If there’s anything I’ve learned at college, it’s that roommates generally tend to either be your worst enemy or your family for life. Lucky for me, I ended up rooming with one of the coolest performance majors at Fordham University: Yvanna Manuela Tassy-Gimenez. Yvanna is a first year student studying Theatre in the Lincoln Center campus. She is an incredible Paraguayan-Hatian theatre artist who grew up in the heart of South America, surrounded by the warmth of her family, including her artistic and resilient single mother. I spoke with Yvanna about coming to terms with her desire to pursue theatre as a career, as well as her unique perspective on breaking into the theatre industry as a Latin American. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
LK: So tell me about how you first got into theatre.
YT: The first time I did theatre was in a summer camp. I came to the United States because my family was vacationing here, so my mom sent me to a summer camp that was in Key Biscayne. And there were these three girls that were on The Voice Mexico.
YT: [laughing] They were competing. My mom knew about it ‘cause my mom watches Latino “The Voice.” So she took me to that summer camp, and that was where we did Wicked. They did the auditions and I don’t know how I got Elphaba! No one will ever know, honestly. So that was the first time I did theatre. ‘Cause I had only done dance, like when I was little.
LK: How did it make you feel to do theatre at that age?
YT: I wanted to keep doing it. And that’s when I told my mom, Mom, when I go back to Paraguay, can I do theatre? And she was like, you can’t. And I was like why? And she said, because there’s no place where I could take you to do it. So that was something that punctured my soul. I felt like the United States was my only place to do theatre. That was the first time I opened my heart to theatre, and was curious about it. But when you’re little in Paraguay, there’s no place to do it, and in high school it’s more like a casual hobby. So I didn’t do theatre until high school. From third grade all the way until high school I did not do theatre.
LK: What did it feel like when you did theatre again in high school after years of not doing it?
YT: I felt like I never wanted to stop doing it. I had felt so restrained for so long. So I said to myself, I don’t want another kid to go through this in the future. I don’t want another kid to feel that feeling of wanting to do something and not being able to do it because it’s just not possible where they live. That feeling opened my mind to the idea of bringing theatre to Paraguay. I felt so good doing theatre.
LK: You felt good.
YT: No, I felt amazing.
LK: Tell me more about you deciding to pursue theatre as a career.
YT: Well, I was in the pre-med track after high school. [laughing] That’s a first. But I wanted to do theatre. Like watching Rachel Berry [from the television show Glee] go to New York for college was my middle school dream! But it was just a dream. I never thought I would actually try. I was convinced I was going to be a doctor. Not because I wanted to, but because it’s the normal thing to do. You just have to study a lot and your life will be set, financially and socially. Everyone around me was telling me to do pre-med. So I was going to do it because everyone wanted me to do it, not because I wanted to do it. But I didn’t have the courage to try for theatre, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to pursue it in Paraguay. And how would I get into any acting schools without having any training? Without having someone to coach me? Without having monologues? How do I learn monologues in English? How do I learn a classical text? How do I do this without the tools? Anyways, I remember I had a choir performance. I’m a really bad singer, so they put me as an understudy for one of the soloists. And I said yes, because I thought, well, no understudy has ever actually gone up onstage, they put me here just in case. Of course, twenty four hours before the competition, they told me I was going to perform because the real solist…got scared.
YT: She was chickening out for some reason! So I had learned the song a couple hours before– kind of. I went onstage and I sang it, and of course I forgot the lyrics.
YT: And I started going like…[singing really off-key]. And then I pointed to the audience and said, sing! It was so bad. I made it into a comedic performance and started mocking the song, singing and dancing like crazy. People were laughing at me. I was like, whatever. Then everyone started clapping like crazy for me. I couldn’t believe I’d just done that. And then the awards came out, and I came in third place! It was an electrifying feeling. I felt like, oh my God, I cannot believe I just did this. And that’s when I started thinking, maybe I can improvise in any situation. Maybe I am born– not to sing, definitely not to sing– but maybe I am born to be onstage, doing whatever I can to make the audience happy. Maybe I should perform. It brought me so much joy. But anyways, I was at the end of high school, preparing for med school. I was busy studying for exams when the pandemic hit. And then my mom told me to drop out.
LK: Whaaat? What exactly did she say?
YT: I’m going to say it in Spanish. Deje de hinchar, yo no nací para hacer esto, nací para hacer otra cosas, lo que tenía era teatro. Basically, that means I should stop pretending to be something I’m not for the sake of meeting society’s standards for me. I should try doing what I really like. And maybe I’m not meant to be doing theatre, but my mom sees that passion within me. I should go for it, and I have her support. I just needed one person to believe in me, and it was my mom. That meant a lot to me. So I said, okay! Let’s do this! Let’s start researching Youtube videos. Finding out what Shakspeare is, and how he works. A lot of this process was teaching myself the language. It was acting for the first time in English. I even emailed a YouTuber who I saw had gotten into acting school. We zoomed a couple times, and she really helped me. She was an angel. Her name is Lorraine Rodriguez-Reyes. She helped me so much.
LK: Tell me a bit more about the college process.
YT: It was not what I expected. It was hard. In the U.S they prepare you for college the second you start high school. Where I’m from, no one prepared for shit. But here I was, going through auditions and applications. It gave me a lot of emotional stress, but I kept pushing forward. And I felt like all of this was happening for a reason. My mom talked to me for a reason. I found this teacher for a reason. I feel like a lot of people go into the entertainment industry for fame. But I’m doing this because I feel like if I don’t, no one in Paraguay will. I felt like I had enough passion to be the first one to try.
LK: How is college as an international student? How is it to be the first person from Paraguay to study theatre in the U.S.?
YT: From the first day I was scared. There was so much talent. People blow me away every single day. But I remember my first theatre class, where everyone performed pieces to showcase what area of theatre they were passionate about. I have never been surrounded by people who were as passionate as me. It just made me feel so grateful to be surrounded by like-minded artists.
LK: Last question. What do you want to do with your theatre degree?
YT: Let me think. Well, in my dream world, I would help create the first Paraguay television show. I would also love to set up an acting school in Paraguay. But one person can’t do everything alone. One person can’t build the theatre, teach theatre, direct the shows, play all the characters, and write the shows. There’s simply not enough people and not enough funds. That’s why I think theatre hasn’t evolved in Paraguay the way it has evolved in other places. The people who are passionate are untrained– it’s a vicious cycle. I would love it if the people I’ve met in the U.S. could help it evolve in some way. I just need one chance. If one person doesn’t take action, no one ever will.
Note: This interview has been cut and edited for clarity.
Leela Kiyawat is an eighteen year old award-winning playwright and theater artist from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been produced with Playground SF, the Ashby Stage, the Youth Uproar Theatre Company, and TheatreFirst, among others. Leela currently attends Fordham University and is earning her Bachelor’s degree in Playwriting. She loves FKA Twigs, goldfish crackers, and riding the BART train.