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Miguel Paredes '17

A theater maker, actor, and director with a rapping alter ego, Miguel Angel Paredes '17 is a creative force. He talks about his unlikely path to the theater, political expression in art, the UMass Multicultural Theater Certificate, and being chosen as one of ten 21st Century Leaders who will be honored at the 2017 Commencement.

How did you choose to attend UMass as a theater major?

I applied to various schools as an electrical engineering major; I was really into sound design. I thought maybe I could make a really cool microphone. I’m originally from California—my dad lives there—but my mom is actually a professor here at UMass. So, I applied and got in. I went to high school in Amherst, and thinking about the benefit of in-state tuition, it made more sense economically to go to UMass.

When I went to the engineering open house, I didn’t think it was for me. The next four years were going to be really hard, but the degree would lead to a great salary; the money-based benefit didn’t seem worth it. My step-dad said, “Hey let’s check out the theater department!” I took a tour led by a senior during a matinee of their show Suitors, and he even gave me a backstage look during the run! He was so excited about theater, the work, and UMass as a whole—I was captivated! From that moment on, I knew I had to change my major.

How did your experience of UMass change after you switched majors?

When I first entered the program, I didn’t see a lot of representation of myself onstage as a person of color, but after my four years I’ve witnessed a complete transformation and progression of the diversity incorporated into the program. The first two years I didn’t act in any MainStage productions or anything else on campus. Instead, I performed at Mount Holyoke twice; I was in Rent with Meredith Wells (who I would later collaborate with on Dysfunctioning Just Fine) and in a play called Living Out my sophomore year.

I loved the classes immediately as well as the professors. There were incredible professors of color such as Gilbert McCauley, Judyie Al-Bilali, and, of course, Priscilla Page.

During my sophomore year, Priscilla started the Multicultural Theater Certificate Program, so I worked on that. That was when I truly started getting more active within the theater program on campus. It was exciting because I was able to take classes that taught about theater that interested me—Latino/a theater, Black theater, Asian American theater, and Native American Theater—works that I hadn’t been introduced to previously, but remained to be so integral to my practices in theater.      

You have quite the alter-ego making his mark on the local music scene! Who is Tuzko?

I’ve always been a musician and have been making music since I was in middle school. The first song I wrote was for my grandma when I moved from California to Amherst.

Tuzko originated once I came back from South Africa the summer after my freshman year and I was charged with artistic energy (because South Africa is one of the most incredible places on this Earth). I was driving around with my friends in Amherst, and we found this abandoned eighteen-wheeler truck that said “Matuszko Trucking Company.” We got into it, cleaned it out, and created an artistic space. Here, we created art, music, and started free-style rapping. That’s when I started rapping for real and eventually named this artistic self as Tuzko. That summer, I started making a mythology around this character, and he became a representation of an Aztec demigod who sacrificed himself to create a space. It’s an homage to the sacrifices that my parents made, my grandparents made, and my ancestors made in order for me to even be here and to pursue art.

Tuzko became an alter ego for me: something similar to Childish Gambino and Donald Glover. Tuzko is different from Miguel Angel Parede as a theater maker, director, actor. He’s the music. He’s a hyperbolized me. He’s the most political, he’s egotistical, but also is empathetic to the rest of the world. Now, it has been about two years and it has become something I take really seriously. I started with rapping about things I had heard other rappers talking about—money, girls, and clothes—but then I started focusing on something real, my real experiences, the real problems I have seen. Around the same time Black Lives Matter came onto the scene so I started rapping about that, and Tuzko inherently became a political platform. And since the latest election, it’s become a great outlet to express my feelings as a Mexican-American.

I’ve learned how to record music with Professor Amy Altadonna, and I’m continuously making strides to perfect my craft. I’m able to make my own songs and produce it. In regards to taking it to the next level, I started out with me and a guitar, and now I got a band together in January. When I got with these talented musicians, we needed a name. Seeing our band’s demographics, Tuzko y Los Gringos was formed. We’ve now able to book really great shows.

What has been proudest venture you’ve tackled as a UMass theater major?

Everything changed for me during my junior year when Directing MFA candidate Jennifer Onopa came to UMass. She saw me in an immersive theater play about Emily Dickinson and approached me saying she was interested in working with me. She first directed We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury, and I was cast! I think this production was a moment of catalyst for big changes and an increase in topical pieces. The process was super-charged and the energy was crazy, and that transcended to our audiences.

What are some of your current projects?

Last semester, auditions were held for the mainstage production of Happiest Song Plays Last by Quiara Alegría Hudes. This was a production that spoke to me, and almost all the characters were people of color. Thankfully, I was able to get this role and have a super-awesome experience and an amazing opportunity to do this piece on the mainstage. It’s my senior year, and I’m able to explore my acting abilities with the role of Elliot—the hardest and most challenging role I’ve done in my career thus far because of the intersectionalities and intricacies of his character. He’s Puerto Rican, a marine, and has to deal with having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as having to struggle with his hypermasculinity. I’ve been able to delve into just where this character holds trauma, how he hides it from others, and his relationships with other characters in the show. Not to mention, I was able to work with Jennifer Onopa again on this project, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. She is one of the greatest directors I have ever encountered, and I have learned so, so much by working with her.

What is your focus in the major and how did you make this decision?

My junior year, I auditioned for a MainStage and I didn’t get in. At the time I was thinking I wanted to pursue an acting career, so this really was a huge blow for me, as I thought it was piece that I was suitable for. During winter break, I questioned what I was to do now if I wasn’t involved with this piece, and that’s when I decided to start directing. I took a directing class that following semester at Amherst College, and I directed two plays in one semester. It was really wild, but amazing and pushed me.

Around the same time, I saw a reading of my friend Meredith’s play Dysfunctioning Just Fine. It was absolutely amazing, even just as a reading, so I contacted Meredith and begged to direct the production, and she told me she’d let me know. This past fall semester comes around, and she offers the directing position to me. I jumped on the opportunity, and the world-premiere of the show and the gratification of the production felt similar to We Are Proud to Present. Instead of it being about race, it was about ability, and it was the first production I had seen while at UMass about ability.

The plays that I chose were about race and about the exploration I had experienced in We Are Proud to Present, and I knew then that directing was something I truly wanted to pursue. With acting, you audition and audition, and the relationship with art is different because you are asking to be a part of a play and you don’t have as much autonomy. But with directing, it’s completely different because it’s you saying, “Can you be a part of my play?” It completely changes the power structure. I learned with the Multicultural Theater Certificate that in order to see what I want to see be created and put onstage, I have to make it myself.

You had the opportunity to travel to South Africa in Professor Megan Lewis's Grahmstown Festival Course. What was that experience like?

I went to South Africa the summer of my freshman year for the first time mostly because of Judyie Al-Bilali, who I completely consider to be my mentor. I remember her telling me, “You have to go to South Africa! You have to go on this trip!” And I was like, “okay!” This trip completely blew my mind. In America, we think theater is Broadway, entertainment, but it’s so much different in South Africa. The way that theater was created and why it was created was to fight Apartheid. It was applied protest theater to fight Apartheid. It is some of the best work that I’ve seen, and the legacy of the work that I’ve seen. The Market Theater in Johannesburg, among other theaters, was groundbreaking. During this time, whites, blacks and people of color were not allowed to be in the same spaces, but the Market Theater got an old building that allowed integration for collaboration under the building’s original vendor license.

The course Megan Lewis has created was rigorous and expected a lot from us on the trip. I learned so much about the history of the country and was able to see the theater and connect that history to it. Seeing five plays or more a day, every one of them was next-level and moving. The use of bodies in South African theater physicalized messages, and we should take note from that. I was in love with the culture and the people. We are unbelievably blessed to have Judyie and Megan foster such an incredible opportunity to be immersed into this country and culture. I made frequent visits to The Long Table in South Africa, a place where audience members are given the opportunity to discuss the theater they’ve seen along with the artists. In the United States, it’s a lot about the fame or the revenue from productions, where in South Africa it’s all about the work, and that is just such an important distinction.

What does the future look like?

I once asked Mark Feldman, one of the artistic directors of the Magnet Theater, “What is your advice for young theater-makers right now?” He said, “You’re not a theater-maker unless you’re making theater.” And that stuck with me. You need to always be making work. It informed a lot of the stuff I’m doing now because I’m always trying to make things happen.

Right now, Meredith and I have been accepted into the New York City True Colors Fringe Festival in cooperation with the New York City Pride Parade and LGBT Voices. Dysfunctioning Just Fine is going to be produced at that festival, and I’m elated for our first professional production, my debut as a professional theater-maker. The show takes place in Brooklyn from June 22nd through the 24th, and it’s going to be a remarkable experience.

I’m also applying to the University of Cape Town to study Applied Theater in their honors program. It’s their post-Bachelor’s honors program as a one-year intensive, and I’d be able to work with some of the artists I have met previously visiting. The South Africa trip was two to three weeks, but it was not enough time for me to really soak it in. I want to be able to stay there for a full year and learn the craft of South African theater-making.

I’ve also been granted the 21st Century Leader Award, and only ten seniors of the graduating class at UMass were bestowed this honor. I’m one of ten in five thousand students, and I don’t think a theater major has gotten it in quite some time—and furthermore a Latino theater-maker. I’m honored to be recognized, as it is not only for me but for all my fellow students of color.