Su Teatro's El Espíritu Natural Tells Us "The Earth Is Good; We Need It to Survive"

Lauren Michelle Long and Adriana Gonzales begin their quest to save the planet and their family's history in El Espíritu Natural.
Lauren Michelle Long and Adriana Gonzales begin their quest to save the planet and their family's history in El Espíritu Natural. Courtesy of Su Teatro
As Tony Garcia, executive artistic director of Su Teatro, prepares to kick off the second half of the theater's two-year celebration of its fiftieth anniversary with El Espíritu Natural, he reflects on the legacy of the institution.

Garcia is proud of the more than forty original works his company has produced since 1972, highlighting the Chicano community's cultural heritage; plus, Su Teatro paid off its mortgage this year and now has a permanent home after starting out with guerrilla works on the street. To celebrate the theater's history, the organization is revisiting plays from its archives.

"One of the things we’ve learned in the fifty years of this is that people find real value in revisiting older productions," Garcia says. "We recently did a reading of Ludlow: El Grito de las Minas, a play we did about a mining strike that had its first production in 1992, and the audience was asking when we were going to stage it again. That just speaks to the quality of the body of work that's been developed here, and how influential it has been on the theater canon. It means there's a lot of vibrancy in the issues we're still working our way through."

The first play of Su Teatro's 2023 season, El Espíritu Natural, was originally written as three separate plays for the company's touring children's theater program. This brand-new play combines the tales of El Rio: Las Lagrimas de la Llorona, La Tierra: The Mystery of the Three Sisters and Ehecatl: The Wind of Creation into a single narrative about the sisters NeldaRio and NitaLuna as they learn the value of nature.

Written by Garcia, the episodic narrative follows the sisters as they attempt to save the world from "the Absence." The sisters must work together to preserve their traditions while still making it back in time to celebrate their soon-to-be centenarian aunt’s birthday party.
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Angel Mendez-Soto in Su Teatro's production of El Espíritu Natural.
Courtesy of Su Teatro
"Memory is a huge part of it, and that message is clearly for the younger one," Garcia says. "There are all these historical memories and cultural traditions around us, but we don’t know them or acknowledge them. This play reminds people that we have a responsibility to teach the next generation our memories. Our ancestors have always tried to give us the tools to survive, and if we ignore them, then we're turning our back on their greatest gifts. It sounds heavy, but it’s very simple: Turn the lights and water off. Do basic things to respect the planet, because it’s in your interest to survive."

El Espíritu Natural draws from Indigenous mythology and folklore to bring awareness to climate change. The play also connects to Su Teatro's overarching theme for its fiftieth season, which is centered on the importance of community and the need to remember the stories of Chicano communities.

"It's not just about preserving history, but distributing and presenting it," Garcia says. "Don’t hold on to it because it’s old; hold on to the traditions if they have value and help you move forward. Like the earth, I think valuing her is a good value to hold on to. ... The earth is good; we need it to survive. That's the core of the play."

Along with themes about protecting the planet, the narrative also delves into family dynamics. While writing the script, Garcia illustrated a realistic bond between siblings by drawing from his own experience as both an older and younger brother between two families.
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Lauren Michelle Long and Adriana Gonzales star as sisters in El Espíritu Natural.
Courtesy of Su Teatro
Although the story's conflict revolves around keeping ancestral memories alive, what moves the narrative forward and the issues that are resolved are both familial. The focus on family is what attracted Adriana Gonzales, who plays NeldaRio and works on community engagement and outreach at Su Teatro, to the project.

"I was drawn to this show specifically because it’s about sisterhood and sisters," Gonzales says. "I’m the oldest of five siblings, so I know what it’s like to be a sister. It’s a really cool story about honoring your traditions and protecting your family to protect the earth."

The role of NeldaRio presented Gonzales with an interesting challenge, as the character is a middle sister; Gonzales is the eldest sister in her family. To prepare for the role, Gonzales sought to learn more about being the middle sibling and the struggles they face.

"NeldaRio is the middle of three sisters, and the oldest sister just went away for college," Gonzales says. "I have been an older sister in real life, so that wasn't difficult, but playing the younger aspects of the character was really challenging. [My character] has to learn the importance of the earth and evaluate her relationship with her loved ones in order to move the community forward and save the planet. Even though the play was created eight years ago, it still feels really relevant today."

Along with Gonzales, Su Teatro has assembled a diverse mixture of "super veteranos" (veteran company members) and fresh faces to star in El Espíritu Natural. Longtime performers Debra Gallegos and Angel Mendez-Soto play the 99-year-old Tia Sofia and her much younger brother, the 97-year-old Tio Beto, respectively.
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Angel Mendez-Soto and Debra Gallegos sit around the table during a scene in Su Teatro's El Espíritu Natural.
Courtesy of Su Teatro

Newcomer Lauren Michelle Long stars opposite Gonzales as her younger sister, NitaLuna. Rounding out the cast in multiple roles are Natalie Fuentes, a versatile actress who recently appeared in Su Teatro's production Promise on the Hill: A West Colfax Memory, and Juan Madrid, whom the company is excited for audiences to see on stage in his first year in the community from Texas.

"Working with the cast has been a delight," Gonzales says. "We have Debra and Angel in the production, who are just pillars in Su Teatro's history. Getting to share the stage with them is incredible, because they have years of wisdom, and their characters are so fun on stage in this familial relationship. And Lauren has been so giving throughout the process; I love playing her sister."

Garcia has worked with the actors throughout the rehearsal process to fine-tune the script and is having a blast playing with the episodic nature of the production. "You can almost imagine it like when you're watching Netflix, and the little circle thing appears before it goes to the next episode," Garcia says. "Just as you think one thing is about to be resolved, another monster comes along."

Until the curtain rises on opening night, the show remains in a sort of editing process, with Garcia changing lines to make scenes make more sense and better connect references from earlier sequences.

"This version of the script was written over a process that started in January, and a lot of the actors were involved," Garcia says. "I’m one of those guys who can just do really long periods of writing or spend only a few hours and really get it moving along. If I went into the drive, I would do more edits now. It’s never perfect, and I am constantly thinking, ‘I should have said this or done that more clearly,’ so it’s always in an editing process. As we've been working, we kept trimming and made some big cuts, because this is for families — they aren't going to sit through a show that's too long."

To execute the script's numerous special effects, Garcia is working with Arnold King, the technical director in charge of building the lighting, sound, video and special effects; Steve Nash, the set designer, head of construction and Su Teatro's facilities manager; Camilo Luera, the assistant director; and Micaela Garcia de Benavidez, the show's producer and Su Teatro's managing director.
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Lauren Michelle Long and Adriana Gonzales cower in terror as sisters on their supernatural adventure.
Courtesy of Su Teatro
"This show is fun because I get to have conversations with the tech guys about how the rain of vegetables and this huge dust storm are going to happen on stage," Garcia says. "I like special effects where you take one thing and make it another thing. Rather than it being high-tech, it is converted tech. It's much more fun than creating something really slick."

In addition to the play's on-stage effects, El Espíritu Natural also showcases music by renowned composer Daniel Valdez, as well as original compositions by Garcia. The show's musical direction is by Chicano Music Hall of Fame inductee Rudy Bustos, a longtime member of the organization who recently directed the music for Su Teatro's production of The Westside Oratorio.

"Rudy is very talented and from a fantastic band [The Rudy Bustos Band]," Gonzales says. "Learning music from a legend like him is very cool because he has so much knowledge and skill."

While Valdez had worked with Garcia on the music for the first play, El Rio: Las Lagrimas de la Llorona, back in 2014, he stepped back from the other two shows when his wife passed away. This left Garcia to take over as lead composer for the remaining shows; he looped in Marialuisa Meza-Burgos, a skilled mariachi musician and Su Teatro’s marketing coordinator, to help nail down the pieces when the company produced La Tierra: The Mystery of the Three Sisters in 2015, and Ehecatl: The Wind of Creation in 2016.

"I always have a hard time with music because, even though I’ve written over eighty songs, I don’t consider myself a composer," Garcia says. "Often, the songs come from a place of practicality. We need a musical moment here, so we'll just work with the performers to grow what I wrote into something beautiful. I think it’s cool and the actors seem to like it, which makes a big difference. I’m very picky about phrasing and — because I’m a playwright — it can tend to be wordy. It’s part of the storytelling style. The songs themselves are telling stories; they have a spoken-word dialogue aspect, too. It’s not musical theater. We do music as a part of our aesthetic."

Gonzales is looking forward to seeing how crowds react to the music, and is particularly interested in seeing what connections kids at the student matinees make, as well as hearing how young people respond to El Espíritu Natural.

"This play really resonates with the experience of being young and making mistakes," Gonzales concludes. "And also teaches the importance of listening to your elders and keeping hold of our history in a really silly, physical and musical play. It has a lot of moments that I think are really going to surprise people."

El Espíritu Natural, Thursday, March 16, through Sunday, March 26; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., Su Teatro Cultural & Performing Arts Center, 721 Santa Fe Drive, Denver. Find tickets, starting at $20, and more information at
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