Student Talent Showcase: Rebekah Santiago in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”

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he Nafe Katter Theatre, located on Bolton Road by Storrs Center, is home to the Connecticut Repertory Theatre's production of Shakespeare's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." (File photo/The Daily Campus)

he Nafe Katter Theatre, located on Bolton Road by Storrs Center, is home to the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” (File photo/The Daily Campus)

Rebekah Santiago worked in a dual role in the newest Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” as both the character Rebekah Landless and the show’s choreographer. You can see her excellent work in the show at the Harriet Jorgensen Theatre this week. The Daily Campus sat down with Santiago for a Q&A about her work.

1. Typically, these shows bring in a professional to handle the choreography. What was it like for you, as a student, to be given this role?

It was very meaningful to me to have been given this opportunity. When I was asked by the head of my department at the end of the 2018 spring semester, I was truly in shock. I had never heard of such a thing happening, but it was so nice to be believed in and entrusted with this project. My department head, my program director and my creative team did everything they could to set me up for success. They believed wholeheartedly that I could take on this challenge, even when I didn’t quite believe in myself. Matt Pugliese has been a big supporter of mine since I got to UConn. He has always created an environment for me to grow in, and he has believed in me from the start. That doesn’t happen often in this industry. Matt made me feel like this was a position I had earned as opposed to an opportunity I was gifted, and I will never be able to express how much that has meant to me. That fact is one of the main reasons I feel I was able to succeed.

2. What sort of experience did you previously have with choreography?

Before I came to college, I had the opportunity to choreograph different dance pieces for my dance program. Professionally, I had the privilege of working as an assistant with Terrance Mann and Chris D’Amboise during the Nutmeg Summer Series. After that, I continued to work as an assistant choreographer and choreographer at Hope Summer Repertory Theater. I assisted on “The Wiz” and “Godspell,” and I choreographed the world premiere of the children’s show, “Dragon Pack Snack Attack.” I also have been aiding CRT with all of their dance auditions for the summer season, as well as during the school year by teaching the dance calls.

3. What is a normal day of practice for you, specifically in terms of your interactions with the other cast members?

During a normal day, we’ll start with the basics by teaching the choreography that I have planned for the day. My assistant and I will teach it, run it and see if any problems arise. After that we begin to add the acting aspects in. I am a firm believer in the fact that people get up to dance and sing during plays or musicals because the feelings that they are feeling cannot be expressed by just words. And since I am an actor first, it is very important to me that all the movement is fueled by some kind of motivation or objective. I want the story of the musical to flow through the movement as opposed to having the two be two separate entities. After we add in the acting components I’ll sit down with Paul, the director, and we will tweak the number in an effort to fix things that aren’t working, or that can be improved. We’ll then circle back to step one.

4. How are you able to add a layer of visual meaning and characterization through the use of movement and dance?

I think it’s important to listen to the songs for the stories that the writer intended to tell. Often, before I even started moving, I just listened to the music within the context of the play and tried to figure out the song’s purpose, where the character was coming from, why they were singing it, how it furthered the plot. Then I would just turn on the music and see what happened organically; I tried to see what movements my body was drawn to and how the music made me feel. From there my assistant, Camille Fortin, and I would add in the physical dance steps, technique, formations, etc. and begin to shape it into a full blown number that could be performed. The costume department and I worked very closely together as well so that my vision could be attained not only through movement, but through what people were wearing. The classical Broadway movement that this show required was grand. It needed to sweep audiences up, and carry them through the rest of the show. The brilliant Brittny Manahan and I worked closely to make sure that not only could the dance moves be completed with her amazing work on the actors, but that the big can-can skirts, traditional bustles and blouses could create this flowing effect. We wanted the costumes and movement to work with each other to create a visually pleasing show that was full of color and life.

5. Did you take any inspiration in your work from any previous stagings of “Drood?”

A little from the revival. Warren Carlyle is a wonderful choreographer. Not only did he choreograph the revival, but most recently, he choreographed “Kiss Me Kate,” “Hello Dolly,” “She Loves Me” and most notable I think was the Broadway revival of Follies. I love his work, however video recording of this show are few and far between so about 95 percent was created by me. It’s what makes this particular production so personal. What audiences are seeing is my work that was contrived from my chaotic brain. To see it on other people really does bring me to tears every time just because it is mine. I also I never thought I would get to this point in my career as such a young age, so it really is a privilege to be doing this.

6. What are some of the most important lessons in choreography you have learned?

Choreography has taught me a few things. It taught me patience because everyone, no matter the skill level, works at different paces. They understand things in different ways, and sometimes you’re going to have to adapt your work in order for it to truly look the best it can. It taught me to have patience with myself as well. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were these dances. I needed to be okay with that and with the fact that good things come to those who have the patience to wait for them. It’s taught me adaptability. None of my first drafts made it to stage, not the full version anyway. As Paul and I collaborated, there were ideas he expressed that I hadn’t thought of, so it was a lot of quick thinking in the moment about new choreography that would make all parties happy and excited. And it really has taught me how to love what I do in new ways. I love being an actress, but there are hard days, times when I second guess myself, my abilities and my career path. However, being a choreographer has just allowed me to fall in love with my career in a completely different, and even more exciting way.

7. How did it feel having a leadership role over other actors you were working with?

It was strange but empowering. As a LatinX female at the age of 22, I never thought that I would be hitting an achievement like this this early in my career. I had had my nose to the grindstone for so long I forgot to look up and see all that I had achieved along the way. I had a mix of people that consisted of seasoned Broadway and off-Broadway actors, students and colleagues. It was nice to have a seat at a very enthusiastic and supportive table. It was also wonderful to work with people who have so much love. It made it so much easier to express myself creatively, for I knew I had the love and support of everyone around me.

8. Was it more or less difficult choreographing your own movements as opposed to those of the other actors?

It was difficult because I always wanted to see what it looked like, but at the same time, I still had to be an actor in my show. I loved being able to perform my own work, but I also needed to make sure everything looked the way I wanted it to. I couldn’t have done it without my assistant Camille and my assistant director Julius Cruz. Camille helped me form the whole show so that when I needed to be an actor, she could teach movements and answer questions. We would take turns stepping out and watching so that we could each get a look at the numbers and take notes. When we both needed to be in the show, Julius would step in and remove some of the burden for me. He took videos and notes just as diligently as I would, so that I could wear both my hats at once.

9. What about this show should draw audiences in?

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” from the moment the curtain rises to the moment we take our bows, is completely immersive. The extended pasorel stage and audience involvement create a unique theater experience that not many are trying to accomplish right now in the theater world. The creative team worked to create a show that completely transports and immerses our audiences for the two and a half hours they are with us, and I think we’ve done that. It’s exciting to have people there to act with us in our space, and to help us tear down the fourth wall of conventional theater.


Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu.

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