SWEET > STORY
It's no secret that theater majors have some of the most colorful personalities on any campus. Join Charcoal as we catch up with three such students—Desiré Graham, Tiara Burton, and Jo Cosio-Mercado.
Photography by: Patricia Ho. Interviewed by: Remy Usman.
Who do you feel is doing good work right now?
I’m going to be vague and clear at the same time...hopefully. I feel as if colleagues my age are doing good work. Mostly because their minds are focused on the possibilities, their hands are outstretched to communities they’ve never stepped foot in and their aesthetics are transient at this point in their career. They are doing good work for themselves, for older professionals and for school. I’m waiting for the day we can pin our ideas down, collaborate and do Great work.
When are you happiest?
I am my happiest with my two friends wallowing about the past, forming for ourselves, and for each other, how what we’ve overcome can forge us forward to create art. Laughter always comes of us together. Dancing comes later. Tears come soon there after. And the smiles come back even stronger than before.
When was the last time you got really angry?
Oof! Probably at work today! It was brief. But I just get a little tense and resentful when people tell me things I already know. I get it, they are helping, but I just want to say I know I know I know I know — even if I do not fully know. I’d rather fall flat on my face from my own mistakes.
What was your first role or introduction to theater?
Hmm, hard to say, I’m gonna go with the Christmas pageant I had to do for my catholic school in kindergarten. I think I just sang choir that first year, but that led me so always choose to express through a medium that is not just talking with my own voice.
Do you prefer to be the starring role or to call the shots?
Ha, well if you’re making me answer, I prefer to call the shots. Expected. Because, being a starring role is lonely, it requires stamina unlike any other character and it is hard to lean on anyone for support because no one has sympathy for the “lead.” (I can only speak from my experience) (this is also only applicable to shows I’ve been part of where there is a specified lead, I prefer shows where the entire ensemble can have equal stake in the project). Calling the shots requires a different stamina and attention to an entire ensemble of people, which gives me the power to exemplify patience, kindness as well as make sure every voice is heard—giving everyone a stake in the process.
What do you dislike most about acting? Enjoy the most?
I dislike that I have not figured out how to fully access my emotional for use. I’m working on it. For now, I’ll just keep watching the people who inspire me in awe.
What are your thoughts on the current state of theater?
Oh oh oh! — theatre comes in many different forms. I cannot say I have all the knowledge of those forms to truly answer this question. I can say that it ain’t great, could be better for all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, classes, genders, sexual orientations, etc. and more specific. No more “this character is neutral, cast whomever you want.” I want a conscious effort to bring people into the theatre who want to be there. Whether that be audience or production team.
What types of character do you prefer to play?
I prefer to play people who have a fire within them, a smile for use, an effortful effortlessness, a people’s person, a lover.
How do you define ‘acting’?
Acting is a transformation !
Is there anything you haven’t done that you want to do?
A lot. For the most part, I have not spoken my mind unfiltered and not cringed. I just want to keep moving forward with kindness without a second or third or fourth thought. Have not mastered. Will take years.
How do you prepare for a role?
The easiest way for me to start preparing for a role is to read the play twice (I always catch new things the second time) and start learning my lines. It’s hard to act freely with a script in my hand so I try to have the script memorized as quickly as possible. From there, it’s just a matter of learning what I can bring to the character and where I need to improve. The last role I was cast in was a character from west Africa, which meant that I had to do a bit of dialect training alongside learning my lines.
I had some help from the director and dialect coach, but most of the work was just a matter of researching and mimicking YouTube videos. I was really concerned about the accent as accurate as possible, so that made up for a pretty big portion of my preparation. There were also a couple of dance / movement sequences and some minor stunt work in the play, both of which took extra rehearsal time to learn. After that, it was just a matter of rehearsals. I rarely ever prepare for a role alone—it’s always a team effort by my scene partners, the director, and anyone else working on the show.
What are you thinking on stage? Backstage?
When I’m backstage I’m usually trying to find a way to manage my adrenaline and fear. No matter how many plays I act in, the idea of going out onstage in front of a huge audience always scares me. I try to just focus on remembering my lines and not freaking out too much. But the minute I step out onstage, all the fear goes away and I’m focused on my scene partner or whatever I’m doing in the scene. I’m rarely ever scared when I’m on stage, it’s just the anticipation that gets me. When I’m not thinking about how terrified I am, I’m probably thinking about what I’m going to eat after the show.
When starting a [project/role], how do you feel emotionally?
I feel a lot of different things depending on the role. It can range from anticipation and excitement to laziness and reluctance. There are so many factors that go into each individual play that it would be impossible for me to pinpoint just one emotion. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all of the preparation I need to do (learning lines, rehearsals, dialect work) that it beings to feel like homework, but it’s always worth it in the end. The process of working with a cast is a lot of fun and you learn to just roll with the punches.
When was the last time you cried?
Well the last time I cried was when I went to the movies and saw Isle of Dogs last weekend because I love dogs and that’s just such a sweet movie…as far as the last time I cried onstage, it’s been awhile. I think the last time I can recall crying onstage was when I was rehearsing a scene for my Freshman acting class. The teacher of that class is exceptionally skilled at drawing emotions out of us—I don’t know how he does it. But I distinctly remember feeling emotionally blocked as I rehearsed my scene in front of the class. He had me go to one side of the room and stomp my feet and scream at the top of my lungs until he told me to stop.
I knew that he didn’t want me to hold anything back, so I screamed and stomped to the point where I actually started getting frustrated and tears came to my eyes, which were both emotional responses that were useful in my scene. By the time my teacher told me to stop, I had stomped and shouted myself into a snotty, teary mess. My teacher jumped in, “YES! Now go right into the scene from there!” I did, and it was some of the best acting I’ve ever done in my life.
Do you think there’s a common trait/denominator to good actors?
In my experience, the best actors are the ones who are the most vulnerable and are willing to not hold anything back. It’s very difficult, bordering on impossible, to believably portray an emotion that you’re not actually experiencing. The more an actor can open up to a scene and actually let themselves experience the things their character is going through, the more realistic the acting seems. Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done and it takes an incredibly talented person to manufacture emotions on the spot and then do it again night after night under the scrutiny of an audience. It really is an amazing thing to watch, and I think a lot of us go to school for acting so we can learn how to do it.
What do you think theater is really about?
Theater, to me, has always been about storytelling. What stories are we willing to tell, and why? Or maybe a better question is what stories are we willing to listen to and why? Whether we laugh, cry, or both is up to the specificities of the play, but at the base of it all I think is a desire to share parts of the human experience with each other in a collective space. I think there’s also a lot of activism in theatre too. Oftentimes, playwrights are at the forefront of movements like feminism or Black Lives Matter or gun control, and our current cultural environment is reflected onstage because those are the things contemporary artists are writing about and performing.
Why did you change your major from within School of Theater to CAS?
There were a lot of factors that went into the decision but it mainly came down to me having to make a choice between two things I love equally. I’ve been acting since I was a little kid but biology is relatively new to me. I took classes in high school but never really had any in-depth experience with it despite how fascinating animal behavior and ecology was to me. It got to a point last semester when I was enjoying my biology classes more than my acting classes, and that was when I realized that maybe it was time to switch my major. Plus, I figured that if I changed my mind later and decided that I did want to pursue a career as an actress then I wouldn’t necessarily need a degree for it. But if I wanted to work in a biology-related field, I would at least need a Bachelor’s degree. That helped me make the decision. It all worked out though because now that I’m not following the intense CFA schedule, I have more time to do art related things in my free time and build my resume. So in the end, I got the best of both worlds.
As a graphic design major, I have class right across from the Blackbox theaters on the 3rd floor of CFA, which means we often hear random screeches and bird noises and stomping and shrieks—what’s going on?
Oh boy…there’s a lot of really intense emotional work that goes on in those blackboxes…I don’t really know how to explain it. Because acting is such a hands-on profession, a lot of what we do is very vocal and physical. Our classes are different than what most people think of when they imagine a typical college experience, with lecture halls and textbooks. It sounds weird but the screaming and stomping is actually a really helpful way actors connect to their work and release energy that may be getting in the way of a truthful performance. It’s like what I was talking about earlier, when my teacher made me stomp and scream before doing my scene; sometimes you have to fake the emotions until you become so frustrated you actually start feeling them. All of the weird noises your hearing are just different ways that actors are channeling their energy into their work.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
I’ve been asking myself this question since I came to college…the truth is, I don’t know. When I came to BU I was dead set on moving to LA once I graduated and working as an actress. Since then, I’ve switched my major to Biology with a focus in zoology and a minor in theatre. I still want to act and still plan on moving to LA, but whether I want to be in movies or save tigers is a decision I’ve yet to make. I’ll probably try and find a way to do both because I hate making decisions.
Do you ever feel insecure as an actor?
ALL. THE. TIME. There’s a constant question of ‘did I get it right?’ and craving that satisfaction even more when I see other people in their moment. The moment before presenting—especially when presenting for other actors—is terrifying cos I’m unsure if I will fulfill what is tasked of me. But I also think there’s a lot to see in that anxiety because that’s my body telling me that I care about my work. And it’s really not about ‘getting it right’ as much as it is being truthful in the scene.
Are you more introverted or extroverted? Does that translate into your acting?
I'm an extrovert to the point of embarrassment. Curiously enough it doesn’t flow over into the work because I actively check myself and my behaviors. I know I’m extra, so I’m constantly asking myself “would this character really be this extra?” and I tend to minimize. I’m beginning to accept that the work is the perfect place for that socially deferent extroverted self to live and thrive.
Does anything scare you in the area of theater?
Typecasting. There’s not much variety for a moody francophone queer Asian boy with mildly grecian features (if only). In all seriousness though, I’m terrified of my racial identification coming before my work.
CFA as a whole can feel like its own little world away from the rest of campus. Do you ever feel secluded from other schools/students on campus? Why?
Not just the CFA but the SOT itself feels like it exists in its own bubble. I’m actually ok with it. I’ve built a lot of trust and love with my peers and knowing that there’s a community I have quick access to that is conscious and responsive to my emotional self is a comforting thought. The way we socialize is so different that breaking out of it is sometimes intimidating for me. I have my friends from outside the SOT but I also have that emotional agreement with them so it’s not so different.
Tell me about some of your influences.
Xavier Dolan through and through. I’m massively attracted to moody francophone queer boys with mildly grecian features who make art about themselves cos narcissism is fantastic. So him and Timothée Chalamet (recent muse but wow that kid can act). Dolan was incredibly young when he made J’ai Tué Ma Mère. He wrote it at 16 or so, directed and acted in it when he was 18 or 19, and by the time he was 20 it was all over the festival circuit. I really love the stuff he does cos he’s in complete ownership of his voice and is just doing the most with what he has.
My theatre work also seems to be peppered with influences from Cirque du Soleil. I really admire their commitment to creating a world and telling a story. They’re a circus but they invented an entire language so as to not alienate global audiences by only speaking French or English. And their aesthetic is fantastic.
What drives you?
I take a lot of pride in being an immigrant queer artist of color so the prospect of any opportunity to share that story is exciting. The avenues for telling stories like mine are few for now, but I’m a workaholic so I’m eager to rise to the challenge of carving a space for myself.
How do you prepare for a role?
I become weird and wear a black turtleneck and shades and read my script while smoking in the CFA alley by the no-smoking signs. While listening to Maurice Ravel.
Kidding. There’s a lot of investigation in who this person is to the people around them. I try to identify where my life as Jo and the character’s life intersect, and honoring where they don’t. Then its a question of what I need to bring out those missing parts, which exist in me, as they exist in every person. At the end of the day, I’m cast in a role for me, not for my ability to impersonate.
How would you describe your mind?
My brain kinda exploded trying to figure this out so that’s probably telling.
For some reason there’s always a DJ that’s trying to convince me that everything is a music video or a runway. But the party’s really loud and nobody’s sweating on me and everyone’s having a good time and most definitely will find someone to go home with. RuPaul is there and he’s taking notes.
Basically I see everything in Technicolor.
What’s your best quality?
I’ve got these fantastic cheekbones and my work has received a lot of praise and my ass is looking great recently. And I’m humble.