By Clara Ritger
Over lunch at Old Ebbitt Grill, mouth agape and scribbling furiously in my notebook, Luis Figueroa told me the story of how he got to be a cast member in “Wicked.”
“I grew up in Falls Church,” he says. “My first year out of high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had some interest in theatre, but no real knowledge of the industry.”
Shocked that he hadn’t labored in a dance studio for years with the hopes of becoming a Broadway star, I wondered how he could possibly get from Falls Church to New York City.
“I fell in love with NYC when I was visiting friends that I had met in D.C.,” Figueroa says. He attended Northern Virginia Community College and after a year decided to audition for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). “I had never had any formal dance training, but I knew I wanted to get to New York.”
As many theatre-hopefuls know, AMDA students don’t get there by chance. “Somehow I got in,” he says. “I started wondering, what am I doing? How am I going to compete with this? Being in theatre means competing for a job.” Figueroa would attend classes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but his work each day was only beginning. “I worked late in the practice studios. AMDA is a program that you get out of it what you put into it. I had a hunger [for the stage] and if you want it, you can make it happen.”
Getting to New York meant taking chances. Figueroa had a stable job with a company that was itching to put him on contract. But choosing to leave Northern Virginia meant that he would give it his all. By the summer of 2002, Figueroa landed his first musical: “42nd Street.”
“It was the first time I wasn’t working with just AMDA kids,” he says. The show performed in Moscow. “It was six of the most incredible months of my life. So much theatre technique derived from Moscow, and it was amazing to see the city and explore it.”
Figueroa’s stay was cut short. A nearby theatre had been taken hostage by rebels who didn’t appreciate the show’s message, and both Moscow audiences and New York producers felt nervous for the safety of “42nd Street.” He remembers talking to his mom about whether or not he should leave. “Several cast members had dropped out,” Figueroa says. “But my mom told me, ‘You take your chances no matter what big city you’re in.’”
Though he stayed on with the show, it closed early and by the beginning of 2003 he was back in the states. Luck was once again on his side. “Auditions for the NYC production of ‘42nd Street’ came up and I got in. So I did that until it closed in 2005.”
Being a dancer wasn’t enough for Figueroa. By the time “42nd Street” closed he was taking acting classes “to bridge the gap.” That’s how he found “Wicked.”
“‘Wicked’ is one of the toughest auditions out there because you need to master the style and the choreography,” he says. But for the AMDA student, getting in was never a problem.
Figueroa says his favorite “Wicked” song is “Thank Goodness.” “It speaks to me. In some sense you get everything, but it’s not necessarily what you need to get back to an enlightened place.” Perhaps that’s why he left the tour to take his chances in Los Angeles.
“Casting directors were telling me that my career was geared toward theatre and I had nothing to show for the camera,” he says. But it wasn’t in Figueroa to take no for an answer. “I finally got someone to look at me. That’s when I started booking commercials.”
L.A. was a struggle for Figueroa, especially with the writer’s strike in 2007. “In L.A., everyone wants to be an actor. I didn’t want to be in limbo waiting for my shot. I had fear. There were times that I felt like I just wasn’t being me.” To pay the bills, he started working at a high-end tanning salon. Then, one client, Jorge, saved him.
“In October 2009 Jorge asked me about my Broadway experience. He was going on a trip to New York and wanted to know what to see. When he came back, he said, ‘If you can do that, then why aren’t you doing it?’ He told me that I needed to share my talent with the world.”
Soon after, Figueroa called his agent to start scheduling auditions. “I was booked as a guest star for ‘Medium’ and I really liked that work. But I started to miss the lifestyle of theatre. There’s a family to theatre and you really feel like you belong and you’re a part of something bigger.”
So he flew out to New York, twice, to audition. “To be living in a single moment again was exhilarating,” he says. He auditioned for “West Side Story” and “Wicked.” “In theatre, it takes one phone call to change your life completely,” he says. So Figueroa waited anxiously, but after a while thought that perhaps his days on stage were over.
Figueroa remembers everything about the day his life changed. “I remember getting the phone call from my agent on a Sunday. He told me that I got into ‘Wicked’…and ‘West Side Story.’ As the story goes, I chose ‘Wicked.’” So I asked him what was so special about “Wicked” that he had to do it twice.
“I haven’t lost my love for the show, the material, and the story that’s being told,” he says. The story of Wicked is a story of family, but for Figueroa it’s the story of two families: those he rejoined on stage, and those he reunited with in Northern Virginia. “I knew I had the opportunity to be in D.C. for ten weeks. As an adult, you don’t often get the chance to come and be with your family for that length of time. I wanted that chance.”
Theatre is also a place where Figueroa feels he can make a difference. “I want to be a part of something that affects someone in the same way that I am affected by a TV show or movie,” he says. “During Defying Gravity I get the opportunity to glance into the audience and see the reaction from adults, kids, grandparents… it’s nice to be a part of something that so clearly on their faces matters.”
Figueroa’s thrilled to be back on stage, especially with the show. “Wicked hasn’t lost its edge or its caliber. I left in 2007 but now I’m back and still thrilled by the show. It broke box office records at the Kennedy Center. That says something about what it has to offer audiences.”
Figueroa’s theatre experience is also the story of his coming into adulthood. “You get so lost in the bullshit and things that really at the end of the day don’t matter. Once you get close to 30 it clicks. I’m trying to be in the moment and accept people for who they are, and accept me for who I am.”
The stage houses insecurity, doubt, and fear for those performing on it. But after being in and around the industry for so long, Figueroa knows that actors need more than an audience’s applause to validate their performance. “We don’t have to convince people we’re good enough,” he says. “The power is within us. We have to convince ourselves.”
So what’s next for Figueroa? “I’m open to anything,” he says. “I don’t need labels anymore. I can appreciate being where I am. If I’m too busy making other plans, life goes by me and I miss it.”
“Wicked” is on stage at the Kennedy Center through August 21. Tickets cost $37-$250 and can be purchased online www.kennedy-center.org or by phone 1-800-444-1324.