Q: How did you begin performing arts?
I have probably been performing since I was 5 or 6. As a child I had a lot of energy so my mom put me into dance. I participated in tap, ballet, and some jazz. At the same time, because I was so loud, she would send me to these musical theater summer camps that were dedicated to giving kids the opportunity to sing and dance. They would put a show together with their own story and songs from other musicals. I participated in those camps for 7 or 8 years throughout my childhood. A mixture of dance and musical theater was the beginning for me. I also had voice lessons from middle/elementary school and through college.
Once I got to sixth grade I went to Arizona School for the Arts. The school is structured so that academics are done in the morning and arts in the afternoon. There were no sports, instead a focus on performing arts. In the next several years at the school I took 3-4 years of piano, 2 years of viola, 2 years guitar, 7 years of choir, and about 5 years of theater. That’s kind of where I got my theater bug. I started theater in high school where I performed in shows and auditioned for local regional theaters during the summer. I worked at Valley Youth Theater in Phoenix which was an incredible theater for the kids in the community and an amazing experience. They have decent production value, are well known in the community, and do good shows.
After graduating high school, I had a great experience doing two shows at the Valley Youth Theater, Legally Blonde and The Wiz. During that time, I was also auditioning for colleges and deciding where to go. I auditioned for seven schools and was accepted into most of them, but the ones I really wanted were the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon. I was elated when I found I was accepted to Michigan and decided to attend still choosing between Vocal Performance and Musical Theater for my major. Voice is my main thing, I love to sing. The reason why I do musical theater is the music. I grew up singing classical music and love it, but musical theater seemed more enjoyable than the Vocal Performance tracks. College at Michigan was quite the experience. I enjoyed myself at school and performed at most of the theaters on campus for different shows. My classes were amazing and the teachers were incredible. College has pushed me to grow and prepare for the world, but I was still unsure of my post graduate plans. I moved to New York City where I auditioned never knowing where things could go. Fortunately, I had a Summer Stock job right out of college which got me my Equity card. I also really enjoyed working at the Pittsburgh City Opera.
When I officially moved to New York City, I worked at a thrift shop before getting my first gig in the city. I did Spamilton, a parody of Hamilton off-Broadway for a year and four months as a swing. That was the first time I ever swung anything and it was what started my whole “swing existence.” I auditioned for six months after the show and cast on a show titled This Ain't No Disco playing at The Atlantic in New York off-Broadway. I worked with Darco Tresnjak, the amazing Camille Brown, and writers of the music who did Hedwig and the Angry Inch. My cast mates had many credits and were very talented. This was an unexpected and fantastic experience.
After a long time being a swing, I wondered where my performance spirit went. As a swing, you cover many people by doing most of the work to keep the show going. It is less about your own artistic experience as much as it is helping the show. I missed the performance spirit and the show Doing This Ain't no Disco gave me that again. I appeared throughout the show, had my own track and features. I had a wonderful time. During this time, I started auditioning again from which I had a job, to work on The Color Purple, after the show. I randomly decided to audition for The Lion King a second time, and auditioned five times over the course of two weeks. I was hired as a vocal swing for The Lion King. Now that I think about it, that was a year and a half ago so this has officially been my longest contract. I cover many things in the show and while it’s been incredibly fun, the experience has also been crazy at times. I realized I love swinging even though it is hard on the brain and the body. Swinging makes me happy because it combines everything and is the reason why I perform.
Q: What has performing arts taught you that you have applied to your everyday life and how you engage in the world?
I think there are two major things. The first is that nine times out of ten, almost all the time, if you focus more on being your authentic self and bringing that to everything you do, you will wind up exactly where you need and want to be. New York City is filled with multiple images, identities, and branding that comes into the business aspect of surviving and thriving in a big city, regardless of what you do. The most important thing is to remain honest and truthful to yourself. If you are intune with who you are and what you want then, regardless of whatever situation you’re in or wherever you are, you won't be shaken. That is one thing that performing has brought to me because there are times when you need to get into a character and understand who they are, but there’s no one else that can do that character like you. So, you are diving into your version of who they are. The character that you bring is a translation of as much truth you can bring from yourself and put into understanding them.
The second thing, when it comes to performing, is to just throw yourself at it. Life is scary and hard and there is so much uncertainty out there. You never know where you will end up or what you will end up doing, you might as well do instead of don’t. You might as well live. If something is scary and seems like it might end your world, it probably won’t. People can waste time worrying about having a hard conversation or pushing themselves to get to the next level. With theater I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to go, jump in and do it. That has been a wonderful mentality to bring back into my own life and allow myself to do the things that are uncomfortable, strange or weird and see where they end up.
Q: How can performing arts (MT) be a platform for social justice issues?
Inclusion. Representation is one of the biggest ways our performing world can fight and do right by social justice. The ability to be able to see not just yourself in a character, but see your own stories portrayed in art, is one of the best ways to both represent and give people an opportunity to heal and change and grow. I remember going to see Choir Boy, which was on Broadway this past season for a short time. In my opinion, it was one of the first times I was able to absolutely connect with a character on stage, as an African American homosexual male. Many times, when the African American side is told and the homosexual side, you end up not hearing our specific story. Seeing queer people of color on stage be given a voice that is authentic and true to the time we live in is major. That speaks to my personal story, but I can only imagine it goes for anyone who doesn't quite see themselves fully expressed in art. Fully connecting to a character and story is a really powerful emotion. Sometimes, I meet white people who see things I connect with and say “I don't get it”. There is still a great experience that comes from being on the other side and saying “That's ok, you don't have to get it. It's not necessarily for you but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy it.” It’s been nice to see. in musical theater and art as a whole, the shift into actually representing the world we live in. That, I believe, is the most important way we can start battling and tackling these issues.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist?
As an actor and performing artist, I am one of the very few lucky people who doesn't have to worry about my job only because it sits at the core of commercial theater. Knowing that The Lion King will still be here when the pandemic is over is the greatest blessing I could ask for right now. Many of my friends didn't have work beforehand and are now out of luck because they can't audition for anything. The people doing regional theater usually have a couple big gigs a year to pay bills and get their health weeks but now, those jobs are gone. I know people on tours, on Broadway, doing high level shows and they have all lost out on work. Imagine expecting to tour for six months and then having your show closed for a couple weeks, then a month or two, and then being told the show you did three weeks ago was your last show. You don’t get closure, you don’t get to say goodbye, you don’t get to be with your castmates. It's the worst way to leave a show. So many people just dealt with that and more are having to experience that as we hear about shows having to close because they won’t make it. That is the most disheartening thing to hear. We all know this is the financial fragility that our business brings. It can make money but it usually doesn't and it also takes a lot of money to do so. So, to cycle back, to know I have a job at the end of this is beyond incredible. I am home now and with my family. It is sunny here and I get to be with my mom who is my favorite person in the world. This is a time where I can breathe, relax, stop, pause and get away from the constant running in New York City. I couldn't be in a better place for this pandemic but I know so many are not and that takes the forefront of my mind.
Q: What were your initial reactions to the show cancellation and the NYC shutdown?
I think it was a Thursday, the day they decided to close Broadway. There was a ripple effect. I got home at 1:00pm EST and at 1:10pm, there was an article I saw on Facebook that said “Broadway is Shut Down”. At 1:11pm the company manager sent an email that said all shows were cancelled until April 12th. I've been in the show for a year and a half now and haven't taken a vacation. I had a vacation setup the following week to go to Tokyo with some friends, but with the pandemic, we cancelled and I decided I would just come home to Arizona instead. By 1:30pm, I had changed my flight to leave that night at 7:15pm with only ttwo hours to pack. I got in an Uber to the airport at 5:00 and was in Arizona by 10:00 that night. I told myself I would not be in NYC when things go down. The greatest thing about New York City is that it is the city that never sleeps and it's an amazing place to be. However, the city does not function when stopped and I don’t want to be there when it stops functioning. I am originally from Arizona so I love the sun and therefore don't enjoy winters in NYC. The spring time, as it comes through, is still grey in NYC until at least May. I wanted to see my family, be in the sun and not stuck alone in a city, fighting people for food.
The cast always texts each other to see how everyone is doing, sometimes calling in on Zoom. My cast is a family and many have been there for years and years. My company has been good about keeping us in the loop, trying to make sure we are taken care of. Broadway is planning on paying people for about a month to help the transition and getting people onto unemployment while they figure out how to handle this. Broadaway has never experienced something like this before so, how do you handle something that has no rules? Disney has been very good about taking care of us, making sure we’re okay, that we still have health benefits, being transparent in sharing information, and checking in to let us know of any changes. I really do feel like we have been taken care of.
I filed for unemployment and am currently in the camp of people waiting to get a call back. Our shows were going to pay us for a few weeks so the day we stopped getting paid was later than when we initially were not in the show performing so I waited a bit to file. I have filed before so I wasn't going in blind. I finished the online tasks and application. People filing for unemployment needed to finish the claim by calling in and talking to someone in order to get a weekly paycheck. The problem is they were not set up to have this many calls and with so many people out of work, they suddenly couldn't handle the volume of calls they were getting. So you have many people who are calling a hundred times a day and never getting through to anyone. Or, sometimes you call and it just says “busy.” I called about a hundred times for a few days. Then the NYC unemployment office sent an announcement stating they were redoing the process by hiring people to facilitate calls instead of us calling them. They will also pay people retroactively. So even though I haven't been able to get through to them yet, once the claim is submitted, they will pay me for all time I have missed and lost since I’ve been unemployed. I am still waiting for that call. I am a little nervous about it because I filed a while ago, but I know friends who filed later than I did and are already getting benefits. There is a lot of uncertainty on what’s going on. I know some people who’ve gotten called at 7 am and missed the call, so I am just waiting so that I can stop worrying about it. Now if I try to call them they say “we are still busy, sorry. Someone will call you.”
Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic? (Worldmaking: How you can re-imagine the world in your own terms, the way you want it to be. Using this tool one can construct new worlds and write themselves into narratives that have excluded them and systems that have disabled them.)
I think our industry has been oversaturated with the idea of quick, fast work. We pump out material hoping and praying that it is good, throwing things at the wall and hoping they stick. That hasn’t always been the case in our industry. I feel this time is a mixture of allowing new work to thrive and come to fruition but also having that work represent the world we live in. So much of the work that comes out now is jukebox musicals that cater to the past. Instead, we should focus on grabbing on and putting time into telling the stories of people who are here today. We live in such a diverse world, in an amazingly complex society and it is only getting more and more interesting as more people’s voices are being heard. This is what needs to be reflected in the art. There is no better time than right now to take all of these ideas and bring them to fruition, to create a space where my story is being told, or people of color, or people of other identities, including different sexual orientation identities, stories are being told. There is the ability to see yourself on stage and tell stories that mean things to people, instead of recycling things that have worked in the past. This means taking more risks and telling stories that touch people and reflect the world that we live in. These are so important and we haven't had the time to let that kind of art breathe. I don't drink, but I’ve heard from people who drink wine a lot, that if you let a good wine breathe, it can enhance the experience. I think that is true for a lot of things. To make good bread you need to give time for the dough to rise. You have to be able to give these things time and I don’t think we’ve been precious enough with the art we’re making. I would like for us to come out of this with not just more art, but more storytellers. We can’t only have one Lin Manuel Miranda, let’s have more, bring more and diversify this industry.