Monday, May 13, 2013

YO! Why is everyone so happy? - Deep thoughts with "Vanessa's" SARAH MARIA DICKERSON

Rashaun Sibley (Sonny) & Me
YO! Why is everyone so happy?


 Since I auditioned for this show, my life has completely changed.

I originally heard about auditions for In The Heights late last year, and I knew ABOUT the show , thought it could be fun, but didn’t think I really stood a chance to be in it. I mean, its about Washington Heights...the barrio! I thought nah…I could not fit any role in that show.

Now, I AM ¼ Mexican (which I am very proud of) but I never thought of it as my ethnicity. My mom doesn’t speak Spanish, I barely ever see my grandma and when I do, the only Spanish she speaks is when she’s ordering at a Mexican restaurant. So, when my best friend Michael Sylvester told me I should audition I was like…whaaaaaat. What part could I possibly play? He told me to look up all of the songs for Nina, especially Breathe. I was like, really? He said trust me, it IS you. I went home, listened to Breathe, and sobbed for a good 20 minutes listening to it on repeat. It pretty much summed up what happened to me 6 years prior when I left college in Manhattan and had to come home after a semester…I felt like a complete failure and that I had let everyone down. I quickly became VERY attached to the part. I learned all of Nina’s songs, and had planned to audition for the show.

"Little Coca" and me!
Soon, I became very caught up in other shows I was doing, so Heights moved to the back of my brain. Then, I remember one night after a show of myFootloose, Adam, our Heights director, coming up to me in the greeting line and handing me his card, saying he wanted me to come audition for In The Heights. I was so excited that he had noticed me, so I made plans in my head to set up an audition time. BUT of course, soon I was once again caught up in the NEXT show, Thoroughly Modern Millie. I was TIRED at that point yall. T-I-R-E-D. I knew I needed to take a break. So, in a bold move, I said what the hell and cut my hair into the short bob needed for that character. Then, one night again – Adam is at Millie. I think oh no…I didn’t ever sign up to audition…and I really don’t have any plans to sign up anymore. He basically yelled at me for not signing up, AND for cutting my hair. (OOPS. I definitely regret that now.)We talked a bit, and he let me know that between Millie and Heights there was about a month til rehearsals started – with that little bit of info, I was totally on board again to audition. I signed up the next day, prepared my audition and showed up the day of - - TERRIFED.

Like I said before, I was not very familiar with the show at ALL. I had of course heard 96,000, seen the Tony performance, and knew the lead dude rapped a lot. That was baaaaasically all I knew, aside from all of Nina’s songs. So I showed up, (WITH some extensions in) sweating and shaking to the audition. Went in, sang my song, did some pushing around with Adam on stage while I sang (the whole time I was thinking am I really shoving the director right now?), and left the stage thinking AGH I wish I could do it all over! Went into the lobby and was handed callback packets for…Vanessa and Carla?!? What are THEIR songs and stories?! All I had ever learned was Nina, I had no idea who any of the other female characters were. My first feeling was extreme disappointment. I had really gotten attached to Nina’s character and seeing that I wasn’t called back for her I felt sad, BUT now I had these two new chicas to learn about. I went home, YouTubed and Google’d my face off and saw that both of those girls were AWESOME characters and I fell in love with them as well.

My best friend, Michael Anthony Sylvester - "Graffiti Pete"
So, I went to callbacks again, TERRIFIED. Especially when I walked in – I was a little late coming straight from my full time job, and was called in immediately to sing for Carla. I was flustered and completely botched it. But even from the beginning – I already felt the sense of family as soon as I walked off the stage from my horrid rendition of Carla’s solo in Blackout, embarassed. One girl said ‘I love your shoes’ and another agreed with her and somehow it made me feel so much better. I mean, who compliments other people at auditions? Who smiles and laughs and talks to you when they’re COMPETING with you for a part? Exactly. That’s what I mean when I say this was NOT your typical callback – everyone was SO nice. And everyone was SO FIERCE. Every voice was amazing. I got up to sing for Vanessa, I believe almost last and my nerves were just SHOT. I had just listened to 10 other BEAUTIFUL girls belt to the gods. But I got up there, and gave it all I could.

Dancing wise – I had a blast! The dance was so challenging and fun and I had the best time. And when I say everyone was a SICK dancer – I mean it. I was asked to salsa, alone, to Jay Z rapping at one point while everyone stared at me and I thought "I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. And everyone is staring at me oh my god" At this point, I started to feel pretty un-talented. I was having so much fun, but I was starting to think of it as "Hey, at least you tried!" I left feeling good about my audition on the whole, but felt that there was way too much talent there for me to have gotten any part…until the phone call from Adam came.

I got a text message that night –"You awake?" and I responded "Yes!" Adam called me. He asked "So, are you happy with how your audition went today?" I answered "Well…uh…I…could have done better with my acting while I sang…and I could have danced better. Are you happy with how things went?" He answered "That depends on how you answer my next question – will you be my Vanessa?" I can’t even begin to describe what I felt…WHAT!?!?!?!?!? I immediately started sobbing and DUH said yes. We chatted a little and hung up. I sat on my bed…and then it sank in…oh god. Im Vanessa. And I got really terrified. I had never played a "sexy" character before. Am I sexy enough? Can I dance well enough? What if no one likes me?
"The Fantastic Four" - Just part of the familia!
But from there, I started to get to know Adam, Lorens, Matt and Joshua and fell in LOVE with them. They quickly became my little family. Soon it came the day to have our first cast meet up – and it was like a family REUNION. It was like we had all known and loved eachother for years. When I say this cast is a family, it REALLY is. I could literally talk so easily to ANY of them. I am entirely in love with every single person. Pilar feels like my Abuela. Lorens is like my long lost sister. Each person is like another family member I have added to the tree.

Vanessa is one of the characters that I thought I would never get the chance to play. I remember seeing her in the Tony performance of 96,000, watching Karen Olivo and thinking wow that would be such an awesome part to play. She’s got swag, she’s got sass, I love her. But for some reason, I felt I really was never THAT person. The first time we all sang through 96,000, tears came to my eyes realizing that this was real life, I am doing something I thought I wasn’t capable of and lord almighty I am going to try my BEST to be as good as I possibly can. I want to do this for my family - my mom’s side of the family that comes from Guadalajara. I want to feel like if they saw the show, they would be proud of me. This is the first time I have ever felt like I’m Latina. I mean, I knew I was. But I’d never FELT it. Words have stuck with me that cast member Michael Sylvester told me – "it doesn’t matter HOW much Latin blood you have in you. Its there. You ARE Latina!"
Just call me, VANESSA.
I’ve had t deal with a lot of things on top of trying to keep it together in rehearsal . I’ve gone through major heartache, finding my way into a new job – and through all of this, my Heights cast has been there EVERY SINGLE DAY with hugs, words of encouragement, TACOS, and love. I could not be more BLESSED than I am now in my life. At the beginning of this journey I felt lost, alone, and unsure of who I was. Through finding my home in this cast, I have found myself. I’ve found confidence. I’ve found lifelong friends. I’ve found that I CAN be sexy, I can feel wanted. I would never trade being a part of the Heights familia for the world. I can already picture myself on closing night just sobbing as we sing the Finale. BUT I can’t think of that yet! We’re about to OPEN! I hope everyone is ready and so excited because I cannot WAIT to get out there and BRING IT!! WEPA!!!!!!!!!!!


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

White Boy Can Rap: Looking at Benny in a New Way with one of the show's stars, Joshua Sherman

Let me start off by saying that YES! White boy CAN rap… I think… I hope… And that’s the mantra that has been playing in my head ever since I was officially offered the role of “Benny” in In the Heights.
Let me give you a perspective on how me and rap evolved through the ages! At one time this was my answer when people asked me if I liked rap: “No! Rap is an abomination of sound! One does not perform rap, one commits it! Like any other crime.” And I’m dead serious. I would tell people that all the time. Now don’t bite my head off! This was years ago and I had a reason as to why I didn’t like that type of music. The main reason being because my big brother loved it and he would torture me with rap every day!
You see, we used to share a bedroom when we were growing up and SOMEONE had to go to Football practice every morning at six. “How did he wake up?” You ask? Well, not like a normal human being with a simple alarm clock, oh no! He had a radio. A big one. With subwoofers and all. And every morning around 5:15am it would kick on and rapidly go up in volume until his lazy A$$ got out of bed to turn it off. And what was the obnoxious distortion of sound blaring from the depths of the speakers from hell? Why rap of course.  Eventually my brother went off to college and that raucousness every morning died down. Thus began the cleaning of my musical pallet, if you will.
And then one day I was flipping through the channels and I see an image of a grungy stage setting, interesting lighting, and a man with a microphone. I instantly halted to check it out. And there it was! A patter song! On television! I was like “I’ve gotta see what this musical is! I’ve never heard of it before.” So, I’m watching this musical and in strolls my brother and asks “Isn’t this 8 Mile?” I, of course, had no idea. So I just shrugged it off thinking he’d pass through, but no. He sits down and watches it with me! Which, my brother watching a musical is like seeing Hilary Clinton in anything but a pant suit; just strange. So I asked him “Do you know this musical?” He looked at me as though I had verbally smacked our grandma. “That’s Eminem.” He said. “Wait… the white rapper?” I asked a bit puzzled. He just nodded and continued to watch the movie as my mind went into a maelstrom! What was I doing!? I had betrayed my convictions! My paradigm was crumbling down before my eyes as I continued to watch and enjoy this… dare I say it… rapper. Ever since then I got more and more lenient on my loathing for the style of music. And actually learned to enjoy some of it! Particularly Eminem, Beastie Boys and now Macklemore! After I was cast I watched and researched everything I could on or about rap: it’s origin. It’s evolution. The meaning behind it. The power behind it. And I’ve come to respect it a lot more than I ever thought possible!

So fast forward to March when I got ahold of the soundtrack to In The Heights.  A musical I had heard nothing about but supposedly had a lot of hype behind it. I loved the music. Rap and all! I sat on it for a while wondering if I should even audition… I mean, I didn’t exactly fit the skin tone of the show but, I was urged to audition and me, being THAT theatre kid who NEEDS to be working on a project at all times, decided to audition thinking that I’d maybe get put in the ensemble… but to my surprise I got called back for Benny. I was like “Alright! That’s pretty awesome.” I was handed a packet that had two snippets of songs in it. The next morning (my first free moment to look at the packet) I discovered that I would be rapping 18 bars. “I got this!” I thought as I listened to the music and rapped along. I wish I would have recorded that first time through. It was probably the WHITEST thing in the world. It was completely out of rhythm, no beats were followed, it was a train wreck and panic set it as time drew nearer to the callback time. I worked my butt off getting that 18 bars of rap down. I went over it more than 30 times or more. To the point where the next door neighbor of my apartment knocked on my door to ask me if I could do something else… But I had it! I got to the point where I was on beat, in rhythm, and had actually done it from memory quite excellently for a white boy. I was READY for this callback.
And then I got there. And everything went downhill. I instantly felt out of place. I was the only white boy there. THE ONLY ONE. And worse, we had to audition in front of each other. The first potential Benny went up and he blew it out of the water. It was great. And I was done for. My name was called and I could feel everyone’s eyes on me as I, The White Boy, took the long death march to center stage. They asked me if I was ready and I thought “as ready as I will ever be”. I started the song and before I could even get a third of the way through I screwed it up. Like an idiot I fumbled over my tongue and like an amateur I apologized for my stupidity and asked to restart. I could hear whispers in the corner. Judgment. The lights seemed to get brighter and hotter as each second passed and I just wanted it all to be over. I said maybe one line and just crumpled and shook my head as the music played in the background until it got to the singing portion. “At least I have this!” I thought… well, I thought wrong. I forgot the words! I kinda just hummed/laughed my way through until I remembered something. Which, I did. By god I sang that last word of the callback cut like my life depended on it.

Ensemble Member and "diva" Aigner Mathis
on break with Joshua
I walked back to my seat defeated, angry at myself, and hating my lack of natural ability to rap. Unlike every single guy who went after me displayed. It was a terrible feeling, listening to them all rap. Like a smack in the face with each syllable! They asked us all to stick around for the dance call but due to a really rude woman, an extremely difficult first eight count for a non-dancer, and the stress of my personal life; when a fellow auditionee smirked at me and said “You probably should just go”, that’s exactly what I did. I gathered my things and made a bee-line to my car.  As soon as I got into my car, what else would be playing but In The Heights? It was “Sunrise” one of my favorite songs in the show. One of Benny’s songs. And I knew that I had blown it. I would never have an opportunity to play Benny now. I would never be able to sing that song unless it’s for some showcase or some lame concert that I would have to put together. The deeper I got into the song the more regret I felt. The more hatred I had for myself. The more disappointed I became. The more passionate I became about playing that role! I could do it. I KNEW I COULD DO IT! I rapped before the callback and I could do it now! I switched it to the song that had the callback cut in it and rapped alongside the Benny on the soundtrack. I did it just fine. “INSERT MANY EXPLETIVES HERE”. I was so upset with myself. Then I got the e-mail: “We’re sorry, we cannot use your talent at this time-“ blah, blah, blah! I didn’t even read all of it. Just straight to the trash. “What talent?” I thought as I sulked to a pick-up rehearsal for a different show.

As I entered the building for my rehearsal I could hear music playing. Familiar music. Music that haunted my subconscious since the callbacks. They were auditioning more Bennys. I sat on the couch and was forced to listen to the boy sing and rap as I mimicked him under my breath. “I could do this.” I thought. “I could do this so much better than him.” I lay there as I was forced to listen to this boy audition for the part that I suddenly had a burning passion to play. A chance that I had thrown away because of nerves and stupid stress! Then Lorens, the phenomenal young woman playing Nina, came into the room after the audition was over to get me for our rehearsal. “You guys still haven’t found a Benny?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “No” She snipped, obviously annoyed “Even the ones who could maybe do it just don’t look the part! It looks like I would break them!” I laughed as I muttered under my breath. “I could do it.” She gave me “the look” (she heard me during my callback) “oh yeah?” she chided. I nodded and she asked me to prove it. So I did. I rapped the callback cut as I got up to go to the rehearsal. She stood there, mouth agape, and shook her head. “What?” is all I remember her saying as we left for the rehearsal. She told me that I should ask for a second chance; something that I was taught to be a taboo in the industry. But I thought about it all through rehearsal. The night before I watched an episode of Smash, in which one of the characters asked to read for a role that she wasn’t called for. She got the part and she excelled in it. I kept thinking about that episode and my new found passion for Benny.

Joshua with Lorens Portalatin (Nina) and
Music Director Kristin Spires working on
"When You're Home"
After the rehearsal our director (who was also directing In The Heights) and the musical director (who was also in the show we just finished rehearsal for) where talking about their grief about not being able to find a Benny. They were packing up to go as I stood awkwardly by the stage debating on if I should anything. “If I ask for a second audition, would I be able to do it? Would I choke again?” But I just focused on that urge, that pull for Benny… and I raised my hand. Just waiting for one of them to see me and call on me. But they were packing up. “I can’t let them leave” I thought.
“I can do it.”  I said meekly from behind them. They both looked at me eyebrows cocked; no doubt remembering my abortion of a callback. “I was wondering if I could have another go at it.” They looked at me in disbelief but agreed; desperate for something, no doubt. I knew the words. I had done it time after time after the callback. So I did it. I rapped. No music, no beats. Just rapped. After that there was a lot of hustle and hubbub. Speakers were being plugged in. Laptops were being booted up. “Here’s the lyrics, do you need to listen to the track before you do it to the beat?” “Can we get the lights up so he can see?” Librettos were being opened and pushed into my hands. “Ready?” I nodded. The music played and I did my thing. “He was a little bit off beat. A bit too fast” Mark said (the A.M.D.). “No, no. He was fine” Adam (the director) said. “Do you know the other song?”  Kristin (M.D.) asked. “Not really, but I can give it a go.” She walked me through it and then started the music.
The song “When You’re Home” started playing and I sang. After the first line I could hear Adam gasping behind me. Kristin signaled to Lorens to get on stage, readying her for when the duet portion began. We sang the final note and the room was silent. I looked around. Fearful I wasn’t good enough. That I had just wasted everyone’s time. Lorens was giddy, almost doing the pee dance. Kristin was beaming. Mark was expressionless. And Adam was silent (which is a scary thing.) Without a word he stands up and walks over to me and gives me a giant hug! Afterwards he says: “we have been looking for you for all of thi- wait… Will you be my Benny?” I laughed as I nodded my head. “I would love to.” I said almost out of breath. He wrapped his arms around me once more and welcomed me to the cast… It was a surreal moment.

Salon Starlett, Natalie Coca who play's Carla says,
"When he sings, I melt."
The members of the production team apparently were struggling to find the right Benny for a while and there I was. But the struggle wasn’t over for me. Nor would it be. I told my brother that night (who I haven’t spoken to in a long while) that I was cast in a show that I rap in. He was a little dumbfounded but said he couldn’t wait to see it. My mom, when I told her I rap in my next show, said “You mean presents, right?” And that’s the response I get from everyone that knows me…
I am not a rapper. I am not Latino. I am not African-American like the role was originated to be. I am a white ballad singer! Not to mention, EVERYONE who was at that callback was going to see that I, the white boy who messed up his callbacks royally, was going to be playing Benny. One of the principle roles. Cast against type. Cast after a callback like THAT! How on Earth was I going to prove my worth? To prove my place? To find my place… They were all welcoming at the first cast meet and greet. But I could feel it: the wondering of “why him?” Every day since then, in and out of rehearsal, I strive to prove myself to each and every one of them. I work hard every day on my raps with the upmost appreciation for Kristin and Mark for helping me out with them. I try my best to emulate Matt’s (Usnavi’s) “swag” and to learn how to make my raps come to life a third of way that he can. I praise the Persian Prince (Jordan) on him taking the time to teach me some of his dance moves to better fall into my character; I practice them to point where I am sore the next day. I hit the book so hard to bring the role of Benny to life.
I have a lot of pressure in this role. A professional regional premiere! And the people who know the show are going to be expecting an African-American Benny. They’ll be judging me all through the show: “A white Benny? Let’s pick apart his every move! Let’s make him out to be the weakest part of the show because it’s not how it’s supposed to be!” Often, I feel like an outcast within the cast. The odd ball. The token white boy… The mistake.
And it’s THAT feeling; that drive to prove myself, to work harder than anyone to be the best that I can be. THAT is why I know I can do this role because, in a nutshell, THAT is who Benny is; the odd-man out. Like me. The one who is constantly trying to prove his place to everyone around him. Like me! The one struggling to find a home in his community! Like. Me. A home within himself. Like! Me! He has so much love and so much passion. JUST! LIKE! ME!

"The (Fat) Fantastic Four"
He just so happens to speak his heart through song and his soul through rap. And if we have everything else in common, then by god, we will have that in common too! I will sing my heart and I will rap my soul and when this show opens I will leave people saying “Wow. White boy CAN rap!” and I will have, finally, found my home in this production… I know I’ve found my famillia. Each and every one of them, from our “Lavallee” choreographer, Elise, to our youngest member, Addie, have influenced and supported me. I could not have done it without them. The (Fat) Fantastic Four have been a pillar for me.  They’ve been my brother and sisters since I was brought into this cast and I could not have been more blessed to work alongside them…
So there’s your “New (but pretty much the same) way of looking at Benny”. This white boy can rap and you best watch out DFW, because “I’m taking over the Barrio!”

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

DIVAS of THE SALON: A brief moment with "Carla" & "Daniela"

Defining Carla and Daniela’s relationship has been one of my favorite things to work on in this show. We already knew that they were the chismosas of the barrio but there is also a special friendship the two share that Amanda and I wanted to make sure we could enact authentically on stage. Carla admires Daniela and looks to her to fill in the blanks that she’s often missing. They are completely in sync and love to invest (though most would call it gossip) in the lives of others.

As far as their profession goes, the ladies of the salon epitomize the best of the salon experience. Most of us go to a salon in search of transformation, to be pampered, or for just good ol’ personal maintenance. There is never really anything severely consequential about going to a salon. (Unless you accidentally get 1 ft cut off when you just wanted bangs.) Similarly, Carla and Daniela may not be the end all be all’s of the barrio, but they are there to offer their friendship, support, gossip and a little bit of humor to others along their journey.
I’ve never had a sister – I actually have three brothers - but I imagine that if I did, I would want to tell her about my troubles, laugh with her, look to her for advice and more. Amanda and I have quickly bonded into the type of sisterly confidants that I would imagine Carla and Daniela to be and I’m so looking forward to learning more about each other throughout the rehearsal process. Who knows! There might even be a spa/salon day in our near future!

Natalie Coca (Carla) and Amanda Williams (Daniela) in music rehearsal.

Daniela is a larger-than-life character. She's witty, sarcastic, LOUD, and moody. She also has a softer, motherly side that tends to be optimistic and grounded.The best part about her as a role to play is her thick, gravelly Puerto Rican accent - which doesn't exactly come naturally to me. 
To be able to play a Latina such as Dani I needed to do some serious character research. I was in NYC recently, so I took the opportunity to head up to The Heights (Unfortunately I couldn't "head up to 181st and take the escalator" because the A was only running to 168th that weekend) for some culture immersion. 
The first thing I noticed is how accurately In the Heights captured the neighborhood. I immediately found a salon and bodega right next to each other, and another, and another. In every salon I came across stood women that look like Dani would busily snipping away and chatting to their cosmetic colleagues. It was "No Me Diga" right before my eyes. 
The thing I experienced that left the biggest impression on me was that everyone on the street seemed to be YELLING at each other in intense, rapid Spanish. People in shops, men working in the street, elderly women waiting for the bus, all shouting at each other - without any hint of anger or malice. That's not something you can understand by reading about it on Wikipedia. Hopefully Ms. Coca and I can attempt to capture that feeling. She's been helping me with my accent!!!

"Saca la maraca, bring your tambourine, come and join the parranda!"
- Amanda