Early in Tito Livas’ new play, Squeak, the main character tells the audience emphatically that they have a very active brain. “Sometimes I can’t control what I do or what I say because there’s SO MUCH GOING ON IN HERE and my feelings can be pretty big,” Squeak says. When Squeak feels overwhelmed, they imagine blowing out candles or other forms of breathing exercise. “Then I need to be a dragon and do dragon breaths to show them who’s boss,” Squeak explains, while inviting the audience to do dragon breaths with them.
Written primarily for audiences ranging in age from kindergarten through third grade but also containing a clear message for adults about the wisdom of patience and empathy, Squeak is the main attraction for the 11th annual Free Elementary School Tour (FEST), which is produced by Plan-B Theatre.
The 25-minute play will receive its public premiere Saturday, Sept. 9, at 11 a.m., as a Ring Around The Rose offering, sponsored by Repertory Dance Theatre. Tickets are available at a nominal price for the shpw, which will be presented at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. There also is a free, public performance slated for Oct. 14 at 2 p.m. in the Chapman Branch of the Salt Lake City Public Library.
Squeak will be available for performances in schools throughout Utah during the 2023-24 academic year. Directed by Jerry Rapier, the play features two actors: one who plays Squeak and the other who takes on various roles including the parent and teacher as well as Squeak’s classmates, Squish and Squawk.
Every year, Plan-B’s FEST production introduces a creative platform for learning about an issue or subject that is relevant to the lives of school-age children and to their relationships. Last year, Ballet for Aliens (written by then ninth grader Gerard Hernandez and then tenth grader Oliver Kokai-Means, along with playwright Jennifer Kokai) was a marvelously inventive outlet to introduce children in grades 4-6 about Crohn’s disease.
“Jerry [Rapier] said that he wanted me to write the play for this year’s school tour because he believed that I could write for a kid audience,” Livas says in an interview with The Utah Review. There were several options Livas considered. He and his husband (Doug Smeath-Livas) are the parents of two boys. Three years ago, Livas, who now has written three short plays as a member of Plan-B’s Theatre Artists of Color Writing Workshop, penned the short play Shine A Light. It was inspired by his then three-year-old son’s curiosity for their “urban homestead, wherein we have geese, chickens, ponds with fish, a vegetable garden, flower gardens, and plenty of landscaping.”
As noted then in The Utah Review, Livas wanted to play off his young son’s incessant curiosity. “I am constantly outside working in the dirt and quite often, he is right by my side asking questions about everything he sees, which includes roly polies, worms, bees, ants, etc.,” he explained at the time. Incidentally, the play was commissioned for the Play at Home initiative and part of the COVID-19 Response Collection, which is housed in the U.S. Library of Congress.
For Squeak, Livas turned to an experience that was very fresh in his mind about neurodiversity and the challenges that one of his sons faced when he was in kindergarten and who had been just diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
“His school was not able to really work with him and he was still too young to be on medication,” Livas says. In Squeak, he references some of his son’s actual experiences such as pinching the teacher or wandering the halls by himself because he could not focus in the classroom.
Livas said the writing process did not come easily at first “but once I had the scenarios that were important in communicating how to listen to and understand what is happening with Squeak, the writing became very easy.”
As noted regularly in The Utah Review’s coverage of Plan-B’s FEST offerings, children are honest, straightforward critics, who appreciate characters and stories that treat their experiences and feelings seriously. But, the plays also have plenty of takeaways for their parents and teachers.
“It is an opportunity to show why having a little more humanity is good for adults to find the patience and understanding in raising their kids,” he says. And, it becomes a good story to teach children about empathy and how that fits in with making friends in and out of school, even if they think a kid seems weird at first to them.
Livas says that his son is now in a different school that fits with the desired environment of empathy and good communication which illuminates Squeak. He is now old enough to be on medication in proper doses for a kid of his age. When Livas sat in on a script reading with the cast and director that was conducted on Zoom, his son also watched the performance, reacting and laughing throughout it. Livas knew then that the play had found the right wavelength, without needing to talk down either to kids or adults in the audience.
Per usual, the Squeak study guide, which accompanies the FEST program, is a great example of intersecting opportunities for learning about neurodiversity, along with the creative arts. The guide includes examples of individuals such as Dr. Temple Grandin, a world-renowned scientist and writer, who was one of the first to publicly share her experiences with autism and Satoshi Tajiri (autism), who created the Pokémon video game. Other examples are Olympic gymnast Simone Biles (ADHD), boxing legend Muhammad Ali (dyslexia) and singer-songwriter Billie Eilish (Tourette’s syndrome).
Each Utah school, which participates in bringing FEST performances to students, will receive a copy of All My Stripes: A Story for Children with Autism (2014, Magination Press) by Shaina Rudolph and Danielle Royer and illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin. The book is about a zebra who processes the world differently from his peers in the classroom. The guide includes suggestions about how teachers might incorporate the story into their classroom activities.
The production will feature two casts in rotation: Alec Kalled and Taylor Wallace and Wendy “Joe” Joseph and Niki Rahimi. Occasionally, actors from both casts will perform together, respectively.
Other production team members include Arika Schockmel, designer; Kallie Filanda, tour manager; Penny Caywood, education liaison; Sharah Meservy, education coordinator who also will introduce performances as well as moderate the talkback after each show. Show art is provided by Aaron Asano Swenson.