If Dylan Guerra (B.F.A., Theatre, ’16) had given up after failing to win playwriting fellowships in New York, he would not be where he is today: Authoring a screenplay for a for a well-known production company, and co-writing season three of The Other Two, the HBO satire that hilariously spoofs showbiz and celebrity.
“Perseverance is a massive part of it,” says Guerra by phone during a lunch break from The Other Two writers’ room in New York. “I applied to everything more than once.”
It took three tries to become a member of the prestigious Youngblood group of playwrights at Ensemble Studio Theatre and two each for residencies at Ars Nova and Page 73.
“In about a six-to-eight month period, I got into three of the highest-profile playwriting fellowships in New York, and that put my name on a bunch of lists,” he says. “I also had a solo show, and there was this organic interest in my work.”
It’s possible none of this would have happened were it not for a Meadows School education and a whole lot of bravura.
“I’m a big believer in, say yes, take the risk, take the chance,” says Guerra, who headed for New York in 2016 with only $1,250 banked. “I got advice at school that said, “Make sure you have $5,000 saved up when you move to New York,’ and I’ve seen people who were never able to do that. I did it on a whim and a risk, and it worked out.”
Not without paying some dues, of course.
Guerra knows exactly how many different jobs he held to support himself while pursuing his craft — 18 — including doorman at Saks Fifth Avenue, cater waiter, studio manager, and telemarketer. His tenure at each was about three months, though he stuck with a gig writing prank calls for radio for five years and still teaches playwriting.
“I’m a big believer in quitting your day job if it starts interfering with your artistic life,” Guerra says. “I ate a lot of ramen the first two years in New York. I wasn’t going out at all.”
What he was doing was getting his foot in the door by interning at theaters and writing plays. In 2017, Tim Miller, whom Guerra knew from a performance workshop at SMU, invited Guerra to help write and perform an ensemble piece at arts incubator Dixon Place.
Impressed with his work, the theater’s creative director asked him if he had a solo show that he could perform at Dixon’s Hot! The Annual NYC Celebration of Queer Culture.
“I said, ‘Yes,’ even though I totally didn’t have a show,” Guerra recalls.
He rapidly wrote Find Him, inspired by his actual experiences with a former lover who had disappeared.
“I performed it in a lounge space in their cafe, and it oversold, and that was insane to me,” Guerra says. “I wrote it quick and dirty, just me on a stage with a mic, and it was a lightbulb moment: I should put out work that is shamelessly myself.”
Which brings us to Other Gay Demons, the screenplay he’s writing.
“It’s about a demon who lives in a nightclub in Brooklyn — a horror film that is self-aware,” he says. “I am currently working about 70 hours a week between the screenplay and TV series and other small things that I do.”
Meanwhile, he’s loving the brainstorm writing sessions for The Other Two, which offer a collaborative break from hunkering at the computer alone with his screenplay.
“It’s truly cheesy to say, but it really is a dream come true in so many ways,” Guerra says.
He credits his SMU education with helping that happen.
“SMU really changed my life in so many ways, mostly because of the theater faculty and the community I was in,” he reflects. “One of the big things I learned at SMU was how to have a community and be a community and put shows together. So many BFA programs give you the tools to act or write or direct, but not the tools to get your work out there or stand by your work or not be dependent on an agent or manager or external force to lift you up and support your art.”
Looking back on his student days, there’s one thing he would change: “I wish I had been more present. I was very worried about what the future would hold and what my life would look like when I left, and sometimes it came at the expense of getting coffee with a friend or doing nothing. I wish I had had a little more awareness and confidence to have trust that everything is moving.”
Guerra’s links to SMU are not merely retrospective. The Meadows School presented his comic mystery thriller, The Yaelmihkeinsploke, Feb. 23-27 in the Margo Jones Theatre.
Directed by Distinguished Professor of Theatre Stan Wojewodski, Jr., it tells the story of Liz, who is being hunted by a demon that eats her through her past lives: an actress in 1850, a German water dancer, a young closeted Colombian boy, a dog and a NASA representative.
Wojewodski was chair of the Theatre department during Guerra’s SMU years, and a huge influence on him as an artist and director.
“One thing I took away from his class was the ability to read a room — to be able to read bodies in space and give direction to those bodies in order to communicate a story,” Guerra reflects. “It’s helped me to hear in an actor’s voice or body the way that my words are landing on them, which allows me to edit.”
SMU remains close to Guerra physically, too. He lives on the border of Brooklyn and Queens with two of his closest friends from SMU, and other alumni are just a 10-minute walk away.
Says Guerra, “I’m so thankful for my SMU education, and in new ways all the time.”