College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

CHASS wins big in regional theater festival

UCR students and graduates are awarded for their work in the arts
By Alejandra Prado, Student Writer/CHASS Marketing and Communications |

UCR sweeps the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) Region 8 festival celebrating four students’ works. Undergraduate student Aedan Ferrara, MFA student Karly Thomas, alongside MFA graduates Aaron Higareda and Lily Hart garnered recognition for their works in playwriting and dramaturgy, placing them as finalists in the festival.

Comprised of participants from Arizona, Central and Southern California, Hawaii, Southern Nevada, and Utah, the Region 8 festival offers a platform for students to showcase their talents, attend workshops, and engage in competitions in various theater disciplines with their selected plays read by actors. Held this year on Feb. 11-17 in Glendale, California, the festival provides valuable networking opportunities and serves as a gateway for students to advance to the national level of the KCACTF program.

Meet UCR’s Region 8 Awardees

Aedan Ferrara

Third-year Theatre, Film, and Digital Production student Aedan Ferrara was named a finalist in the regional festival for their play, “Dialogue.”

“As an emerging playwright, I never expected to be recognized on this level so early into my career,” Ferrara said. “Seeing an acceptance from the Kennedy Center, of all places, was truly mind-blowing.”

This win marks Ferrara’s first time applying to participate in the regional festival. According to Ferrara, this experience is monumental since it has only been three years since they began writing. 

At the beginning of their theatre journey, Ferrara pursued acting, later becoming their concentration at UCR with playwriting as their main artistic expression. “I have been constantly surrounded by incredibly artistic and creative individuals who have only ever uplifted me and my work, and I have been grateful to be in a position in which I can do the same for them,” they said. At CHASS, Ferrara has had the opportunity to gain creative experience by participating in graduate-level workshops in UCR’s MFA program, Creative Writing for the Performing Arts. 

Ferrara will graduate in spring 2024. Looking ahead, Ferrara is committed to their journey as a playwright and in the arts.

“As I approach graduation, I am reaching out to local theaters and companies, looking to make connections and get my work produced,” they said. “Ultimately what KCACTF has reinforced for me is that our industry is one of connections and, really, friendships.”

Aaron Higareda

MFA alumnus Aaron Higareda placed as a regional finalist for his play “South Hope St.” he submitted to the Region 8 KCACTF festival. Higareda also placed as a national semi-finalist with a chance to move on to a national festival in D.C. in April 2024. One of six plays presented at the festival from 80 submissions, “South Hope St.” delves into the complexities of forgiveness inspired by Higareda’s observations of everyday life.

“Being a part of the KCACTF has always been a goal of mine since I took my first playwriting class at East Los Angeles College back in 2013,” Higareda said. Higareda continued to submit his work to the regional festival throughout his time at the MFA program before graduating in June 2023. 

“However, what surprised me and what was more meaningful was the announcement that I was also receiving the inaugural Campana Award from Michael-Miguel Productions,” he said. According to Higareda, the Campana Award honors scripts that bravely make an authentic, bold statement and demonstrate a clear and promising voice. Higareda received a $250 cash prize alongside the Campana Award. 

“The KCACTF experience brought me into close proximity with some amazing people,” he said. “I’ve shared my other full-length work with them, and conducted informational interviews to learn more about how I can continue to learn and grow in this field, craft, and art.”

Higareda discussed his experience at the regional festival in depth via his Substack newsletter which he created to document his playwriting journey and empower fellow playwrights to share their stories.

Since graduating from the MFA program, Higareda has been eager to explore opportunities in playwriting, teaching, and career opportunities in theatre. He also hopes to create full productions of his work by submitting his plays to festivals, theaters, and various competitions.

Karly Thomas

Pursuing an emphasis in writing in the MFA program, third-year student Karly Thomas achieved recognition as a regional finalist and national semi-finalist in the Region 8 KCACTF festival.

“Beyond the ‘prestige’ of it though, being recognized by KCACTF means that working theatre professionals believe in your work enough to give it life,” Thomas said. “The occasional reminder that you’re on to something is very motivating.”

Thomas submitted her play “Oh My God, Did You Lose Weight?,” which covers the persistent societal issue of fatphobia, challenging misconceptions and exploring the harm caused by the obsession with weight.

“I absorbed an astounding amount of practical advice about life as a playwright— the sort of advice that emerging playwrights don’t get too often,” she said. “And for that, I am forever grateful.”

Thomas began playwriting 14 years ago, encouraged by a high school mentor, as a way to share and discuss thoughts and observations creatively. According to Thomas, UCR has pushed her to new heights. 

“To be surrounded by people with effusive creativity, unstoppable drive, and a burning desire to sustain our community for years to come,” Thomas said. “How can you not grow as a writer — and as a person — surrounded by folks like that?”

Thomas will be graduating from the MFA program in spring 2024. Looking ahead, she hopes to explore opportunities in playwriting and television writing, a new interest she gained during her time at UCR. Thomas will also continue to develop AKA Productions, an Inland Empire-based theatre company she cofounded with Higareda and fellow MFA student Ava Fojtik.

Lily Hart

Lily Hart, a recent graduate of the MFA program, stands out as the regional nominee for the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA)/KCACTF Dramaturgy Fellowship competition. According to the Kennedy Center’s website, the award recognizes promising student dramaturgs who contribute to the professional landscape of dramaturgy. Hart will participate in the national festival in Washington, D.C. in April 2024, with professional development workshops and dramaturg.

“It really feels like a celebration of how far I’ve come in my short time at UCR that I get to be flown to D.C. to go to the Kennedy Center,” Hart said. “It’s bizarre.”

For the regional festival, Hart’s presentation showcased her work from UCR’s New Works Festival, her experience supporting and challenging fellow writers, and her advocacy as a dramaturg.

“I really focused on communicating the strengths of the three unique plays that I dramaturged for and advocated for why a dramaturg is a necessary part of a creative team,” she said.

At the regional festival, Hart also participated as a dramaturg for the live readings of selected plays to be showcased. “Working that fast to support the performers and synthesize all the information playwrights spent months turning into a script was so much fun,” Hart said. 

Following the awards ceremony, Hart was also nominated as Region 8’s Institute for Theater Journalism and Advocacy (ITJA) Graduate Fellow. Despite not being selected to attend nationals in D.C. as the ITJA Graduate Fellow, Hart looks forward to moving to nationals as one of the five Dramaturgy Fellow nominees selected nationwide. 

“Nationals is going to be an incredible time to focus on how I can set myself apart as a dramaturg and what projects I’m most interested in working on,” she said. “I’d love to get the chance to work with writers at early stages of development again!”

FEATURED PHOTO. Left to right: Aaron Higareda, Lily Hart, Karly Thomas, and Aedan Ferrara / Image courtesy of Robin Russin.