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Free online theater production brings Star foster-care investigation to the stage

Free online theater production brings Star foster-care investigation to the stage

A virtual play with StoryWorks and Borderlands Theater features Sarah Marie Gonzalez, front, as Liana; Lilianna Espinoza, center, as Aracely; and Stacey Posey as Alexei.

Two young women featured in the Arizona Daily Star’s yearlong investigation into Arizona’s foster care system will be featured in a play based on the series.

The play, called “Cycles,” will be performed online at 7 p.m. Aug. 27, and the public is invited. After the play, people involved with the production and experts in foster care will take part in a panel discussion.

“Cycles” follows the lives of Alexei Ruiz and Aracely Valencia, who spent significant parts of their earlier years living in foster care and group homes here. Cycles features their experiences when they were teens and struggling to navigate Arizona’s child welfare system.

The production, written by playwright Milta Ortiz of Tucson’s Borderlands Theater, was originally planned for live performances here in early April but was rewritten for online production.

“We are always looking for new ways to reach readers with our best reporting, and this play is one of our most exciting experiments yet,” said Jill Jorden Spitz, editor of the Arizona Daily Star.

“Making it happen was complicated and fun and sometimes difficult, and something those of us who worked on the project can’t wait to see play out on stage.”

Performed by StoryWorks Theater, “Cycles” is what’s called documentary theater in that it pairs artists with journalists to create original works about investigative reporting.

Jennifer Welch, artistic director with StoryWorks, said the rewrite was both challenging and exciting. This is the seventh year StoryWorks has been creating documentary theater in partnerships with newsrooms across the country, and the first time a play will be performed online.

“It stretches us, our craft and our imagination and, in that sense, it’s kind of a beautiful exercise, to think in such creative ways,” she said. “I think it’s really exciting, and it’s exciting for the audiences we’ll be able to share this with, far more than just the folks who were going to walk through the doors of a theater.”

Ortiz said they had just a short time to make changes, but she’s happy with the result.

“I think it’s even more impactful now,” she said. “It’s simpler and goes deeper, which is fantastic.”

The 2018 series, “Fixing Our Foster Care Crisis,” explored problems with Arizona’s system and pulled in ideas from around the country about how to do things better. Prevention, intervention and reinvention were the Star’s three focus areas.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic underway, the systems in place to support families and keep children safe are under tremendous strain. There are still more than 13,000 children in out-of-home care statewide.

For this production, which explores a time when nearly 19,000 children and teens were in foster care, there are six characters and five actors, with one playing two roles.

Several of the actors have had their own personal experiences with foster care and homelessness that make them relate strongly to the production.

Stacey Posey, who plays Alexei, has been acting since she was a sophomore in high school and plans to become a theater instructor.

Posey said she has never done a full play in Zoom before, although she did use Zoom for a theater class at Pima Community College this spring, after the pandemic started.

“Alexei is just like my polar opposite,” she said. “She has anger issues, and she’s so upset with the world and how she’s been treated and so, when she meets Aracely, it’s like her world slowly opens up.”

In addition to having friends who were in the state’s foster care system, Posey said she was part of Youth on Their Own when she was in high school.

“I was lucky,” she said. “My situation wasn’t as bad as hers. I was fortunate enough to have people to help me, and I didn’t have to be in that situation.”

Lilianna Carissa Espinoza plays Aracely and said the role has made her reflect more on her own mother’s time in foster care.

She said the transition from stage to Zoom has been fun.

“I’ve never played a character like this, and it’s very personal as well,” said Espinoza, who, like Posey, also plans to go into theater and acting as a career.

She said she feels protective of her character and wants to make sure she’s not reinforcing any stereotypes.

“I don’t want to play her like she’s just another foster kid,” she said. “Obviously, there’s a lot more depth to people than that.”

The other characters are retired judge Karen Adam, the former presiding judge at the Pima County Juvenile Court Center, who is played by Katie McFadzen; a Star reporter played by Natalia Storie; and Liana, another teen in foster care, played by Sarah Marie Gonzalez.

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at or 806-7754. On Twitter: @pattymachstar

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