Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Actors Jenn Colella and Caesar Samayoa of "Come From Away"

Jenn Colella and Caesar Samayoa discovered at a young age the place they would call home: the theater. Though their origin stories as actors vary somewhat, they both share the experience of having fallen in love with the craft of acting first as audience members. Now, as working actors, they create those transformative moments for others and connect with audience members every single show.

We caught up with Collela and Samayoa during a sold-out run of their current show Come From Away at the Ford’s Theatre here in Washington, DC. Although it’s been 15 years since September 11, 2001, the ensemble cast of Come From Away lives through the aftermath on stage each day. The musical, written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, takes place in Gander, Newfoundland and is based on the true stories of the residents who helped house, feed, and comfort the passengers who landed there in the 38 planes redirected away from the United States following the attacks. The ensemble is currently preparing to debut the show on Broadway next March. Here are Collela and Samayoa on what inspired them to start a career in acting, what the show means to them, and the enduring advice they each received as young artists.

NEA: How did you get into acting for theater? Was it something you always planned to do in life?

CAESAR SAMAYOA: My family came here from Guatemala and we didn’t have that much in our background in terms of going to see theater or Broadway shows. I grew up in Spanish Harlem and it was a community that really didn’t have a lot of arts education behind it. My school actually took us to go see Anna Deavere Smith do Twilight Los Angeles in New York. I remember specifically seeing this show where this one woman portrayed, I don’t even know how many characters, I think it’s about 32 characters, and I remember seeing it and I remember the moment where I was just like, “That’s what I have to do. That’s exactly what I have to do.” She was doing such political theater and with issues that really affected me and my community as well, even though [her show was] about the race riots in L.A. But that’s when I got the bug. My teachers saw that I had an interest in it and started finding any opportunity they could to introduce the arts into my everyday life.

JENN COLELLA: His answer’s so much cooler than mine. I grew up a choir nerd. I sang in choir my whole life and then the first show that I saw was Phantom of the Opera and I just had that moment that Caesar just spoke of where I was like, “I can do that, I should be doing that. There’s something about that that feels like home to me.” My friends all laugh at me since my first show was Phantom of the Opera, but I grew up in South Carolina, in a place where there wasn’t a great deal of theater or a lot of exposure to it. That was the first big one I saw and then I would see tours in surrounding areas in Atlanta or North Carolina. But it wasn’t until I came to New York that I became more entrenched in the community. I found it to be absolutely stunning and moving. That was what kicked it into gear for me.

SAMAYOA: I remember seeing Phantom of the Opera and hearing voices and thinking to be able to do that is overwhelming.

COLELLA: It’s just beautiful. And then my first Broadway show was in the Broadhurst, which is right next to the Majestic, so the little kid in me was just like I’m right here. I really almost wept every time I walked into the stage door.

NEA: You’re both part of an ensemble of 12 cast members playing over 100 characters in Come From Away. What is it like playing multiple characters in a show? How do you prepare yourself for each show?

COLELLA: It’s really fun. As an actor, people ask if it’s hard to switch back and forth from character to character but it doesn’t feel that way. Remembering where the chairs go is harder. The switching in and out of character is what we were trained to do. That’s part of what’s fun about being an actor and where we get to, in my opinion, show off a little bit. It’s really, really fun to switch back and forth but it never feels difficult or stressful for me. Truly more it’s about staging and making sure I am where I need to be or coming in vocally so that I am taking care of my castmates.

SAMAYOA: The really cool time for me, and I think for a lot of us where it almost feels like a playground, is the rehearsal process because that’s when we’re all finding our characters and finding out whether a hat is enough, how to walk, how to use our voices, how to look at somebody else, how to react with them. It really does feel like a playground and like we’re little kids playing around. The rehearsal process for a show like Come From Away is long and it’s intensive and it’s very specific so by the time you see what you see, everyone is very definite in the direction that the show is going. Not that there isn’t breath or spontaneity in the show but decisions really have been made. It still feels like a playground to me and it still feels like fun but there is definite decisions on how the characters are portrayed and how we represent them to the world.

COLELLA: There’s nothing more fun than the rehearsal room, for sure. It’s interesting you saying how each character looks at someone else. That’s true. That’s really, really fun. We’ll look at each other in a completely different way as different characters and I love how everybody finds different centers of gravity in the way they carry themselves or what they do with their hands for certain characters. It’s beautiful.

SAMAYOA: You know, two of our characters, our Bev and Ali characters, interact a lot. They have a very different way of looking at each other than when Kevin and Annette look at each other. And you feel that. It’s like looking at another person.

COLELLA: Yes, yes! It really is like looking at a completely different person.

SAMAYOA: You get away with stuff that you couldn’t get away with with the other characters. That’s the really fun stuff during performances for me and that’s what we play with all the time.

NEA: What does this particular 9/11 story as a theater piece make possible that other types of storytelling, like news reports, don’t?

COLELLA: What we’re learning is that this isn’t a story about 9/11. We’re actually calling it a 9/12 musical because it’s what happened after. So much of what the media showed and what we all felt was this awful attack. This hatred. That there’s evil in the world and that something absolutely horrific happened. The weight of that is the truth and what we’ve been focused on. But the other truth is that there is kindness and that the human spirit is naturally kind and that we are naturally inclined to look out for one another. That is what this sheds light on. Yes, there are awful, horrific things that happen in the world but it cannot overshadow the truth of the human spirit which is genuine kindness and compassion for others. That’s what makes me more proud than anything to be a part of this particular musical.

SAMAYOA: I completely agree. Finally, in the midst of everything that is happening in the world and just this horrific tragedy, there’s a story that’s being lifted up and people are flocking to it. It shows how good people are at their core. How at our core we are good people no matter what our 24-hour news cycle tries to tell us. We want to help each other. A lot of us were in New York during 9/11 and as horrific as that event was, that whole week people were lined up and down the avenues handing down donations all the way to ground zero. There’d be fire trucks going down and everyone would just stop and applaud. Everyone was trying to help in their own way. This show is focusing on a little town in the northeast tip of Canada, but I think all of us can remember how this nation just came together, really unified, and it’s amazing to see it onstage and having it lifted up while we’re being told the opposite by so many people.

COLELLA: I was in Los Angeles and I remember people being on the sidewalks more than usual. I think we just wanted to be among other human beings. We were looking into the eyes of strangers. We would stop at different vigils on street corners and light a candle or hold hands with a stranger. I just remember this feeling, even though it was on the whole other coast, of just wanting to connect and let whomever we were near know that everything was okay. It felt like the world had turned upside down and that we didn’t know which way was up. If this kind of evil can occur are we safe, are we okay? And I remember each connection that I made with anyone that day was a sweet reinforcement of, “Yes, we’re okay and I’ve got you.”

NEA: What does acting mean to you? What’s your favorite part about being an actor and getting to go on stage each day?

SAMAYOA: I was so attracted to acting because I remember that feeling of being in an audience and being transported away from my everyday life. Usually there is an inspirational kind of moment, a moment of catharsis for an audience member, that they get from a show. To be able to be a part of something like that, where you can help people learn something new, escape their everyday life, to see humanity, have a mirror held up to them, or show a window into someone else’s life or culture that may be completely different. That and being on stage with like-minded artists. It’s a certain kind of person that likes to do this type of work. It’s really special. It’s an exciting kind of job, if you want to call it a job, it doesn’t feel like a job. That’s what I love, the human connection that you have.

COLELLA: Being in a rehearsal room is the most intriguing and fun thing about being an actor. Connecting with my colleagues and feeling like I can fail and still be safe or I can soar and still be celebrated. In growing in that room as an artist, I inevitably grow as a person and can see when I’m at my best or when I’m not in the reflections through my other colleagues. It’s this really gentle, “Hey you’re doing this,” and it’s such a lovely way to continue to learn and evolve. As Caesar so eloquently stated, we feel like we have the golden ticket in this show. We are doing a piece reaching out to people. It’s making them laugh. It’s helping them cry. It is healing something that was broken. I can’t think of any better thing to do with one’s life as far as what I could do. It feels noble and it feels exactly right. Every time I walk into a stage door, I think, thank you, “Thank you, thank you,” because it feels like a responsibility and it’s one that I’m proud to take on.

SAMAYOA: Joel Hatch, who is part of our wonderful cast, always says that he loves sitting on stage and just watching people shine. We get to do that with every single person in this cast, just sit there and watch our people shine.

NEA: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about being an actor or about your arts career?

COLELLA: Somebody said to me in grad school, “You are enough.” I teach sometimes… and always share that with my students because that helped me. So I put it on stickers, put it on my mirror. I have it on my phone. For me, [“You are enough” meant] realizing that I didn’t have to emulate someone else or that I didn’t have to be a certain type so that I was marketable, but to trust that wherever I was in my life and in my career was exactly right. Thinking I shouldn’t have taken a dance class, or I shouldn’t be able to hit a certain note, or I shouldn’t have a certain dialect in my back pocket, were all taking away from the essence of who I am. Trusting that wherever I am is exactly right has been very, very helpful for me.

SAMAYOA: I love that so much. It’s a lesson that I’m still learning every single day.

COLELLA: I’m still learning it too.

SAMAYOA: I remember a mentor of mine told me that no matter where you are in your journey as an actor to embrace that moment and to be the best that you can be in that moment. It will take you further, rather than being dissatisfied. We all want more. It’s just part of what we do…. A lot of us from our cast have come from these little theaters in the middle of the country and look where we are. As long as you embrace those opportunities and seek out as many opportunities as you can, where you can be a leader, where you can shine, and you can be the best you can be by being who you are, you will go much farther than just trying to hope for the best and leave it at that.

COLELLA: I like that a lot. That’s a great reminder.

NEA: In one word, why do the arts matter?

COLELLA: Inspiration. Absolute inspiration. That’s the whole reason that we do this. To be inspired to be a better person. To be inspired to create more art. To be inspired to look inside yourself and see if there’s growth that can happen there.

SAMAYOA: I mean the arts changed my life. They changed the trajectory of life where I was. The opportunities that I could find in front of me. So for me it’s everything. You never know when that one teacher or that one adult or mentor can see something special in a little child. You never know that one conversation they had will change their life. How it can change their life. I just applaud anybody who tries to introduce the arts into any child’s life. 

Interested in theater stories? Check out our Art Talk with actor Jonno Roberts

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