Sunday, March 23, 2014

Time to Fly

It's been over a week now since my high school's winter musical, "In the Heights," ended, and I'm still listening to the soundtrack, wishing that I could hear the voices of my fellow cast members sing the songs instead. Even after four months of listening to the same music, I'm not sick of it. I'm sick for it. I would give anything to be back in Washington Heights.

"Post-show depression" is not uncommon for myself, or any actor. After spending four months working with a cast, connected with characters, lost in another world, it can be hard to come back to reality. I find love is more natural on the stage. I'm so much more comfortable on the stage. Life is so much easier on the stage.

And then there comes the time to leave it all behind. And suddenly everything I've been working on for four months–the relationships I've worked to developed, the notes I've strived to hit, the accents I've perfected–is gone. As Prospero reflects in Shakespeare's The Tempest, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounding with a sleep." Many people link Prospero with Shakespeare himself in The Tempest (Shakespeare's final play), particularly in this monologue. Shakespeare spent his entire life creating illusions that disappear at the end of the final act. The magic of his plays exists not in the text we hold in our hands but in the life the actors bring to them, and that life is not tangible. At the end of the play, we are left with a few good memories that may eventually fade and some props for keepsakes. How can one not come out feeling depressed?

This show in particular is a hard one to let go of. It's a story about community and home, and being able to share this story with a group who I have found a home with was an incredible experience. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, In the Heights focuses on the Latino community in Washington Heights, New York. The playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda commented that it was one of the first plays where Latinos weren't portrayed as servants or in a gang, but in their relationships with each other. Everyone in the story dreams of getting out of the barrio and making something of themselves. Ultimately, they realize they have been home all along.

Above is my much-loved script, dog-eared and bookmarked and filled with scribbled stage directions and character notes. Even my friend Alex, who never ceases to find amusement in stealing my things, knows that my script is not one to be tampered with by others. I remember sitting at the lunch table the day I got my script, highlighting my lines and music for my dream role: Nina. 

Nina Rosario is the one who makes it out of the barrio. At the start of the play, she is returning from her first year at Stanford University with some surprising news: she dropped out. The girl who always seemed to have it together, who "always made the grade," and who spent her whole life trying to go farther, feels like she failed. And she doesn't know how to tell everyone.

Nina is the most close-to-home character I've played so far. My prior leads–Ms. Wiz in The Wiz and Rizzo in Grease–required me to stretch my acting to become someone almost completely opposite of who I am. Nina is more genuine, and I found the line dividing myself from Nina to be very thin. I understand the pressure to succeed, the pressure to make it look like you have it together, the stubbornness to admit you don't know what you're doing. I felt it nearly every moment with this show. Nina's role is more vocally demanding than the roles I have had in the past. Mandy Gonzalez–who originated the role on Broadway–has a killer belt, and every time I listened to her sing, I felt self-conscious that I could never perform Nina as well. Every show, there is some prop or costume piece that helps me connect with my character. For this show, it was a butterfly.

My first exposure to the butterfly was this journal I purchased a few years ago with the proverb, "Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly." I didn't think much about the symbolism behind it, though, until my friend Liv gave me the butterfly Alex & Ani bracelet for my birthday in November.

Like every Alex & Ani bracelet, there was a brief description of the symbolism of the charm. The butterfly symbolism read as following: "A regenerative species, butterflies consistently transition from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly. Giving us faith in change, the butterfly is associated with unwavering grace, soulful insight, and eloquence on our journey. Channel the energy of the butterfly and emerge brilliantly from your own transformation." 

When I saw Mandy Gonzalez wearing a butterfly shirt on Broadway, I knew the butterfly was my symbol for Nina. "It all makes sense!" I thought. "Nina is transitioning to find her place in this world. I'm transitioning to find my place. And I must transition to find my voice through Nina." Thus began my butterfly obsession. After browsing through every store in the mall and thirty different internet sites, I finally commissioned my stepdad, who's an artist, to paint one for me. 

And for Valentine's Day, my mom bought me two pairs of butterfly underwear. (Considering I had four nights of performances, I did a load of laundry every night to make sure I had clean underwear for every performance.)

I cannot remember loving a character more than I loved Nina. I worked tirelessly on her character, trying to find my voice in her songs. I will always remember that Saturday rehearsal when the music director approached me and said, "Something changed. When's the last time you listened to Mandy Gonzalez?" I told him it had been over a month. "You can tell. That was fucking gorgeous." And then I remember the Monday after that when I went to my voice teacher and she ripped apart the song, which I know ultimately made it better. I will always remember that moment on stage when I started crying during one of my songs because I connected with Nina so much, and I felt her pain. 

Every character I have ever played has taught me something new. Ms. Wiz helped me be confident. Rizzo taught me that no matter who I meet, I can always find some way to connect to them. Nina helped me find my voice, and I am so grateful to the casting team for giving me the opportunity to perform this role.

Tomorrow I have auditions for the spring play. It's time for me to take flight from Washington Heights, but I will always wear my butterfly charm as a reminder to let my voice be heard. 

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