“If it scares you, if it makes you nervous, then use those emotions and do it.” Those were the first words of advice the great Tim Vasen, director of Princeton’s Program in Theater, ever uttered to me, the time I came in an hour before my first performance in class venting my frustration over having to cope with crippling anxiety. My first performance was … interesting, to say the least. It was in no way successful, other than for the fact that I was able to garner quite a few legitimate criticisms. Lines were dropped, long unintentional pauses dominated the scene, and I couldn’t help but feel my hands trembling throughout the entirety of it. Being sure of my utter failure as an actor and already scanning my mind for other classes I could switch into, I stayed after class to talk to Tim. After I spewed my frustrations on him, he simply smiled and said, “Ricardo, you’ll be fine.”
My experience with acting has been almost nonexistent the last few years, other than my trying (and failing) to hide my sexual orientation from others. The last time I was in a play was around fifth grade, where the lines were minimal and the audience was made up entirely of loving parents armed with cameras in a competition to see who could capture the largest amount of photos in a span of an hour. Other than that, my time was filled up with pointless auditions in Miami Beach for bookings that never would call back. Coca Cola, Royal Caribbean,Burn Notice: They loved having me there for callbacks, only to leave me glued to the phone waiting for a call that would never come. After six years of an acting and child-modeling career with nothing to show for it but a foot-modeling campaign, a voice-over booking, and a single print ad, I relegated myself to acting purgatory, being convinced I was a failure. I cast away all my love and devotion for performance throughout middle and high school. Once I got to Princeton, I saw the course listing and decided it was time. If I was a failure, I’d want to hear it one more time from a professor. Luckily, Tim never called me a failure.
I was obsessed with the art of live performance. I was consumed with seeing the differing energies in the room converge for a single moment, held so closely and dearly as to spawn a new world for the viewers to escape into. There were so many tangibles that could go wrong and wreak havoc on a performance, it seemed as if the success of a scene was hanging by a single, thin thread threatening to snap at any moment. With our Anton Chekhov scenes, I studied the plays religiously and wrote pages upon pages of notes, prompting Tim’s remark of “That’s so weird. I love it.” I was determined to vigorously study the scenes in a cool, calculated manner to ensure their vitalization once the moment came. I would pore over my notes before my scenes to ensure every single physical movement was prompted by the dialogue, that the emotions matched the character. Tim quickly rebuked me for that, urging me to pay attention to the certain magic contained within performance theatre. There were intangibles that couldn’t be explained, that couldn’t be studied the way chemistry could. He pushed me toward a realm I never let myself stray too far into: trust. He guided me through hours and hours of rehearsal outside of class to believe in myself and my ability as an actor to breathe life into these crafted characters.
For my second scene, one with Arkadina and Kostya in Act 3 of The Seagull, I decided to trust. I let go any preconceived notions I held onto so dearly and just allowed the emotions to flow as they came. I became the driver and the passenger at the same time. Trapped and, at the same time, in control of Kostya’s body. Words face quite a burden describing the feeling of almost possession that came over me. My usually awkward body movement was replaced with seething rage that propelled me toward jumping atop a table and slinging mandarin oranges at Arkadina. My limited array of emotions was overtaken by a bout of grief producing genuine sobs of sadness that collapsed me onto the ground with tears racing down my cheeks. I had never felt so alive in years. I fell in love again. I was bitten for the second time.
Tim’s comedic facial expression told a story of its own at the conclusion of the scene. His mouth dropped all the way to his chin; he stayed silent for a moment before exclaiming what phenomenal work he had just seen and how I had “come alive” for the first time in the whole year. I couldn’t wait to tackle my next scene, and carefully scoured the monologues laden within Shakespeare’s plays. I settled on one from Measure for Measure, playing across gender as Isabella after having been coerced for sex in exchange for her brother’s life. I decided to trust the instinct Tim had taught me to home in on the entire semester. I met the character. I crept inside her mind to understand who she was, what made her tick. I wanted to make the scene as real for me as possible. I borrowed a white, flowing dress and tan leather boots to bring Isabella to life. She deserved to be heard.
Once we reached my cue to begin, I ran to the center of the stage and collapsed. The words poured over each other in a desperate attempt to surpass the other. I moved as my body urged me to, once the words flowed seamlessly across the room. I begged straight into the eyes of Jared, cursed the Angelo inside of Tim, and rejoiced with Anna. I was no longer in the room. Isabella had walked in and had simply rented my body out for a couple of minutes. She lived because I allowed her to. I lived because I allowed myself to.
Theatre 201 was a rollercoaster of emotions for me. It started with a jolting, rocky ride that threatened to throw me off the tracks of acting for good. Once we reached the top, however, I learned how to allow myself to free-fall into my characters and invade their thoughts. The rollercoaster ended with a surge of emotions, no longer pushed on by the endorphins that numbed and propelled.
Tim’s death Dec. 28 was a tragic event for me. I had lost my mentor on campus. The one who believed in me and kept urging me to be myself, whether that be in my schoolwork or my social life. I remember breaking down in front of an airline representative buying my plane tickets, with Tim’s words rolling around inside my mind. I am who I am today because of him. Once I reached campus, I decided to live my life truthfully as Tim always had suggested. I came out to all my friends. I began to live my life as the person I truly was, leaving behind the mask I had worn for so many years in the past. I owe him my current happiness, and for that I will be forever indebted to my dear friend.
Ricardo Diaz ’19 plans to concentrate in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is an officer of Princeton’s Entrepreneurship Club, a writer for Business Today, an executive board member of Princeton Latinos Y Amigos, and a member of the Asian American Students Association and the Princeton Film Club. He recently founded a startup with two classmates that was selected as a finalist for the Hult Initiative, one of the world's largest entrepreneurship competitions.