Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.
Maxwell Plata’s love of theater started in high school and it carries on to this day.
That passion led him to Arizona State University, where he recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theater from the School of Music, Dance and Theater in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, with honors from Barrett, The Honors College. He was named Barrett Honors College’s Outstanding Graduate for Creative Work.
“Like a lot of theater majors, I fell in love with theater in high school, where I was a stage manager and ‘techie,’" he said.
“High school theater gave me a home, friends who had my back and a way to express myself. The decision to major in it was a careful one that I made only after realizing I couldn't see myself doing anything else,” said Plata, whose hometown is Surprise, Arizona.
Plata originally planned to pursue design and production. “But when I took Introduction to Playwriting in sophomore year, my love for writing came pouring back into me,” he said, recalling how in fifth grade he wrote a historical drama about women in the Civil War.
He received many scholarships throughout his time at ASU, including the New American University Scholar President’s Award; Special Talent and Eirene Peggy Lamb Scholarships from the School of Music, Dance and Theatre; the Nickless Family Scholarship from the Nickless Family Charitable Foundation; the Stephanie Valdez Memorial Scholarship from Waste Management, Inc. and Scholarship America; the Planning Scholarsip from the ASU Global Education Office; the Hispanic Scholarship and Panda Cares Scholarship from the Hispanic Scholarship Foundation; the Steve Halper Future Educator Scholarship from the Educational Theater Association; the PFLAG National Scholar award; the Nita Siegman Scholarship for Barrett Honors College students; and the Surprise Sundancers Scholarship from the Surprise Sundancers Organization.
As an ASU student, Plata became a prolific playwright, as well as a busy stage manager and producer.
For his senior capstone project, he wrote a play titled “To Find Them,” a story about gender identity and familial trauma in a ghost story inspired by the Mexican legend "La Llorona." His play “To the Moon” was a semifinalist for a national award at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
Plata co-created two virtual lobbies, one for the New Play Festival, and one for the play “Luchadora” by Alvaro Saar Rios.
He was a presenter at this year’s Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference, and for the last two years he facilitated the Color Cabaret at ASU, a BIPOC student showcase that raises funds for scholarships for students of color.
He was a summer intern at the Arizona Science Center and an usher at the Herberger Theater in downtown Phoenix. He also supported and actively contributed to Phoenix Pride, one-n-ten, the Binary Theater Company and the Herberger Institute Summer Council. He has served as a volunteer for the Maricopa Election Department and Phoenix Food Not Bombs.
Plata has a very busy summer planned. He will travel to Iceland on a Barrett Honors College Global Extensive Experiences study abroad program, where he’ll study environmental humanities in Reykjavik.
He will be attending the Theatre Communications Group annual conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in June, and the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas annual conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in July, where he’ll be presenting about his work on a recent ASU theater production.
“I’ll also be working with a group of my most talented and trusted friends to shoot a short film I wrote about a zombie prom, recording my seven-episode fiction audio drama as part of an artist grant I received from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and somewhere in there, I’ll find time to work in theaters around the Valley, earn a few miscellaneous credentials and apply for graduate programs,” he said.
Plata took time out from his chock-full schedule to reflect on his time as an undergraduate at ASU. Here’s what he had to say.
Question: What is a notable experience, story or accomplishment in your ASU career?
Answer: I’m very proud of the work I’ve done in the Music, Theatre and Opera program, where I’ve worked as a stage manager for the past three-and-a-half years. Many of my most cherished memories took place while at work there, and it’s brought me to people who have genuinely changed my life. One experience I hold close to my heart is the annual Color Cabaret, which I helped bring to fruition in 2021 and 2022. The Color Cabaret platforms BIPOC student performers, giving them space and time to celebrate themselves against the backdrop of an entertainment industry that perpetuates a lot of harm toward minority groups. Helping create a safe, joyful room full of people expressing themselves authentically through their art is really fulfilling for me.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: A theme of my time at ASU has been this idea of authenticity and what being authentic can do for others that witness the way you go about the world. When I entered ASU, "authenticity" was sort of a buzzword thrown around creative spaces, and I didn't yet fully grasp the relationship between the art, the artist and the audience. It wasn't until I was exposed to unfamiliar plays, performances, films, novels, etc., that I started to understand the true power of putting yourself fully into your work for others to bear witness to. In the classroom and in the rehearsal room, I experienced the meaning of representing your identities, the power of cultural specificity, and the value of diversity in our media and entertainment. Speaking your mind and expressing your truth on stage is perhaps the most powerful thing you can do in front of an audience. The learning I've undergone while at ASU has realigned my creative mission and goals to be more oriented toward true authenticity and being unapologetically myself in my work.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: I chose ASU because it afforded me opportunities that the other schools I was looking at simply didn't. Its theater program promised chances to do hands-on work early in my studies, and exposure to a slew of different styles that smaller programs often can't provide. ASU's location in the center of the Phoenix metro area makes it so I'm never more than a 45-minute drive from the theaters I want to work at, or the connections I have around the Valley. What's more, it's only a day trip away from beautiful places like Sedona or Bisbee — all places I've grown up loving, and that I've loved sharing with my out-of-state friends. Arizona is home, and ASU promised to help me thrive at home. It upheld its promise.
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: I owe a great deal to my academic and creative mentors: Dr. Dagmar Van Engen, who teaches in Barrett, and Dr. Karen Jean Martinson and Professor Guillermo Reyes, who teach in the School of (Music, Dance and) Theatre. They’ve each taught me how to manage my time and complete large-scale projects, how to find my voice in ongoing scholarly or creative conversations, and how to use the resources available to me to achieve my own vision of success. And, maybe most importantly, they’ve all taught me that I have something important to say, and that I should come out and say it.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: My best piece of advice might be to make things up. I don’t mean make up incorrect facts for your essays or lie to your friends. I mean make up your own rules, your own routines and your own goals. Make up your own version of success, and chase after that rather than what others think you should strive for. Make up a recipe that seems really gross but is actually surprisingly good, and make up a reason to have your friends try it. Make up a reason to buy yourself coffee one day, or to stay out late with friends instead of studying, and make up a reason not to regret it later. I guess this is really just my own version of the cliché advice to try new things. But I made up my own version of it because I dislike the baggage and expectations that particular advice comes with. So, really, when in doubt — just make things up. That’s how you find out what you like, who you are, and isn’t that the whole point anyway?
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: My favorite spot on campus was for sure the Design Library in Design North. It’s quiet, has a decent view, has its own coffee shop, and has a few great napping chairs. Notable mentions include the secret garden, the very top of the Life Sciences E Building and the courtyard of the Music Building.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: Climate change is just one of the many problems we're facing right now, but it feels to me one of the most urgent — after all, we can't fight about other issues if we kill our planet. Forty million dollars isn't much in the scheme of things, especially when it comes to such a global issue, but it could go a long way toward organizing the local community and starting new national grassroots initiatives. I believe empathy and compassion (alongside a healthy amount of rage and spite) are key to solving virtually any of our man-made societal problems. Forty million could certainly help activate and organize our already frustrated community into taking tangible action toward corporate capitalism and other institutions that are largely responsible for climate change.