Elena brings her own flair to the Big Apple
During her first year in the drama programme at New York University, Elena Menendez Sanchez brought her own unique cultural flair.
As the daughter of a Bermudian, Jessica Lightbourne, and Cuban, Wilber Menendez Sanchez, she performed a Brazilian play, wrote a play based in Puerto Rico and tried out her Bermudian accent on her new American friends.
She had mixed results.
“It was so foreign to them that they don’t really think it was real,” the 19-year-old said. “Also it’s a bit more in the nasal resonator than they’d think, so that also throws them off.”
One of her goals it to bring more Bermudian and Caribbean culture to New York theatre.
“I want to see how my experiences translate for an American audience,” she said.
In September, she goes into her sophomore year equipped with the $30,000 John D Campbell Arts Scholarship from the Centennial Awards Foundation.
“When I received the award I was really excited and proud of myself,” Ms Menendez Sanchez said. “This was something I really needed because NYU is super expensive. It was a really rewarding feeling to be chosen.”
She has found some elements of her first year in New York City to be challenging.
“The perception of Black people in America is so different than it is in the Caribbean,“ she said. ”I want to see how that positive joyous persevering light will be seen in a country with so much distortion when it comes to race.“
She said that compared with America, it was much more common to see people of colour in positions of power in Bermuda. And although there are still economic disparities between races in Bermuda, she thought things were still more equal on the island.
Since being in the US, she has experienced many micro aggressions in her daily life.
“White people will speak to me in this African-American vernacular,” she said. “When another White person comes along they will switch the way they speak immediately. I have to say to people, you can talk to me normally.”
And she has often experienced White people coming up to her on the sidewalk and staring threateningly into her face.
“They are trying to intimidate me to move,” she said. “That is such a strange jarring tactic.”
She found that other Black students had had similar experiences.
Her interest in drama began when she was 12 and landed the role of a mean duckling in a play at the Bermuda High School for Girls.
“I was excited, because at that level, students are normally in the chorus and the older girls got the roles,” she remembered.
She had done some singing and had played instruments but this was her first time acting.
“I just had so much fun,” she said.
She was hooked.
Her family were thrilled when she went into drama. Her grandfather, the late Ronald Lightbourne, was well known locally for writing plays.
“My whole family is really creative,” Ms Menendez Sanchez said. “My family definitely supported me and encouraged me to pursue the arts.”
After graduation, she wants to work on Broadway or the West End.
“My focuses right now are acting and directing, but I have been told I also have a lot of potential in sound design,” she said. “I am really interested in that.”
She started to write plays three or four years ago, although she does not really remember why or how.
“I won a few Teen Advisory Board writing competitions at the Bermuda Youth Library,” she said. “I said ‘OK what is the next avenue?’ My mom said we write plays in the family, why don’t you try?”
It came naturally to her. And when she was 15 she took a playwriting workshop at the Bermuda Musical & Dramatic Society with Tom Coash, co-founder of the Offstage Theatre in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“He took it upon himself to write my mother to say I had a lot of potential and that I should pursue it further,” she said. “I really appreciated that coming from someone who had just put on a play in multiple countries.”
Like a lot of theatre buffs, she loved the Broadway hit musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“I was really excited to have a show that had the kind of music that I would listen to and my father would listen to,” she said. “That was unheard of in musical theatre. And it was almost a full person of colour cast. That was also almost unheard of.”
Last year she got to do a work study with the sound design team at NYU. They were working on a play called Execution of a Horse by Gary Winter.
“The second years needed actors so they could practice a sound design assignment,” she said. “It was cool to be one of the first people in my year to do any acting. I got paid. Not that much, but it was something. And I was working with a Broadway star called Hiram Delgado. That was a really fun experience.”
Because she was working with four or five different groups of sound students, she had to perform the same play several different ways and remember how she did things for each group.
Studying theatre in the middle of a pandemic has had its challenges.
In her freshman year at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, everything had to be done with a mask.
“It changes the way you do breath control and the register that you sing in,” she said. “You have to do a higher register so it cuts through the mask more.”
She had to act with her eyes and eyebrows for so long, that when she and her fellow students finally removed the masks, it was a little shocking.
“I said oh my gosh, there was all that expression there in the face that we could not see,” she said.
Last year she also had the opportunity to try out some directing and felt she did pretty well at it. She also wants to use her drama skills to do advocacy work for the LGBTQ community.