Alumna's Original Play Read at Kennedy Center Festival

Cristina Ibarra (C'17) appears on stage alongside Maddy Rice (standing in background) in a 2016 Department of Performing Arts production of Anon(ymous).
Cristina Ibarra (C'17) appears on stage alongside Maddy Rice (C'20) in a 2016 Department of Performing Arts production of Anon(ymous). Ibarra's own play, Landas, was read at the Kennedy Center last month. (Photo: Department of Performing Arts)

October 5, 2017 — How do you get to Carnegie Hall — or, in this case, the Kennedy Center? Practice, as the old joke goes.

Cristina Maninang Ibarra (C’17) took a more circuitous path. But her journey nonetheless brought her to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts last month, where her original play Landas was read in the annual Page-to-Stage New Play Festival.

The College caught up with Ibarra to discuss playwriting, family history, philosophy, and her experience on the Hilltop.

FINDING GEORGETOWN

Born to a Filipino immigrant family in San Francisco, Ibarra excelled at field hockey in high school and was eventually recruited to play at the college level. She accepted an offer from Mount Holyoke College, but soon discovered that her interest in theater had eclipsed her love for the game. During her sophomore year at Mount Holyoke, she began to explore options to transfer somewhere that better reflected her interests. Georgetown rose to the top of the list.

“I wanted something that was close to a city or in a city and had a strong liberal arts program,” Ibarra said. “I knew the top Jesuit school in the country would promise that, and I feel very lucky that it fulfilled that promise.”

Her feelings proved accurate. Ibarra quickly immersed herself in philosophy classes and student theater. She planned to major in philosophy and minor in theater and performance studies, until she realized that she’d need to upgrade her minor to a major in order to write a play as her thesis. So, even with only two years to pack in the necessary classes, she elected to double-major.

Ibarra had never actually written a play before, but she had an idea of the type of story she wanted to tell.

“I was cast in a Nomadic Theatre play in a role that I could kind of tell was originally written for a white person,” she said. “I was grateful for the opportunity, but it got me thinking about the status of actors of color. I decided that I wanted to create a play with roles specifically for Filipino actors.”

AN UNINTENTIONAL MEMOIR

Working with Professors Maya Roth, Soyica Diggs Colbert, Christine Evans, Deb Sivigny, and Natsu Onoda Power, Ibarra drew heavily on both her family history and the philosophical questions she had explored in college classrooms to tell a story about immigration, identity, and the search for meaning in modern life. She decided to adapt her mother’s experience moving to the United States while leaving a brother home in the Philippines.

“It’s definitely a family memoir, though I didn’t intend for it to be originally,” Ibarra said. “I wanted to write something about the experience of Filipino immigrant women, and I wanted to explore the complexity of immigrant identity and fulfillment. I had taken an existentialism class, and I soon found out that my mom had been asking a lot of the same questions we had talked about.”

As she conducted extensive research for the play — “It’s a thesis, after all!” — Ibarra stumbled upon a treasure trove of material in the diaries her uncle kept before his death in 2008. These would become the direct source material for the character of the brother in her play.

After months of classwork, research, writing and editing, Landas — from the Tagalog word meaning “paths” — was born.

STANDING ROOM ONLY

Ibarra graduated this past May, and her path brought her to a job at a global investment firm — by day, at least. At night, she kept involved with the theater, working with the Laboratory for Global Performance & Politics and continuing work on her own play.

In June, she received the big news: Landas had been accepted to the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival, where theaters from across the country are invited to put on readings of works in progress.

 A “reading” of a play can comprise a wide spectrum of performances, from a stripped-down stage with stationary actors in street clothes to a full-blown dress rehearsal. Landas fell somewhere in the middle. While set design was minimal, the actors did do some physical acting, and sound designers pumped in the psychedelic rock music that complements the Philippines-set portion of the story.

Turnout for the reading, which featured a majority-Filipino cast, was better than Ibarra could have expected: A sold-out house, with some attendees sitting in the aisles, and a standing ovation at the conclusion of the show. Perhaps most importantly, it drew rave reviews from Ibarra’s mother and sister.

“They thought it was hilarious, but they were crying the whole time,” Ibarra said.

PLAYING REAL PEOPLE

Ibarra credits her undergraduate experience at Georgetown with helping her develop as a playwright.

“Georgetown’s theater program doesn’t treat it like a pre-professional acting program — there’s more of a liberal arts angle,” she said. “When you act, you’re playing real people. When you’re in an acting program and you’re only around theater folks, you start to act like them, as opposed to acting like real people — scientists, writers, SFS folks. Georgetown gave me that well-rounded education.”

Landas is, like the rest of the submissions in the Page-to-Stage New Play Festival, a work still open to editing. Feedback from the Festival will help her complete a final draft of the play, which she hopes to send out to theaters and place in anthologies with the help of her advisors from the Hilltop.

“I’m just really glad it touched people the way that it did,” Ibarra said.

—Patrick Curran