Before we announce the winners of the 2013 Boston My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.
Young and dynamic actress Santina Umbach captivated and excited audiences as Nina in Speakeasy Stage Company’s production of In the Heights for which she was nominated for Best Actress in a Musical. Santina discussed some of her favorite parts about the production, her worst audition story, and how she related to her role!
Santina, it is a pleasure to talk with such a dedicated performer. I noticed your commitment to your work from the moment you stepped onstage. Can you tell us a little bit about your training and theatrical background?
Well, I started dancing competitively at age four and continued through high school. Even though I had no real formal training in acting or singing, I started performing at a Regional Dinner Theater. In my first show, The Sound of Music, I played the part of Gretl, and fell in love. I was accepted into The Boston Conservatory’s Musical Theater Program in 2007. It changed my life both professionally and personally by giving me the foundation and confidence I had been missing. During college, I performed in Main Stage musicals as well as performing regional work with Speakeasy Stage Company. After college, I moved to NYC. A few months after that, I joined The Norwegian Cruise Line as a principal singer. While on the cruise, I was offered In the Heights and I accepted right away!
Do you have any favorite roles? Do you have any roles that you would like to play in the future? What about roles that you could *never* play, but you would want to play them anyway?
My favorite roles to date are Mimi in Rent; Pickles in The Great American Trailer Park, The Musical; and Nina in In the Heights. Rent actually changed my life! It was my first “major” performance and I was terrified. The Great American Trailer Park was my first Equity show, so you can imagine how thrilled I was! In The Heights is such a gem, the only one of its kind and I had only dreamt of being a part of its magic.
I would love to play Rafiki in The Lion King!
Had you worked with SpeakEasy before In the Heights? Can you tell us about how you’ve grown with each production at SpeakEasy?
You’re so sweet! Well, as I said, SpeakEasy gave me my first professional contract, playing Pickles, in my junior year of college. Literally, everything I know about “the biz” I learned from Paul Daigneault and the SpeakEasy. After Trailer Park, I performed in Nine and then, two years later, I returned for In The Heights.
A big part of In the Heights is community. How was the cast as a community? Did you feel closer to some actors than others? How did you build your on-stage community?
You’re absolutely right! In The Heights = community. There’s no better word to describe it. The cast was so beautiful and, in this case, I have to be honest and tell you, we were as thick as thieves. The elders of the show played the mama’s and papa’s while all of us young people ran around like we were their kids. It was so fun. It’s funny because we all just kind of clicked right away! Of course, throughout the rehearsal and performance process we got closer and closer, but we really were like a family right from the start. We were all present! We helped each other, encouraged and tried to understand each other, and we all worked hard to build a great show. We had no doubt it would be a success!
Did you have a favorite moment on-stage? Did you have a moment during the rehearsal or performance process where you learned something about yourself as either a performer or as a person?
Oh gosh yes! I had a big revolution, both personally and professionally. It was one of our last run-throughs before tech week and I began to sing “Everything I Know.” Now, all through the rehearsal process, I’d worked on the song, mapped it out, thought about it, etc., but I was constantly feeling like something was missing or that I wasn’t really in the moment. Well, I had lost my own great-grandma, who was my idol, about six months prior to doing the show, but, because I was touring Europe, I missed the funeral. I was devastated but I never really got to go through the grieving process like the rest of my family. Anyway, I started singing that day and something was different. I was in the moment, I was connected! All the sudden, I got to the third verse where I see the picture of my high school graduation, and I started to cry. I couldn’t believe it . . . I was acting!!! I lost control of my emotions but pushed through the song to the end. The whole cast/room got quiet. I had just shared the most vulnerable and beautiful moment I’d ever experienced on stage. I felt so free. I felt so alive. It was unbelievable. I will cherish it always.
Nina is a developing young woman, and I loved the growth that you showed on-stage. Do you share anything in common with Nina? Is there anything completely different about your personalities? Have you ever had a relationship like Nina’s with Benny? Or a family dynamic like Nina’s?
Hasn’t everyone? I mean, I’ve dated people with whom my family was less than thrilled. Like every family, there are things they approve of and there are things they disapprove of! I’ve definitely had my share of ups and downs with my parents both serious and minuscule, but family is family and, in the end, you always know that it’s going to be okay, and that your family wants only the very best for you. They will love you no matter what! So, Nina, in the musical, comes home and basically tells everyone she’s “failed.” I can relate to a certain extent. I think all performers can. I go home for holidays and, at family functions, people are always asking me “what’s next, what are you doing, what show are you in?” More often than not, I say, “I continue to audition!”
There were times during college that I just wanted to give up, pack my things, and go home because I thought I wasn’t good enough. I had left home for what was a “far away” place. I would get over-whelmed and homesick. I struggled, but pushed through and I am a better person for it. Since graduation from college wasn’t too long ago, it was easy for me to pull from that experience as it is still pretty fresh in my mind.
Boston does not tend to be the most ethnically diverse city, and, unfortunately, most of our mainstream theatre crowd is older Caucasian. How did audiences react to In the Heights? Did you have any challenges performing to the typical Boston theatre crowd?
You know, I was worried about that too. The great thing about Boston audiences is that they are so open. They are so interested in learning and experiencing the theater. They have such an appreciation for the arts and what it has to offer so no matter how off the wall or extreme the shows may be, the people of Boston are supportive. Also, during the run of this show, SpeakEasy started doing student matinees. Many of the students that had the opportunity to come see the show were from inner-city schools. Those students ate the show up! It was an art form that they could relate to and people of their ethnic background that they wanted to hear. The response from them was unreal and I honestly think we may have changed some lives! Isn’t that what it’s all about? I’m so proud!
Do you remember your audition for the role of Nina in In the Heights? Do you have any embarrassing (or disastrous) audition stories? How about a funny one?
Well, I don’t have a disastrous/funny story for this particular audition. For this audition, I put together a video tape, singing/acting, with the help of the Musical Director of the cruise ship, on the beautiful island of Santorini, Greece! So, it was kind of unusual!
I did, however, have what I thought was a terrible audition in school. I was auditioning for the role of Mimi in Rent. I chose to sing “Black Velvet” by Alannah Miles. I wore this leopard print mini-dress, fishnets, black leather boots and teased my hair a mile high; I was ready! I was so nervous though. I really wanted that part! Anyway, I managed to get myself into the audition room, give the accompanist my song and tempo, and stood ready to sing. I had actually never heard the accompaniment so I thought I would wing it! Boy was that a mistake. I came in a whole three beats before I was supposed, started in the wrong key, etc. It was a disaster! I did sing the song however, never asking to start over. (That probably would have been the smart move) I was never so embarrassed. After that audition, I smiled, grabbed my things, and left. I was sure I had blown it! Funny enough, as with this business, you never know what others think of your performance. Crazy enough, I ended up getting the part! I was so thankful. To this day though, I think about that audition and cringe.
What do you think makes a good musical theatre performer? How about a theatre artist, in general?
It’s all about the story-telling. Anyone can learn the notes, lines, and steps, but it’s the person who can make an audience lose themselves in the production, that makes it all work. You should constantly be open to trying new/different things, pushing what you feel are your own boundaries and exploring!
Speak of exploring, have you explored anything other than performing within the theatre world? (Directing, choreographing, designing?) What draws you to performing over the rest? Did you always know that you wanted to perform?
Performing has always been my passion. I’ve done some choreographing, but performing is so gratifying and thrilling. The applause, at the end of a show, the lights, the costumes, the challenge of creating something new, the collaboration, it’s everything. It’s my niche and hopefully, I will be able to be a part of it for the rest of my life! I’ve known ever since I was little, I would be on the stage! There was never a doubt. I’ve been working very hard and continue to work hard. As you know, this is not an easy business!
One of my friends suggested that everyone, especially actors, should always have a cozy corner. Can you tell us about yours?
I don’t know if I have a “cozy corner” per say but, before every show I take a few moments alone to do 10 pushups and center myself. My real life “corner” I guess is my room. That’s where I go at the end of the day to reflect on the work and my life.
Do you have any performers with whom you would love to work? In what role(s)/show(s) would you perform together?
Ah, there are so many! I would love to work with Boston actresses Paula Plum and Marianna Bassham. Famous actors … Al Pacino, Antonio Banderas, George Clooney, Jim Carey, Johnny Depp, Vince Vaughn, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Aniston, just to name a few, but there are so many more! I’ve got such respect for all of them. I’m not sure what I’d perform with them. Any opportunity would be fabulous!
What are some of your guilty pleasures?
I love to milk a laugh! I love, love, love it. That’s my guilty pleasure on-stage! Off-stage, I love to … eat, read, run and watch documentaries! Also, (don’t hate), I love watching Keeping up With the Kardashians and The Real Housewives! Ha!
Nina had some beautiful strength and a quiet conviction about her, even when she was conflicted and in turmoil. As a performer, what gives you strength? What about as a person?
As a performer, knowing that no one else is like me. No one else will do it like me; they can’t, there’s only one me. Also, knowing I got the part for a reason. The director has put his faith in me and it is now my job to do the best that I can. They saw “that person” in me and that’s special. On a personal level, I’m just so straight-forward. I‘m rational, I’m to the point, and I’m no-nonsense. I like the truth, and I love to be independent. I’ve been that way all of my life. Being a woman in the world today, you’ve got to know who you are and how to handle/carry yourself. It’s imperative and I take great pride in it.
Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?
I actually just got done doing a workshop, a new play, for the Huntington Theatre Company. The play is called Becoming Cuba, written by Melinda Lopez (a brilliant playwright)! I encourage everyone to see it in the Spring! As far as upcoming projects, as I said before, “I continue to audition!”
Do you have anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I’d just like to thank everyone that takes the time and enjoys seeing live theater! I would also really like to thank you again for the nomination. It means the world to me! I am truly honored and blessed!