Hey there, Dashira Cortes

Caroline or Change The Moon Dashira Cortes

Dashira Cortes as The Moon in Caroline or Change, opening this weekend at SLOC.

Dashira Cortes was 10 years old when she auditioned for Winnie the Pooh and won the part of Christopher Robin's favorite bear. That was the first time other people really began to recognize she could sing. Since then this Albany High School graduate has worked with Park Playhouse, played Dorothy and Aida, and even shared an Off-Broadway stage with Jeremy Irons, whom she refers to as "the voice of Scar."

This weekend Cortes plays The Moon in the regional premiere of Tony Kushner's musical Caroline or Change at Schenectady Light Opera Company.

Cortes took a few minutes to talk with AOA about Caroline, how her alma mater Albany High School often appears in the media, and a move toward more diversity in Capital Region theater.

You started out doing theater in the Albany schools. What was your experience like at Albany High?

Dashira Cortes - Headshot credit Shawn Morgan.jpgI loved high school. I mean, not completely, but mostly. I did theater, and discovered theater that was great for me because you had a whole community of people who totally just understood who you were -- and that was great. But I have to say that toward junior year security was tighter [at school] and we had metal detectors and I'm like, "What is happening?" That was an interesting switch. And for me it was being in theater and having such successful shows -- wining multiple awards -- and yet [the school] not being recognized in the media for that.

That was one of the things we as students noticed and were bothered by. "Why is Albany High only getting a light shined on them when something bad happens?"

We had a great program and it's as strong as ever right now. I've also wondered why Albany doesn't have a performing arts high school. I think there is enough talent here and I think there are a lot of people who have that creative ability -- singing, dancing, playing an instrument -- and being able to have professionals, people who are interested in the arts, that would be great.

How did you learn your craft? Did you go to any kind of arts school?

I've got no professional training. I've never taken singing lessons. Any training I got came from just being in shows and learning and seeing what other people are doing and then trying it. I guess the thing about me is I'm not afraid to make a mistake or put myself out there. And because I'm not afraid of that I'm willing to try. I think that is what stops people with their craft -- that they are not willing to put themselves out there. And I have a lot of people around me that are so knowledgeable and talented that they are constantly keeping me ... they keep me humble. And I'm always trying to strive to be better and not get complacent.

I did a lot of Park Playhouse. I worked with them for many, many years. I did three of their children's productions. Later my role changed and I became more of a volunteer. They used to have a Park Playhouse revue where the students from the children's productions would go to malls and nursing homes and sing songs from previous shows. Then it turned into going to dinner parties with a package that was donated by a chef and being a singing waiter. Eventually I turned into a director for a series that they started doing in inner city schools. I did that for a few years and then I directed two of the kids shows. And in that time I wasn't doing too much theater myself but I was directing. I came back to SLOC a few years ago with Suessical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and later Aida, which was a dream role for me.

Dashira as Aida creit Mike Mensching
photo: Mike Mensching

Why do you do community theater? It's a lot of work, a lot of hours and no pay -- so what is it that makes you want to do all that?

I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it. Just this week I go to work at 8:30 in the morning, out by 5, rehearsal at 6:30 until 10:30. It's my creative outlet. And I love to go onstage and sing and be able to, you know, put my all into something. If I just make one person smile or make one person happy with whatever I have done on stage -- that is fulfillment enough.

And the community part -- the word community in community theater. I don't think a lot of people understand it, but you do have to work as a community to put something like this together. People are coming from different parts of the Capital Region to do something this beautiful.

And the people in the theater -- they are like a second family. They are the people that, if you don't feel comfortable talking to your mom or dad, you can go to them. At least to me they are like a second family. These are the people that will keep it real. They are not going to sugar coat anything. They are the people who are going to tell you you have toilet paper sticking out of the back of your pants (laughs). They will tell it like it is.

You've played in New York, you're really talented. Did you ever think of going pro and leaving the Capital Region?

I have thought about doing it professionally. I feel like for me I really want to be able to finish school and have that degree in my hand. Right now I work full time at The College of Saint Rose and I'm going to school there part time for early childhood education -- and I sing in a local band called Tropic Rhythm, and I'm doing shows. So things are pretty busy.

Dashira - Tropic Rhythm.jpg
photo: Tropic Rhythm

But I've gone to the city and auditioned and I have a lot of friends I met through Park Playhouse who are onstage and working professionally. I have done a couple of Off-Broadway concerts with theater companies which have been really fun, and met some professional actors through there .

I like it here. I was raised in the Capital Region. I was born in Puerto Rico, but I came here when I was four. People always say "Smallbany." Albany is the capital of New York State. There are so many great things -- you have to go out and look for them.

I never saw myself as the kind of person to live in New York City. If I had to because of a job, I would but it's not my atmosphere. Here you have the city, but you also have the quietness as well.

Who have you worked with?

We did these concerts at the Schubert Theater in New York City to raise money -- it was an Irish repertory company that holds concerts every year to raise money for the theater. I was part of a large chorus of actors. We did Camelot and Jeremy Irons was King Arthur. And another year we did Brigadoon and I worked with Christine Ebersole.

Most of the actors were from New York City so they could easily get to the rehearsals. I knew the music director and he offered me a spot, so I commuted from Albany. I would take a bus to New York City, do a three-hour rehearsal and come back home the same day. It was a volunteer thing but it was a really good experience to be able to do something like that. I didn't care about the bus ticket or the lack of sleep -- it was just great to be in room full of professional actors. And you're learning ten songs in three hours -- but great experience.

Dashira as the moon 1.jpg

Tony Kushner wrote Caroline or Change. He's famous for Angels in America, but this is a musical. What is the show like?

It is phenomenal! This show is set in 1963 around the time when the civil rights movement is happening and the JFK assassination. It follows Caroline and her struggle as a maid. She is divorced and has four children -- one is off fighting in Vietnam -- and she's trying to take care of her children. And it also follows Noah, a little boy she takes care of at work. The music is so moving. And in the show Caroline has these inanimate objects around her that help her tell a story or are kind of like her conscience -- the washing machine, and the dryer, and the bus, and the moon. The moon is constantly being talked about because the moon is an agent of change, and the show is very much about change.

Cast of Caroline or Change.jpg
photo Shawn Morgan

This show calls for a largely African-American cast, as do some other shows SLOC has done in the last few years -- Ragtime, Aida, even Hairspray. Capital Region community theater hasn't always been the most diverse place in the world. Do you see that changing?

I do see that as a change and I think it's great. Just taking Caroline as an example -- there are a lot of characters who need to be cast as African-American and that can be very scary for a theater company that isn't used to doing shows with ethnic characters because you don't know if you'll be able to fully cast the show. But if you advertise it well you can tap into this community of people who are not doing theater but could potentially do it.

Barbara Howard, who is playing Caroline, is well known in the Capital Region as a gospel singer, and she's wonderful in the part. And the move has given me more opportunities to be onstage for sure. I'm glad that they took a risk with Caroline or Change, because when people come see the show you are going to see some new faces and they are phenomenal. This show is really, really great.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Dashira Cortes headshot: Shawn Morgan

Comments

Was this based on a book?
I am trying to get a friend to go to it with me, don't want to go alone!

Go Dashira...we remember you performing from the rafters of AHS in Sweet Charity..great talent! Way to represent Albany High.

This is simply the BEST theater I've been to in this region in years. The play, the music, the staging, and the cast are amazing. You still have a chance to catch it next week-end. It's really memorable.

I saw this show on impulse on Sunday afternoon after reading the rave review in the TU. I am so glad that I got to see this! Barbara Howard, the lead, is just wonderful. the SLOC provided an unforgettable experience.

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