Los Lunas

Elizabeth Otero is making her dreams come true. The young playwright from Los Lunas is living out a real-life fantasy in Los Angeles.

Since moving to sunny California from Albuquerque in February, Otero’s story has taken a dramatic turn right out of a Hollywood movie.

Besides pursuing an acting career and studying comedy, the Los Lunas native recently won the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival “Sí TV Playwriting Award” for her play, “Gas,” a story about love overcoming racial differences. The award is designed to stimulate the voices of young Latino playwrights in America.

In April, the University of New Mexico theater graduate enjoyed what she calls an “amazing and unforgettable” trip to Washington, D.C., to collect her award.

“It was so cool because I got to sit around listening and speaking with all these really major theater artists,” Elizabeth recalls.

Big-name artists such as Ken Ludwig, the author of several Broadway, Off-Broadway and West End plays and musicals, such as “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Moon Over Buffalo,” spoke to the winners.

Naomi Iizuka conducted workshops for the group. She is the author of such plays as “Polaroid Stories” and “War of the Worlds” (written in collaboration with Anne Bogart, a major name in theater, and the SITI Company.

Ben Cameron, the executive director of the Theatre Communication Group in New York City, gave a keynote address to all the participants in the festival.

“He is an incredible speaker and gave a wonderful speech. It made me feel so happy to be involved with theater,” the young playwright says with delight.

“The whole festival did. I was sitting around all these highly-educated people, people whose work I’ve studied in school, and I’m thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m here. I just can’t believe it.'”

Otero says her experience in Washington helped her to realize what a fortunate opportunity the trip was for her career as an artist.

“It’s so often that theater students learn in school about the world of theater, and we do theater, but we’re always wanting to know what it’s like for real, in the professional world of theater.

“I got a glimpse of what it’s like, and I’ve decided I want to get the full view. The whole experience just made me want to learn more and keep on writing for the theater.”

The beauty of the Kennedy Center mesmerized Otero, who got to explore the site with new friends from around the country.

“If I had to describe the Kennedy Center in a few words, I’d say: marble floors, red carpet and bronze pillars.

“I got to walk around wherever I wanted with my badge that said ‘guest artist.’ I loved that. The first day I got there, I didn’t have any workshops until the afternoon, so I went early and got a tour of the center. It was neat to see all the theaters there and the boxes where the President watches the performances. I heard the National Symphony Orchestra rehearsing, too.

The New Mexico playwright went to workshops during the day and watched shows at night.

“This was the part I was most envious of because some of the award-winning plays got their shows produced there. Mine didn’t because the production wasn’t submitted for the award by my college, only my script.”

A rare moment occurred when Otero met with one of the coordinators of the festival and received feedback on her play. She was told that Magdalia Cruz, the playwright who judged her play, will work with “Gas” at the O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Playwrights Confer-ence this summer.

Otero was shocked to learn another trip awaits her.

“This summer? I thought, for some reason, the trip to D.C. was the conference, but they’re paying for another trip for me this summer to spend, like, two weeks in Connecticut. How cool is that?”

Elizabeth experienced a night like no other when she attended the awards ceremony.

“It was funny. This guy I hadn’t seen all week was announcing the National Playwriting Awards and mine was one of the first awards he read. He announced my name and then said, ‘Elizabeth has a performance conflict and couldn’t be here tonight.'”

Otero didn’t come all the way to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to hear that she wasn’t there. The very present young woman was puzzled and looked at her fellow writers before standing up and saying: “I’m right here.”

She walked slowly from the very back of the huge theater to receive her award. The presenter smiled and was glad to present the honor live and in-person.

“I tell you, my legs were numb. I didn’t know I was going to have to go on stage. So I went down there, numb legs and all, the whole room applauding, and the guy handed me a check for $2,500. Could I be happier?”

Hours later, Otero enjoyed a lavish reception with her fellow playwrights at the Watergate restaurant next door where she dined on calamari and sipped sparkling wine. “That’s what I call a party.”

During her one free night in Washington, Elizabeth went salsa dancing with a girl from George Washington University.

“It was so fun. The weather was warm and humid. The weather changed very quickly. It reminded me of New Mexico. One minute, it was nice, sunny, and the next it was pouring rain,” she says. “And I loved every minute of it. That was my trip. Once again, I’ll say it was amazing.”

Right now, Elizabeth Otero is a member of the L.A. Connection Comedy Theatre where she does improv and sketch-writing and performs with the troupe.

She is also taking a stand-up comedy workshop with Judy Carter, author of the “Comedy Bible” and “Stand Up Comedy: The Book.”

“The workshop is really different than anything I’ve ever done, so it’s a challenge,” Elizabeth says.

“I think comedy is a very healing quality in that it brings people together to laugh at our hardships and our differences. It trivializes negative attitudes and actions and shows us that everyone is basically alike. That’s why I like to write multicultural things.”

For money — just a little money — Elizabeth is doing work as an extra for television and has completed a couple of pilots.

“This means being one of the people in the background of TV shows.” Viewers may have spotted Otero on popular shows such as “Felicity,” “7th Heaven,” “Drew Carey” and “Crossing Jordan.”

“It’s neat to see how all this stuff is done. L.A. is a hard-working town, I’ll tell you that. The average day for an extra is 12 hours. It’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. A lot of hours go into a half-hour show. I’m on the set for 12 hours to be on film maybe three seconds of the whole episode. It’s crazy.”

The day-to-day reality of living in L.A. can be hard, Otero says, because everything is more expensive: rent, gas, comedy classes.

“Everything costs money. I’m trying not to worry too much about it, but this is one reason the award came at such a perfect time.

“It might be stressful sometimes, but it’s also exciting because I get to start brand new, and I like that a lot. I have some family here, so that’s nice. They’ve been wonderful. I’ve been really blessed.”

Otero, who first began writing plays at age 7, encourages other young people to take a chance and pursue their dreams.

“I think I’m exactly where I should be at this time in my life. The thing I’ve learned is that, if you do what you’re meant to be doing, it won’t be as hard as you think. Things just flow right.”

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Jennifer Harmon