At 7 p.m. on Monday, July 27, 2020, The Group Rep will stream HALLWAYS: STORIES FROM JUVIE, a multimedia production. Based on Heidi Mendez Harrison’s book about her two years as a volunteer at the Juvenile Hall Detention Center in Utah – and thanks to a grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs – a series of gritty personal accounts by teenagers in crisis reaches the stage virtually in this moving production based on their lives. On July 17, 2020, Heidi took time from her busy schedule to interview.
TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AND WHAT LED TO YOUR BECOMING INVOLVED WITH JUVENILES IN STATE CUSTODY.
Heidi Harrison Mendez: I was born in New York. My parents were from Argentina, and I was raised in Mexico City as a child. I was always interested in the theater, and I met my husband in community theater in Mexico. After we married, we moved to Spain. We lived in Madrid for 16 years, and that’s where I raised my three sons. I ran the drama program in the American School in Madrid. When we returned to the U.S., we settled in San Antonio, Texas, for a while – but it was a little too slow for us after living most of our lives in big cities. Then we moved to Utah, where we stayed for four years. By then, I was an empty nester. Due to a personal spiritual revelation, I decided to volunteer with kids in juvie and did acting and writing classes for two years. I collected 200 writings from these kids and published a book in 2016 so that their voices would be heard. It was called “Behind These Walls.” About three years ago, my husband and I moved to Los Angeles, and we love the city.
My interest has always been in the theater. I received my B.A. in acting and my M.A. in directing. I also have teaching certificates for high school Spanish and theater. Over the years, I’ve been an actor, director, choreographer, and teacher. I’ve also been in a number of television shows, including “Why Women Kill” and “Fresh off the Boat.” Right now, I have a national commercial running for Consumer Cellular. Los Angeles has been good to me, and I longed to find a “theater family” here. When I auditioned for The Group Rep, I knew I found my new home. Now I’m a board member alternate for GRT. Meanwhile, a group in Utah – where I was hired as a film/television coach – contacted me during the pandemic and suggested that I run an acting program for all ages on Zoom. Now I’m working on the GRT show, as well as teaching acting on Zoom.
WHEN YOU WORKED WITH JUVENILES IN UTAH, HOW DID THEY RESPOND TO YOUR ACTING AND WRITING CLASSES?
HHM: They were very respectful and had a good attitude. I’ve always been good working with teenagers, and I really prefer that age group over the younger kids. I started them writing raps about their lives. Later, I memorized their raps and became the “rapping grandma.” I would get them to write and then read what they wrote to the group. After that, I created a non-profit called ACT RISK NO MORE and turned their stories into one-act plays. At first, young actors who were at-risk themselves would take their roles; and we put out notices for people to see the plays. We performed in a dance studio for three months, and then we moved to different venues, including rehabs and different programs for teens. I got some of the young actors from the High School of Performing Arts, and I ended up teaching there later. It was a charter school for artistic kids, but it doesn’t exist any longer.
WAS THERE ANY ONE KID FROM JUVIE WHO STOOD OUT FOR YOU?
HHM: Absolutely. It was a 15-year-old biracial girl. I got to know her in 2015 or 2016 when she was in juvie. I know her story by heart. It’s called “Shit Happens,” and it will be in HALLWAYS. She had a stepdad who used the opposite end of the broom to discipline her and her older brother. When her brother left the home, her grades fell; and she got into drugs heavy. Her real dad was behind bars for selling dope. She was rebellious and hid behind a mask. She thought she’d never be free. But she is now, and she’s doing well.
These are not throw-away kids. They’re all artists, and we can turn weaknesses into strengths. Some might have mental health problems, but they can turn things around and make shortcomings work in their favor.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED WITH THE GROUP REP? WHEN WILL THEY BE PRESENTING HALLWAYS?
HHM: When I got to LA, I needed to find a theater home. I found out about them from a friend who directed me in a fringe festival show. I auditioned for them, and the rest is history. I liked the space, especially the upstairs. I’ve always loved informal theater, and I like to think outside the box. I love to create something out of nothing. I jumped in with two feet.
I’m really excited about HALLWAYS. It’s very raw and realistic. First, I published their stories and then made them into plays. Now we are streaming this wonderful multimedia production. We will be premiering on Monday, July 27, 2020, at 7 p.m. HALLWAYS was produced by GRT’s Doug Haverty and edited by Hartley Powers. I hope that we reach lots of interested people, especially teenagers.
HALLWAYS premieres on The Group Rep website, Facebook, and YouTube on Monday, 7/27/20 at 7 p.m. (PDT). The production is free. Following the show, there will be a live conversation with The Group Rep company members, who will discuss the production via a group Zoom meeting. For more information call 818-763-5990 or go online.