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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Natascia Diaz

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Natascia Diaz
Natascia Diaz

Today's subject Natascia Diaz is currently living her theatre life onstage at Signature Theatre playing the whore with a heart Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Joe Calarco. The production runs through July 2nd. Previously she appeared at Signature in West Side Story, The Threepenny Opera (2015 Hayes Award nomination), and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

This incredibly versatile actress has been seen on local stages, on and off-Broadway, and across the country in a variety of roles.

Select local credits include Measure for Measure, Othello, and The Boys from Syracuse at Shakespeare Theatre Company; Jacques Brel (2014 Helen Hayes Award), Savage In Limbo, and Rooms (2009 Helen Hayes Award) at MetroStage; and Carnival and A Little Night Music at the Kennedy Center. On Broadway, Natascia was seen in the revival of Man of La Mancha, Seussical, and the very underappreciated musical The Capeman. Off-Broadway credits include By The Way, Meet Vera Stark and Saturday Night at Second Stage, The Capeman at the Delacorte Theater, Jacques Brel, and tick, tick...BOOM! (LA Ovation nomination). While on tour with West Side Story her performance of Anita won her a Chicago Joseph Jefferson Award and a St. Louis Kevin Kline Award. Regionally, Natascia portrayed Velma in Chicago at the St. Louis Muny (St. Louis Critics Award nomination) and Cassie in A Chorus Line at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma.

You might have also seen her on television in an episode of Law and Order or Oz or maybe in the documentary Every Little Step about the casting of the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line.

Here we have a performer that takes the stage and holds the audience spellbound every time. When she is onstage, you take notice. Even if you think you've heard "I Don't Know How to Love Him" a million times, you have not heard the definitive version until you've heard Natascia's torchy and less belty take on the song. It's one of the big reasons to give Signature Theatre's production of Jesus Christ Superstar a look. "Everything's Alright" in Nazareth with Natascia Diaz bringing a human side to Mary Magdalene so get on over to Shirlington and see for yourself.

What was the turning point in your life where you said "I want to be a performer"?

There really was no turning point for me. Being born to two successful parents in the fine arts, my father Justino Diaz being an opera singer, and mother Anna Aragno being a ballerina, I knew from the age of thee I wanted to be in it in whatever way I could in acting, dance, or song.

You had been performing in NYC for many years before coming to DC. What was the show that bought you here and what is it about this area that made you stay?

My first show here in DC heralded a chapter of my career that I had been waiting for. That held the kind of diverse opportunities I had always hoped I would have. The play was Agamemnon and his Daughters at Arena Stage, and I played Elektra. It was an incredible role and an incredible way to be introduced to DC. I hadn't done a play since graduating from Carnegie Mellon and it was an absolute meal.

Since then, every time I found myself back here it was for meaty, interesting, diverse and challenging pieces, from musicals, new works, to Shakespeare, which has always been where I wanted to be. And none were type casting me as "Spanish," which, for me, was everything. Here, I get to do things here that run the gamut of what I do as an actor.

But certainly, the turning point was the Sondheim Festival at the Kennedy Center, where I played Petra in A Little Night Music. That was when I really fell in love with DC, and I knew then I could be very happy living here. What has made me stay here is how warmly and wonderfully my work has been and continues to be embraced and appreciated by this community, that I met someone who I share I my life with here. But I am the definition of bi-state. I go back and forth as I need to and get the best of both worlds. I'm a lucky gal.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Natascia Diaz
Nicholas Edwards and Natascia Diaz in Signature Theatre's production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

You are playing Mary Magdalene in Signature Theatre's Jesus Christ Superstar. Can you please tell us a little bit about what your take on the character will be and how it differs from other productions of the show?

It all stems from Joe [Calarco's] vision. Signature first approached me about doing the role while West Side Story was running last January, and from the beginning, Joe was very clear that he was not going to present Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, nor did he believe she was one from the extensive research he did on her. Quite the opposite. In our show, she is presented in alignment with the historical facts about her. At Signature, she is the backbone that supports Jesus and his movement just as his relationship with Judas begins to unravel. In addition, besides being in a physical relationship with Jesus, she is also a figure that preaches, and has the respect of his followers. What a concept, right? That a woman can be human, sexual, and spiritual. A pretty huge difference. It's wonderful to be able to represent her with this kind of reverence. We change the narrative of someone's one story at a time. I love that people who will be seeing this for the first time will know her in this way, and people who have only known her the other way will see her in a new light.

For you, what is the meaning of your big song "I Don't Know How to Love Him"?

At that point of our show, Mary has been trying to support Jesus who is growing short tempered, unsure, and volatile as he nears the end. The song comes out of his outburst in the Temple, and then meeting the Lepers, who beg to be healed. Watching his rage at the betrayal of the reverence of the temple, and then being mauled by the sickness, sadness and need of the Lepers, for my Mary, she begins to realize she can only be there for him as a witness. Try to be a port in the storm for him. But the song comes out of the realization and fear that maybe her love alone won't ever be able completely soothe him, shelter him, or keep him from how he affects the world, and what the world will take from him. The metaphor is twofold; I don't know how to worship you, show my faith, show my love. People do many things to show they are "faithful" to a religion or figure. What is the best way? She comes back again to loving him for love's sake, because that is all she knows she has to give him.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Natascia Diaz
L-R Paul Simon, Diane Paulus, Natascia Diaz and Sergio Trujillo hiding from the elements at the Delacorte Theatre during the 2010 production of The Capeman.

You were part of a very underappreciated Broadway musical The Capeman, which featured a dynamite score by pop music legend Paul Simon. Why do you feel that show didn't have the run it deserved on Broadway?

Wow, that's a whole other article. In my opinion it was way ahead of its time, without the right guidance to present and protect it. A tragic immigrant story, with themes of social injustice, asking the question is redemption really possible. No one is born bad; character is shaped and twisted by abuse. A beautiful score, with three huge Latin pop stars. But [Director] Mark Morris had no idea what to do with a musical, and once he was let go, Jerry Zaks came in and did the best he could to restructure it in two short weeks.

In 2010, the Public Theater called me in as they were casting it for a production at the Delacorte Theater, this time helmed by Diane Paulus. I had always loved the songs Paul wrote for Esmeralda Agron; they sat in the meat of my voice. So, when I came in for Paul and Diane, as I sang the room got very still and Paul's main guitarist picked up his guitar in the middle of the song...it was a magic moment, and they offered me the role. This time, with Diane's poetic powerful vision, they made Esmeralda the heart center of the show, and completely reconstructed the arc around it coming out of her memory and heart as a mother. It was unspeakably beautiful for me to inhabit. I went from 17 years old to 62 and through her, you saw Salvador through the love of a mother. The change was brilliant, and I was fortunate that a few people in NY noticed and got some wonderful appreciation from Michael Riedel in the NY Post and the New York Times.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Natascia Diaz
Richard Todd Adams and Natascia Diaz in the Hangar Theatre's production of Man of La Mancha. Photo by Thomas Hoebbel Photography.

You had been on Broadway in Man of La Mancha in the ensemble and understudying Aldonza. Years later you got to play Aldonza at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY. Was Aldonza the one role you knew you had to be outright cast as in a production, and are there any other roles that measure up to that one for you?

Though I am very grateful to have gotten quite a few straight offers in the last several years, I don't think it should ever be considered and regular practice, and to be honest, I'm still not used to it. I'm used to having to prove yourself over and over. But as you go along, friends who trust each other in process and love creating together will seek to make as many chances to do so as they can.

Peter Flynn has been a lifelong friend and he knew he wanted to do Man of La Mancha at The Hangar, where he was Artistic Director at the time. Mike Issacson had been at The Muny for years before he finally took over as artistic director, and had seen me do West Side Story there. His first summer, he picked up the phone and offered me Velma in Chicago (which I had never done), sight unseen; I didn't even audition for Denis Jones, who directed/choreographed. Amazing after so many times going in for it in New York to finally have it handed to me in such a beautiful way.

But as for Aldonza, I wouldn't say the role was a barometer for measuring anything else in my career. I was happy to be able to do it again under Peter's guidance. But between acting singing, and dance, I have always been most insecure about singing, and I wouldn't call it my forte. I am primarily an actor who uses dance and song to express and convey story. The poeticism of La Mancha is very potent to me, and was a joy to deliver.

But for me, my sights are set on horizons I haven't explored. For musicals, I am dying to play Sally Bowles [in Cabaret]. Dying to. But in all honesty, I would just do plays if I could. Shakespeare. I have always felt I belong there. New work. The great thing about the configuration of my life now is that I'm not waiting for anything; I am now being called in for the kinds of projects in New York that I always wanted; and when I'm not, I'm collaborating on both established and new work in DC with writers and directors from the top of the field. Last year I would rehearse Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre Company during the day, and perform West Side Story at Signature Theatre at night. I just had the privilege to be in the world-premiere play Collective Rage by Jen Silverman directed by the superlative Mike Donahue at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. And there are things coming down the pike for the next two years. I mean, it's wonderful. I really do have the best of both worlds between New York and Washington, and my agent helps me manage it all. I'm in a great place. And I am grateful for all of it.

After Jesus Christ Superstar, what does 2017 and beyond hold in store for you?

For the near future, I have a few exciting possibilities for the fall and winter which I cannot discuss yet; but I am hoping for the best. For beyond, I intend to continue to avail myself to folks who might find me useful and hope to go further and deeper whenever I can. What else are we here for, if not to reach the unreachable star.

Special thanks to Signature Theatre's Deputy Director of Publicity and Creative Content James Gardiner for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

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