Stay curious and open. Every experience is an opportunity to learn. Every experience is an opportunity to grow your networks of collaborators and supporters.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sandra Delgado.
Sandra Delgado is an award-winning Colombian-Chicagoan writer, performer and producer who creates joyful spaces of connection for all. Hailed as “her own brand of triple threat” (New City Chicago), she is best known for La Havana Madrid, her hit play with music which enjoyed sold-out runs at Steppenwolf and Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and in a co-production with her artistic homes, Teatro Vista and Collaboraction. La Havana Madrid had its West Coast debut at South Coast Repertory this summer. This past August, she made her debut at the legendary Joe’s Pub in NYC with her music project, The Sandra Delgado Experience.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I am a first generation Colombian-Chicagoan! I grew up with music all around me. My parents moved to Chicago from Colombia when they got married, so music and food and language has always been the most potent ways for me to connect with my culture. I was in a Colombian folkloric choir and dance troupe alongside my family from the time I was five though high school. For me the arts have always been a family affair and have always meant community.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Even though I had been actively involved in the performing arts throughout high school including the school choir and the school musicals, I didn’t think that a career in the arts was a reality for me. I fell into the very familiar first generation narrative of being the first child to go to college and feeling pressure to do ‘something” with my life and so I thought well I need to either be a doctor or a lawyer. I was a very good student and received a full ride scholarship to the University of Illinois, which has a great medical school, so I began classes as a pre Med student with a psychology concentration. I lasted about two years when it became very apparent that this was not the right road for me. I dropped out of school for a year, went back and only lasted another year before I dropped out again. At this point I was very confused about my path in life. That is until I met the man who is now my husband (Anthony and I have been together 27 years now!). That first night he asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I had never had anyone ask me that question before. Without even thinking about it, I said I miss singing. I want to sing again. I surprised myself with that answer. He said, well I’ve never heard you sing but I know you’re amazing and if that’s what you want to do, you should do it. You never know when the slightest kindness or really seeing someone can change the course of their day or even their life. At that point I started auditioning for plays around Chicago and never looked back. What’s interesting is that I found myself in very dramatic plays, plays that had no music in them. When I started creating my own work about 12 years ago I quickly discovered that I didn’t know how to tell a story without music — all the work I create now has some sort of musical element. My role as a creator is a full circle moment for me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Well, I could keep talking about Anthony! He really is my greatest cheerleader and believed in me before I even believed in myself. But I’d like to express gratitude to the group of artists I gathered when I created my very first theatrical piece, para Carmen, inspired by my paternal grandmother. I called up actor friends who I knew to be great with music and movement and said, I have this idea, will you build it with me. And they all said yes. It was a short piece, about ten minutes long, but it became the most meaningful work I had been a part of since my career started and set me on my way to becoming a creator. It taught me that people want to support you and your ideas, you just have to ask.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Wow, this is a hard one. I guess the first thing I think of was the very first performance of La Havana Madrid, my play with music, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The play is a reimagining of the long-gone Latine nightclub of the same name, complete with a live band, with whom I sing. Towards the end of the play, the audience is invited to dance along with all of us. When that moment came, it was an explosion of people: black, brown and white, young and old, strangers and friends, all dancing together. It was so beautiful that I started tearing up on stage. I thought, nothing like this has ever happened here before. This is the magic of theatre.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a mistake but it’s the first thing that comes to mind. I was just a few months into auditioning for plays in Chicago and I was called in to audition for Steppenwolf, a legendary theater company in Chicago. It was a really big deal that they had called me in. And as part of the audition they wanted me to sing a song. And I remember being so insecure about the fact that I didn’t have a theatre degree and I didn’t have a book full of musical theater songs ready to go. I felt like oh my gosh do i need to go in there and sing something from Les Miserables or something? Now if I had actually done that I think that would have been the mistake! In the moment though I felt so ill-equipped. I felt like I was not enough. Anthony said to me, why don’t you sing a Colombian song — that Colombian love song that you sang to me awhile back? I walked into that audition super insecure about it, but I sang it anyway. And guess what? Not only did I get cast in the show but they made that song part of the show as well. The lesson I learned is: always be yourself. It is your greatest superpower.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Right now I am gearing up for the New York debut of my music and story project, the Sandra Delgado Experience at the iconic Joe’s Pub at The Public Theatre. It’s a night of music, story and connection inspired by the Colombian music that has shaped me and the songs that have accompanied me through the toughest and most joyous of times. It is a musical mosaic of my bilingual and bicultural existence, with songs ranging from Colombian cumbias to love-soaked boleros to English language indie sounds woven together with my own brand of storytelling, which is rooted in connection, healing and understanding. And hey — you can dance if you want to! It’s gonna be a great night.
I’m also working on a new musical, The Boys and the Nuns, inspired by the fight for LGBTQ rights in 1980s Chicago and how a group of Catholic sisters banded together with these activists to pass what was known at the time as the “gay rights ordinance” in order to guarantee LGBTQ people basic human rights in Chicago. The music is my version of an 80s mix tape which means of course songs inspired by pop artists like Madonna but also Chicago house music, Latin freestyle and of course Spanish language power ballads all the time. The musical is getting a robust development process this fall with the Latine Musical Theater Lab out of New York and Cal State Fullerton with support from Apple.
And I am looking at next steps for my play with music, La Havana Madrid, which has been a huge hit in Chicago and recently made its West Coast debut. I’m looking at you New York and Miami!
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
You need to ask yourself: why do I want to do this, why do I need to do this? Because this is not an easy life, it is full of — like you said — rejection, lack of support and times when you feel like success is never going to happen to you. Stability is fleeting. Only do this if it feels like your only option, that it is absolutely the only thing that you want to do.
And if it is — -welcome to the club! Surround yourself with like-minded people, grow your support system, be yourself, write down your goals and action steps to achieve them. And build that anti-rejection muscle! Realize that when you don’t get a job it often has nothing to do with your talent and everything to do with factors outside of your control. The reality is most of the time you’re not gonna get the job — but that should not affect your self-worth or stop you from sharing what you have to offer the world.
When I started creating my own work and by necessity creating a whole new kind of support system the whole world opened up to me. If you have an idea, go for it.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It is of the utmost importance to live your life. Travel, go to your friend’s weddings, eat good food, go to the movies go for walks, read juicy books, dance — do all of the things that will help you live the fullest of lives. That’s gonna make you a better artist, a better person.
It’s okay to take breaks and do something else!
Another thing that has made a big difference in my life is implementing a meditation practice that is part of my every day. No matter where you are on the path — whether you are just starting out or you’ve been at it for a few decades — this career comes with many ups and downs. How do you deal with those downs? How do you stay rooted in abundance and positivity in the face of obstacles? For me, it’s Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra (aka as NSDR) is basically yoga in bed (!) and the goal is to get Godas comfortable as possible before a guided meditation. While there are immediate benefits to yoga nidra, long term benefits include regulating your central nervous system which is your flight or flight response. I have found that the everyday stress of being an artist and just being alive today has been minimized because of my practice.
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Be nice. Check your ego at the door. This is a collaborative art. When deciding whether to work with you, producers will ask around to see if you are good person to work with.
- Go to plays and play readings, read plays, get to know the theater companies in your area, take classes, find your people! Find what you like and discover the artists that inspire you.
- Make goals for yourself with action steps. At the beginning of each year, I sit down and write out my yearly, five year and lifetime goals. DREAM BIG!
- Take care of your mind and body. Meditate, exercise, eat good foods, spend time with people that lift you up.
- Stay curious and open. Every experience is an opportunity to learn. Every experience is an opportunity to grow your networks of collaborators and supporters.
For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a theater performance are different than the skill-sets you need for TV or Film?
The most important skills are exactly the same — you need to have a hold of your character, their motivations, their fears, desires. You need to be present for your scene partner(s). You need to be open to trying things and knowing that you will be asked to do completely different versions of scenes and/or individual lines. What is different is the ‘frame” you are working with — performing for a crowd of 800 people requires a different physicality, vocal energy and intensity than a close-up shot in front of a camera. TV/Film acting requires a different kind of patience as you’ll often be sitting and waiting and when it’s time to shoot, you have to be “ON” and continue to remain “ON” through multiple takes.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My work is about creating multiracial, multicultural and multigenerational spaces rooted in joy and connection. In these difficult times, our connection to each other is our most valuable currency.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I know everything. Half of it I really know, the rest I make up.” -Maria Irene Fornes
I love this quote because it is about being confident in what you know while also being unafraid to say, I don’t know but I’m going to find out. It’s about letting go of perfectionism, of fear of failure and embracing that everything you need is already inside of you — you just have to let go and let it come out.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
Please visit me on IG @yosoysandradelgado and my website www.sandradelgado.net
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thank you so much!