Sixteen-year-old Alan Joseph Sanchez-Gonzales had been to see live theater only once before his first audition. That audition earned him the lead in a production of “In the Heights” staged with the help of an actor-director-teacher who uses art to get young people to aim high.
That teacher, Antonio Mercado, had little theater experience himself before falling in love with acting in high school. He went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles. As a drama teacher at Denver’s North High School in 2004, he directed “Zoot Suit,” which is set in the Mexican-American community of L.A. in the 1940s. His sparkling cast was asked to perform at Denver’s arts center, a place few had visited even as audience members.
Mr. Mercado, who says theater teaches “collaboration, self-esteem and commitment,” is as proud of a former student who produces movies as of another who is a nurse. He left North but maintained a relationship.
In 2014, North hosted the première of his play “Dreaming sin Fronteras,” which tells the stories of immigrants who were children when they came to the United States illegally. As a high school teacher, Mercado had seen such students struggle because they, like his father, had come from Mexico without papers. Then North asked for Mercado’s help with a February production of “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about young Hispanics in New York pursuing their dreams.
Mercado brought in friends with professional experience as designers and as rap and hip-hop coaches. He also raised $10,000 in donations. He had appeared in plays written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who also wrote the “Heights” book, and he persuaded her to give the cast notes via Skype. The students from North and a charter school that shares the campus serenaded Ms. Hudes with “Heights” songs when she appeared on the computer screen.
“ ‘In the Heights’ is about joy and love,” Hudes said. “You have to talk about the love. You have to be very honest, too.”