Thursday, February 26, 2015

When Their World Becomes My World

Me with Javier Muñoz (understudy for Alexander Hamilton) after the show.
I’m writing this post while sitting in Logan Airport. In less than one hour I will board a plane to Minneapolis. Exactly one month ago I received a letter from St. Olaf College announcing that I am a finalist for a theatre scholarship. Tomorrow I will take part in the Fine Arts Scholars weekend, during which I will meet with theatre professors, sit in on an Intermediate Directing class, tour the theatre facilities, chat with students, and stay overnight with a fine arts student. I will be among people who I might be working with on a daily basis next year at this time. I am going off to college for the weekend, but it seems like so much more.

This past week, I got a glimpse at my future. On Sunday, I saw the new off-Broadway musical Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda, playwright of In the Heights, is the mastermind behind Hamilton. In addition to writing the musical, Miranda performs as the principal character, Alexander Hamilton. The musical tells the story of the founding father, Alexander Hamilton...through rap.

I became familiar with Miranda through my work on In the Heights last winter, in which I played Nina Rosario in my high school’s production of it. Since then, Miranda has been my idol, the figurehead I look at for where I want to be someday. After I met him at Lawrence Academy in October, I immediately pooled all my Christmas and birthday requests into tickets for Hamilton. With its catchy tunes, timeless themes, and stunning choreography, props and set, it was worth a lifetime of Christmas and birthday requests. 

The night went better than I could have imagined, especially considering the initial disappointment that Miranda wasn’t performing that night because he was taking notes in the audience.  Javier Muñoz understudied him, and after the first number, it didn't even matter that he wasn't Miranda––I immediately bought that he was Hamilton. Additionally, to my luck Miranda ended up sitting right in front of me, and I got to chat with him during intermission. I also met Robin de Jesús (who happened to be in the audience), who played Sonny in In the Heights. I ran into him in the lobby during intermission, and explained how his version of Nina’s song "Breathe" helped me find my voice with the character. Jesús brought a softer tone to the song, something that better matched my voice than Mandy Gonzalez's powerful belt. I also met several of the cast members, including Christopher Jackson, whom I’ve long admired from the countless YouTube videos I’ve watched of him.

What I explained to each of the people I talked to was how incredible it was to be in their presence. The playbill compared Miranda to Shakespeare. Shakespeare took common speech and communicated it through poetry; Miranda is taking common speech and communicating it through rap. Also like Shakespeare, I feel as though Miranda is creating his own theatre company. Miranda took several people from his In the Heights team, including Director Thomas Kail, Christopher Jackson (who played Benny in In the Heights and plays George Washington in Hamilton), and Javier Muñoz (who understudied Miranda as Usnavi in In the Heights and understudies him as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton). The work they are doing is revolutionary. They are taking the theatre and bringing it to this new generation, communicating themes about family and loyalty and storytelling through language of today. These are the people who I believe, ten years from now, everyone will be studying. They are on the brink of making it big––Hamilton is already scheduled to go to Broadway. To be able to talk with them when they are on this cusp, to be able to see their work while it’s still off-Broadway, is such an honor. 

On Sunday, I was a part of their world. This weekend, I will further dive into this theatre world. Every day when I’m working on my Senior Project (which is all about exploring what it means to be a director, and specifically, what it means for me to be a director), I’m going deeper into this world. And I can’t imagine living in a better one. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015


Does one hunger for air? Thirst for it? Whether it's a thirst or a hunger, I crave air. Specifically, cold air. I love the sting in my lungs on a winter run––it's why I always take off my neck warmer in the last 100m, to breath in the fresh air. Fresh air is why I like to wear tank tops when I ride a bike, to feel the air on my skin. I like everything that comes along with the cold. I like the goosebumps and the rosy cheeks, the tingling on my skin when I come back inside. I especially love it when I get fresh air before bed, when my cheeks are still cool as I lay down on my pillow.

Mostly, though, I love air because it gives me space. I get claustrophobic when I don't have enough room to breathe, to stretch. My friend told me that one of the hardest parts about college for her is the lack of space. She doesn't have room to stretch her limbs. She longs to just spread out her arms without hitting anything.

This past week, I had two beautiful open-air experiences. The first was on Sunday, before the big blizzard. My mom, stepdad and I ran around Walden Pond, lost in the snowy woods with the blue sky peaking through the trees. But the best part was the end of the run, when we emerged out from the woods onto the snow-covered lake, a great tundra in the middle of Concord, MA. So many times have I swam across that lake, but never have I run across it. And I just kept laughing, like I do when something is so great and somewhat unbelievable, the same kind of laugh I get in English class when my teacher or a classmate makes a particularly profound connection. There was just so much space on that lake. I felt like I do when I swim straight out at Skaket Beach on the Cape, into the horizon. This tundra is another place I will return to when I'm needing air.

And then there was Tuesday, the day of the blizzard. After a day spent inside, I was craving the air by 10:00pm. I went for a walk by myself around the neighborhood, trudging through the three feet of snow in my driveway. At some places, I couldn't even lift my feet. When I got to the end of the driveway, I had to practically climb over the pile of snow to get to the snowplowed street. Now on the plowed road, I skipped, ran, spun, and hummed at odd intervals. There was a driving ban because of the snow, and the snow had stopped falling awhile ago, so I didn't even have to worry about running into a plow. I threw my arms out and pranced in diagonals down the hill and then up it, my shadow lively in the streetlights. No one could see me. I had the world to myself. It was so remarkably freeing.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Stepping Into the New Year

"Our intuition comes from innocence." 
That was my Yogi tea bag tag message for the new year. My intuition, my gut, my instinct, comes from innocence, purity, no muck. It comes in the silence within myself, when I can close out the bickering devil and angel on each shoulder. It comes in the feeling, not the label. It comes in my secret smiles to myself when I'm driving alone in the car, listening to Michael Bublé. It comes in the happy rumble in my stomach when I satisfy my potato and ketchup craving. It comes in the lightness of my step as I run along the beach at midnight. 

This year, I aim to listen to my heart. It's where I'm happiest. It's where I feel the most connected to myself. It can be hard to get to sometimes, mucked up with clutter and indecision and doubt. I'm good at talking myself out of things. I tend to focus on what I don't know, rather than what I do.

I need to start with what I know. Start with what I can do. For example: 

I don't know what to eat. What do I know? I know I like vegetables. Good. I know I like rice. Good. I know I like chocolate. Good. Go from there.

I'm feeling crummy right now. What can I do to make myself feel better? 

I don't know what I want to do. What do I know that I don't want to do? I don't want to watch a movie. Okay. That's one thing off the list.

It's like working on a math problem. 

Step 1: Reword the problem into words that make sense. 
Step 2: Write down what I know
Step 3: Solve.
Step 4: Check my work. Did I come to a solution? If not, try again.  

It's like writing an essay. Ernest Hemingway said in his memoir A Moveable Feast, "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." Then, "go on from there." If I can write one true sentence, I can write another.

It's like putting one step in front of the other. Just take each day one step at a time, one moment at a time. If I can take one step, I can take another. Step through the muck. Be patient. Keep walking until I find my heart.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Solstice Run

11:45pm and we laced up our sneakers. The car idled in the driveway, the exhaust against the night air like the stream from the tea that awaited me when I got home. It was December 21st, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, meaning that starting the next day (today), every day gets a little longer. And we–my mom, Michael, my dog Mocha and me–were ready to welcome the longer days.

This is the fourth or fifth year we've ran on the winter solstice. The first year we did it, the solstice fell on a full moon, and we ran by moonlight while the "cows" howled in the distance, or so my mom told my brother. The solstice hasn't fallen on a full moon since that first year, but the solstice runs have become a tradition. There's something about waiting up until midnight, seeing your breath fog up in the night air, feeling your way blindly on the trails, listening to the lull of the night. It's as if the world and we are in on a little secret. "Shh..." it tells us. "Don't let anyone know I'm awake."

This year was kinder than some years. There wasn't any snow on the ground and the air was cool but mild. Although it was cloudy, it wasn't too dark; our eyes adjusted quickly.

We did four laps this year–one for each runner–and then came home to tea and Trader Joe's gingerbread men. We each had four cookies for four laps for four runners. I went to sleep with my cheeks still rosy from the night air and my stomach warm with tea and cookies.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

21 Pages of Peter Pan

My Wendy costume.
Last night, my fellow castmates and I took flight one final time to Neverland in our high school's production of Peter Pan: The Official British Musical. I specify that it was The Official British Musical because it is so much richer than the Disney version. More true to the book, it primarily tells the remarkable coming of age story of Wendy Darling.

I didn't fully realize until last night at IHOP that we have been working on Peter Pan for the last six months. In June I was cast as Wendy, the twelve-year-old girl struggling to balance her desire to grow up with the temptation to stay a child alongside the whimsical Peter Pan––the perpetual little boy. Since then, I have invested myself in the story, like I do for every play.

This story was unique in that I had an entire book and several movie adaptations to construct my own interpretation of Peter Pan, and more specifically, Wendy Darling. I was also fortunate to have castmates who shared my love for analyzing the play––in particular, my friend Emily, who played my mother (Mrs. Darling), and my friend Joe, who played Peter Pan. I scrolled through all our Peter Pan e-mail exchanges and Facebook messages and copy and pasted them into a document. That document is 21 pages long. There's so much I want to talk about, so I think the best way to address them is to break this post up into sub-divisions.

Wendy, Peter and Mrs. Darling

Mrs. Darling and Peter are the embodiment of Wendy's coming of age struggle. In Mrs. Darling, Wendy sees her adult self. J.M. Barrie's book implies remarkable similarities between Wendy and Mrs. Darling. It is because of Mrs. Darling that Wendy realizes she needs to grow up someday. The book begins:

One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, "Oh, why can't you remain like this for ever!" This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

To say "she must grow up" has a tone of negativity, yet there is part of Wendy that is excited about growing up. She loves taking care of her brothers. She loves to play house. In picturing herself grown up, I imagine that Wendy thinks of Mrs. Darling. To Wendy, growing up is inevitable. She doesn't question it.

Until Peter. Peter flies into her window and enchants Wendy. He talks about flying and mermaids and fairies; about the Neverland, a world filled with fun and games and make-believe. Peter has somehow managed to beat the system and not grow up. In meeting Peter, growing up is no longer inevitable. Wendy has a choice, and her decision about whether or not to grow up is one of her many coming of age moments in the play.

The book says Wendy "grows up of her own accord," so eventually Wendy grows up because she wants to, not because it’s inevitable.
Wendy and Peter

Throughout the play, I was obsessed with figuring out Peter and Wendy's relationship––in particular, Peter's feelings for Wendy. How appropriate, considering in the script Wendy asks Peter, "What are your exact feelings for me?" It was a line that got laughs every performance, which made me defensive of Wendy. "She really wants to know!" I thought. "This is really hard for her!" But then again, it is a very adult line for a twelve-year-old girl.

Joe and I talked about this a lot, each proposing our own theories. Below are two of our many theories.

My Theory: I definitely get the sense that Wendy loves Peter, and she wants Peter to love her too, but love is too grown up of an emotion for Peter. What I can't understand (and maybe you have some insight/ideas?) is where Peter stands. When Wendy asks how Peter feels about her, he says that he feels like a "devoted son." Do you think that's all he feels? I know he enjoys Wendy's company, but the book doesn't seem to show any adolescent romantic interest (that's the weirdest way to word that) on Peter's side. There's no kiss on the cheek at the end, or sweet song. Peter forgets to get Wendy for spring cleaning the second year, and forgets a lot of their adventures. But, although he doesn't come back for almost 30 years, he does come back eventually, so I guess he still remembers Wendy, which, I don't know, is maybe significant because Peter forgets so much (including Tinkerbell and Hook)?
Wendy desperately wants Peter to love her and to grow old with her. I think Peter does love Wendy to some degree, but he doesn't know it's love because it's too adult of an emotion for him. I think Peter is sad Wendy isn't staying with him, which is another new emotion. But ultimately, he sacrifices Wendy because he loves being a child more. So why does he kiss her? I don't know.
Joe's Theory: Well...maybe he can't admit he does love her so instead of admitting it he just kisses her instead. Oh I've got it. Peter does love her. And he does want to grow up but his ego is too big and he won't admit it... I could probably keep coming up with weird things to answer your question but I really don't think I know either.

The kiss at the end of the play was hard for us to figure out, because it shows a remarkable amount of character development for Peter. It was important to us that this kiss contrasted the kiss at the beginning of the play. For the first kiss, our director instructed Joe to make a surprised look after I kissed him–like "What is this?"–immediately followed by a, "I like this" look. At that moment, the kiss is just, “This is cool.” The kiss doesn't have the same emotional attachment for Peter as the kiss at the end does, when he kisses Wendy. But where does that emotional attachment come from? And how much emotional attachment is there?  

Here I am talking about Peter even though I played Wendy, but I can't help trying to analyze him, because Wendy spends the whole play trying to analyze him and her relationship to him.

Wendy and Me

I still don't think Joe or I have the entire relationship figured out, because I don't think we're supposed to. A few weeks ago, Joe and I watched an acting video of the renowned German American actress and acting teacher, Uta Hagen, with a group of friends. In it, she warns her students to not think about what they're feeling onstage––the words “think” and “feel” themselves are contradictory.  

“I do that to you all the time,” I said to Joe. “I’m always asking you, ‘What are you feeling?’ ‘What are you thinking?’ ‘I’m going to do this here because of this.’”

In this way, I realize I am more like Wendy than I thought I was: the desire to always put a label on my emotions, rather than just feeling them; wanting to have it all figured out; wanting to know rather than feel, or rather, know how I feel, because knowing is so much more concrete. But the more time I spend trying to know how I feel, the less I feel. I understand this when I’m onstage. My best performances are the ones when I’m in the moment, not thinking about, “What is my character feeling at this moment?” but just being that character in that moment.

This show comes at a very apropos time for me. It’s my senior year, and as I prepare to wrap up this chapter in my life, I’m torn between the desire to grow up and the longing to stay a child. Like Wendy, who grew up of her own accord, I am leaving home of my own accord next year. No one’s telling me I have to go to college or that I need to go far away. I’m optimistic and nostalgic; excited and scared. I’m taking ownership of my life, which scares me because if I’m wrong, there’s no one to blame but myself.

Last night was my friend Connor’s last performance ever on our high school stage. Three Novembers ago, we were performing together onstage in Romeo and Juliet, our first high school play. As I watched him bow, I couldn’t stop crying, thinking about the time when I will need to say goodbye to him and my other senior friends. We’ve been through so much together. I have so many emotions about it all and I’m not always sure what I’m feeling or how I’m feeling, and somehow I want to find a name for it. But there I go again, thinking instead of just feeling.

My favorite part of Peter Pan was the final number, when Joe and I slow danced while he sang “Don’t Say Goodbye.” I believe that is Wendy’s freest moment of the play, because she is not thinking, just feeling. And in my performance, I too was not thinking, just feeling. Nothing made me feel freer than when Joe would spin me in my blue nightgown, and I could feel the fabric swishing around me and the wooden stage beneath my slippers.  

"Don't think of when we meet again, if it will be the same. Don't cry too hard, just smile, be happy now, be strong,” sang Joe as Peter, urging me not to worry about the future. "Don't wonder how we came to now, don't wonder why,” he sang, telling me not to think about the past. Just think about the present. Because if you read the book, you know that Peter forgets to come back for Wendy most years. He’s too preoccupied with his own adventures. But in the moment, Wendy believes with all her heart that Peter will come back for her, and that’s all that matters.

Monday, October 6, 2014

In the Presence of Greatness

I have frequented the streets of Washington Heights a lot in my blog posts in my writings about Nina Rosario, the "failed" neighborhood superstar of the barrio. I wax and wane myself off from the musical In the Heights, telling myself, "I need to move on" one day. But no more than a week goes by when I'm back waving my Dominican Republic flag. Tonight, I had the honor of seeing and talking with the man who brought Washington Heights into my life: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tony-winning composer-lyricist of my all-time favorite musical, In the Heights.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's advisor at Wesleyan University (where he received his undergraduate degree in Theatre) is the father of the Headmaster at Lawrence Academy in Groton, MA. This is the fourth year of Lawrence Academy's J. William Mees Visiting Scholar's program. Miranda was this year's featured scholar. The night featured a video overviewing In the Heights, a few gracious performances from several of Miranda's works, and a question and answer session with the audience.

Miranda opened the night with songs from the Wesleyan draft of In the Heights, including one of Nina's original numbers on the subway, and a song from her brother Lincoln (who was cut in an earlier draft of the show). He wrote the first draft of In the Heights his sophomore year of college as a 90 minute, one act show at a time when he had a lot of "time and angst on his hands."

"Time and angst are all you need to write a musical. 'I have all these emotions and I just need to sing.' That was really the birth of 'In the Heights,'" he said.

He explained that he drew inspiration from home life, his summers in Puerto Rico, and his own "What if?" questions about the characters in his life. Attending Hunter College High School in New York City, he said he didn't have Latino friends his age until sophomore year in college. This allowed him to re-explore his Spanish roots, and write about them. He references the rock musical Rent as his epiphany that musicals could be written about everyday life––about "stuff."

When question and answer time came, the audience was silent. I myself, who had drafted three questions before I came, felt my hand twitch in my lap, but could not muster the courage to raise it. My stepdad, who is never afraid to be the first to volunteer, raised his hand.

"How do you go from In the Heights to Hamilton? How do you go from Washington Heights to Washington D.C.?" he asked, referencing Miranda's new musical, Hamilton, written about the life of the founding father, Alexander Hamilton. The musical premieres at the Public Theatre in New York City on January 20, 2015.

"I'm so glad you asked that question," Miranda said, and I cursed myself, because that was the big question I wanted to ask, and I wanted to sound smart in front of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer-lyricist of (have I mentioned?) my all-time favorite musical. Regardless, I took a deep breath, and raised my pen, ready to absorb every word he said.

Ultimately, Miranda said to write about what you know. His mother, he said, was a psychologist. She told him everything he experienced in life was, "Grist for the mill." It's how she got him to take out the trash, and also how she convinced him to work at McDonald's painting little kid's faces when they had the deal on Happy Meals on Friday nights. Coincidentally, Miranda said his experience at McDonald's became the "grist" for a later song of his.

Miranda said he first picked up Alexander Hamilton's biography on a vacation from In the Heights in Mexico.

"You can ask my wife," he said. "I was two chapters into the book and I said, 'This is going to be my next musical.'"

Miranda said he relates to the "ticking clock" Hamilton is so aware of, that idea that you never have enough time. Hamilton brilliantly interweaves current day inspiration into the characters of the 18th century. For example, Thomas Jefferson raps like Drake. Although it's a period piece, he explained that the debates of the 18th century aren't too different from the debates of today, like the issues of taxation and foreign policy.

"What does it take to bring a production like In the Heights to Broadway?" an aspiring playwright in the audience asked.

"I'm going to start with the bad news," Miranda said. "No matter how hard you work, no matter how good your show is, there is an element of luck." He then proceeded to explain the "elements of luck" that played a part in the success of In the Heights.

Most of them were with regard to the connections he made. He highlighted the importance of inviting anyone who is remotely involved in theatre to workshops of your play. He frequently talked about inviting "a guy who knew a guy who dated her," or someone of the sort. He also said it's important to have something physical (like a physical recording of your musical and/or a draft of a script) to give to someone so when that "element of luck" comes your way, you're ready to seize it.

At the end of the evening, I finally had my chance to personally meet Miranda himself. It was surreal to be able to shake his hand and thank him for this show that makes me feel at home; for writing songs that on my worst day, can make me laugh and fall in love; for giving birth to this character (Nina) who helped me find my voice. It was intimidating, inspiring, and incredible to meet the man who is where I want to be someday.

We talked about directing. He emphasized the importance of collaboration with actors, producers, and others involved in the show. It's important to be open-minded, he said, and not get married to a particular vision of the show. It takes a great amount of trust.

I asked him whether it was hard to let his vision go. The only part of the original Wesleyan draft of In the Heights that remains in the final version is, "In Washington Heights." More than sixty songs were cut between the first and final draft. Several characters were, as Miranda terms it, "killed."

"No," he said. He's just always excited about what's next.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Crazy Dreamer Caught in a Greenhouse

In honor of the background of my blog, I felt compelled to share this photo from my senior photos collection my dear friend Madison Busick put together for me. As I'm preparing to send off my college applications, Carrie Underwood's song "Crazy Dreams" has been very present with me. I started this blog freshman year as a "wild magnolia, just waiting to bloom."

High school has given me lots of room to grow, but I feel like I'm caught in a greenhouse. I have been protected from the harsh winds and cold winters, from the too powerful sun and the leaf-biting pests. High school has given me a safe space to establish my roots, but I'm still gazing out through the glass roof, waiting to bloom. I want to be watered by rain, not a hose. I want to smell the fresh air, pollutants and all. I want to stretch my limbs without hitting a wall.

Last week at a college interview, the admissions representative asked me about my college application process. I said, "I feel like I've been waiting to apply to college forever. I'm just so excited to look on these college websites and know these are my deadlines."

I don't know where I'm going to be next year at this time, but for once, the uncertainty of what is next is exhilarating.