The theater is a place to tell stories about other people as well as stories about yourself. It’s also a place to try things on for size and see how they fit. Want to be a black woman trying to navigate the shifting culture of women in the ‘60s? Or a Latino gamer girl finding her way through her parents’ breakup? For Evans High School sophomore Sincere Cunningham and University of Central Florida (UCF) senior Hailey Marquez, who are both Daniel Mills Apprentices, the theater has given them a way to tap into their most authentic selves and walk around in someone else’s shoes.
Cunningham, who is 16 and on the performance track, says her favorite part of performing is figuring out who her character is and seeing what works. If she had her choice of roles, she’d like to play Beneatha Younger from “Raisin in the Sun” because the character has so many levels and options that are at odds with each other. “Portraying that conflict would be fun to work on,” she says.
Recently, Cunningham played a member of the ensemble for “Carrie: The Musical” at Fringe ArtSpace, produced by Daniel Mills Theatre Company in association with Orlando Shakes. Instead of seeing her part as a minor role, Cunningham came up with a whole backstory for her character, whom she called T. “I see her as bougie and trying to act like she’s got money when she doesn’t. T has a sister named Kitty, who is her best friend. They balance each other out,” Cunningham says.
Depending on who you ask, the play is either a dark comedy that exists to combat its subject matter or a tragedy with recognizable characters that speak to what it’s like growing up in a world of extremism.
Cunningham says besides Carrie’s supernatural powers, the play spoke to the authenticity of what it means to be a teenager. Cunningham’s first introduction to performing began with being in the chorus in elementary school, eventually leading her to be in school talent shows and praise dancing at church. One of her roles was being all three ghosts in “A Christmas Carol” at Pine Wood Elementary. “It was a lot of lines to remember, but I kind of liked being spooky, sympathetic, and wise, too,” Cunningham says.
Marquez started in theatre as a performer but found her true calling was directing. “I love to see a play from the outside perspective, to see the bigger picture,” she says.
At 21 years old, Marquez says that wanting to be a director is not about trying to control everything but instead about choices. Marquez says she learned much about collaboration from Daniel Mills Apprenticeship leadership team Nick Bazo, Joe Walsh, and Roberta Emerson. “Sure, you can tell an actor how you want a scene done, but I find it so much more rewarding to let them do it their way, watch them play around with it, and then find out what works together. You never know what may come up and works,” Marquez says.
Marquez, also minoring in cinema and music studies, recently sang in the chorus for “Hunchback of Notre Dame in Concert” at the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center. She says it was exciting to get the opportunity to perform for such a large audience. Before that, her last production was co-directing the UCF Project Spotlight play “Race to Infinity.”
Marquez says the experience was scary and exciting because it was a developmental play with many moving parts. She also says she was grateful to co-direct it with Daniel Mills Apprentice alumni Hilary Pardey-Hernandez.
The play centers on a video-game-loving teenager named Sara navigating her parents’ divorce, which was especially meaningful for Marquez because the family is Latino. “Growing up in a Cuban-American household, I felt close to the idea of holding on to traditional Latino values while experiencing the differences between the generations,” Marquez says.
Preparing to graduate in the Fall, Marquez has her sights set on staying in Orlando and continuing to direct. Although her next project is “The Prom,” a Broadway-licensed work, she looks forward to working on more developmental plays. “Don’t get me wrong; I love Broadway musicals. But with well-known works, though, people expect things to be a certain way. With developmental work, it’s an unknown journey we all go on together,” Marquez says.
Both Cunningham and Marquez say they are eager to find out where their theater education will lead them and are grateful they’ve been taught the art of collaboration and learning from their mistakes. “We all make mistakes: actors, lighting techs, stage managers, directors… but sometimes you can use that. It’s kind of the cool thing about theater. It’s evolving, and it’s alive,” Marquez says.