, directing, dramaturgy, design, stage management and technical abilities -- to orchestrate an intense and event-packed festival that offers student playwrights the productions and feedback that are essential for their development. At the same time, the festival offers audiences an opportunity to participate in the creation of significant new American theater at the ground level.

Some of the 2009 productions and readings contain material of an adult nature. Potential audience members who are concerned about whether a particular show or reading is appropriate for them should contact the department at 319-335-2700 for additional information.

The Department of Theatre Arts is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

For UI arts information and calendar updates visit To receive UI arts news by e-mail, go to and click the link "Join or Leave ACR News," then follow the instructions.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073 (office), 319-430-1013 (cell), 319-338-4274 (home)