The lights go up, the curtain draws back, and suddenly the person you are fades away to reveal the character you desire to share comes out. This is what my first drama teacher told me when she was relaying to us how it feels moments before you step out onto the stage for the first time. I have spent a large amount of time in musical theater and this thought always ran through my mind moments before I would take the stage.
In this piece, I will be detailing different roles I have played and what I learned about myself. The theater is something else as not just an artform but an unique experience that didn't just alter your view on life but helped you gain new insight into yourself.
Nina, “In the Heights”
This was one of my first roles, and honestly one of the easiest to get into. For those who are not familiar with Lin Manuel Miranda’s inaugural broadway show, Miranda draws upon his experience growing up in Washington Heights in what is sometimes referred to as Spanish Harlem. It’s a wonderful show with a bunch of different leads telling different perspectives of living in the Heights. My character, Nina, is considered to be the cornerstone of the show as her actions - either directly or indirectly - affect the actions of many of the other characters. Nina enters the show having just returned from Stanford. After getting a large scholarship to go study, Nina is back because she is overwhelmed and now doesn’t feel that college is for her. Nina spends the entire show being very lost and confused about where her place in the world is. Being born a child of immigrants, Nina doesn’t know whether she is Puerto Rican - as she doesn’t remember being there - or as an American and a New Yorker - the home she has always known. Her feeling of identity confusion is something that I have always dealt with, so tapping into that kind of loss and confusion was incredibly to play.
Nina, though she ends up with her childhood love Benny, is not defined in the end by a man but by who she is and her new understanding that you do not have to fit into one category, but every part of our past is an experience that molds who we are. Because of that she is still my favorite role to look back on.
Kathy, “The Last Five Years”
This was the most emotionally draining part I had ever played. This story is being told slightly out of order. The first scene in the show is Kathy, my character, sitting alone on the stage in front of a piece of paper - a letter written by my husband telling me that he is leaving me because I didn’t support him the way he needed, and it would be better for him to no longer be in our five year relationship. Through tears, I sing “I’m Still Hurting” and even thinking about that number is bringing me to tears. In that song, I try to suppress the tears but by the climax, I am in full tears and have collapsed on the stage. My castmates were concerned because this had never happened in any of the rehearsals, but that first night something inside of me snapped. I am not sure whether that song linked to in my brain the pain, and the anguish I felt when my father left my mother so many years ago, or whether I had turned myself off to the point that I had become Kathy completely and I was feeling her pain as genuinely as could be felt.
This show will always be a standout because it helped me reach emotional depths I didn’t know were possible and forever changed how I view dealing with struggles and pain. Because just because you can see someone hurting doesn’t mean you can fully understand the depth of the pain they are feeling.
Sally Bowles, “Cabaret”
This was by far the most bizarre role on this list. When trying to prep for this role, I was shocked because though I had heard the numbers countless times, I had never actually seen the show or had any idea what it was about. Sally Bowles fled from a boarding school to live out her dream of being a nightclub singer in Berlin and during her tenure there meets and falls madly in love with a man. Though later it is revealed that she clearly only sees him as a fling while he feels a much deeper connection, the penultimate event in the play is after we find out that Sally is pregnant but breaks up with the man and gets an abortion - which she tells him as she walks out on him. Though those words are never spoken, it is highly alluded to and has been determined to be what really happened.
The reason this show and role were difficult for me was because I had never seen abortion as being an option for myself, so how could I play a character who sees it as the only option? However, after looking into the source material, I found out just why it became her only option. Because this is pre-WWII, Sally sees the violence and the destruction that is about to break out, and she cannot bear to bring a child into that kind of world. Though this is only one interpretation of why she did what she did, that is how I chose to play the role.
The theater is a marvelous place that doesn’t just allow for the audience to be moved and feel but can have the same or more of an affect on the ones actually up on the stage.
Live theater is the most intimate way to watch the human experience and come to an understanding about how others view the world, which is why I will never leave the stage so that I can help those who can’t continue to tell their story.