NYFA Musical Theatre alumna Ilda Mason is no stranger to the hustle and bustle of life as a working actress in New York City. Since graduating from NYFA, she has performed in not one but two professional productions of “West Side Story” and toured the country with “Cinderella.”
Now, as she gears up for her next adventure — performing as Pilar in a tour of “Legally Blonde” in China! — Ilda took some time to catch up with the NYFA community to share her thoughts on success after school and believing in yourself, no matter what.
NYFA: First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to NYFA?
IM: I was born and raised in Panamá City, Panamá. I studied ballet on and off for many years because I always found myself coming back to it despite of all my other extracurricular activities I did in school, like musical theatre.
I auditioned for my first professional musical in 2008. It was “Beauty and the Beast,” and we performed in the biggest theatre in the country. I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life, but as a plan B, I studied Structural Architecture. So I have a degree in Architecture!
I knew I wanted to come to the United States to study Musical Theatre and it seemed like fate when I saw NYFA at a student’s stand in the very same building where that huge, first musical took place. I knew instantly that NYFA was it because it mixed Musical Theatre and Acting for Film.
NYFA: Do you have any favorite NYFA moments from your time studying with us?
IM: I loved my first NYFA Musical, “Spring Awakening.” Such an incredible show to be part of! It was my first audition process in New York, and to be cast in it was out of this world. Everything about it was exciting, new and powerful. And my favorite class project was the Final for Performance Lab, in which we had full creative freedom to do whatever we wanted and create a medley of songs and musicals to tell a new story. It was my favorite because I had the opportunity to see how my classmates shined so bright.
The team I was a part of was amazing! Terra made the most incredible medley of rock songs and musical theatre hits that told the story of a rock band going to space, and I got the role of the astronaut! We used Christmas lights against the dance classroom’s mirror to create the illusion of being in space and … it was just perfect. To this day, my favorite class assignment.
NYFA: Why musical theatre? What inspires you about this kind of storytelling?
IM: Musical Theatre brings together my love for acting, singing, and dancing. There is something magical about being on stage, telling a story with so many challenging elements. It’s live, always. You have to be on your A game all the time, whether it is trying to get the job or then keeping your mind, body and soul to 100 percent because your body is your instrument and you need to be ready to do a show eight times a week. It’s inspiring to me because it is special, it is demanding and it is rewarding. To dance my heart out every night, to sing a gorgeous score and to tell a beautiful story for a living must be the best job in the universe. I stare in awe whenever I see a Broadway show, or incredible acting on film. I want to do that, I want to be there. That’s why I moved countries.
NYFA: While at NYFA, you choreographed the Musical Theatre Department’s production of “Carousel.” Can you tell us about that experience, and how it has shaped what you do today?
IM: I was chosen by Chad Austin to be his associate choreographer for this show, and it was one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had. To see a show from concept to end required a lot of hard work and we were a team that was committed. Getting to work so close to Chad as director/choreographer, gave me a look into all it takes to create something special. Being able to help choreograph and teach to our cast made me grow so much. I taught me about leadership, ownership and commitment. I needed to know every single move, step and position because the cast was counting on me. I think this was the biggest preparation to be a dance captain on Broadway one day soon.
NYFA: You performed in two separate professional productions of “West Side Story.” What was it like to approach the same show in two different iterations?
IM: My first “West Side Story” will always hold a dear place in my heart. That production in Signature Theatre was flawless in every single way. It was so special to do such an iconic show that tells the story of Latino immigrants just like me, surrounded by such inspiring actors. We did a very immersive, intimate production in which only 300 people were all around us while the Jets and Sharks ran amongst them during the prologue.
The second time I was part of the cast in Paper Mill Playhouse and that on its own was already mind-blowing. We rehearsed at the New 42nd St. Studios, and I was once again surrounded by massive Broadway stars, but the story was the same. Same beautiful message, stunning score and the best dancing there can be. The best part was seeing how different directors and choreographers bring the same show to life.
NYFA: You recently performed in the national tour of “Cinderella.” For our students, how did you adjust and sustain your work for the tour conditions and schedule? Was there anything that surprised you or challenged you along the way?
IM: Being on tour is incredibly challenging and demanding. I learned and grew exponentially during those 10 months on the road. I learned that you must go in being 100 percent in every possible way, because the nature of touring will take a toll on you. I learned about making a lot of money and saving a lot of money for my future; I learned about the importance of rest. My body needed rest because we never truly had a day off while on tour since our “off” days where travel days. I learned about not falling into the claws of drama. Drama is meant to happen when you live in such a small bubble, and it will drain you mentally and spiritually.
I learned how to be more like my dad and stay calm, collected and in a way diplomatic because these people become your family. You don’t want to fight on the road. I learned about the importance of keeping myself healthy and injury-free. So many people had to leave the tour because they got hurt and couldn’t perform anymore. I learned how to cook on the road! By the end of tour, I had a mini kitchen with me, equipped with a mini electric skillet, mini rice cooker, cutting board, spices, cutlery — you name it. It gave me the comfort of eating the food that I loved and missed and the peace of mind that I always had something to eat even when we were in the middle of nowhere, and saved so much money because of it.
It’s challenging to be away from your loved ones, to miss out on things, to be surrounded by the same people every single day, but that was also something beautiful because you appreciate your long distance relationships with friends and loved ones; because you appreciate your alone time, and sharing time; because touring is a whole new ball game and doing a show about kindness and dancing a beautiful Ball every night is pretty spectacular.
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NYFA: What is next for you? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects that excite you, or any new avenues you hope to explore soon?
IM: I’m so excited because next month I will be going to China to perform as Pilar in “Legally Blonde: the Musical”! We will be doing a short tour through Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about this Chinese adventure!
NYFA: Would you say your time at NYFA was at all useful in preparing for what you are doing today?
IM: Absolutely. I was so prepared for that first audition season. I was my strongest in every way and ready to tackle any dance call, had a full repertoire of songs and enough confidence in who I am that I was ready to start the job of auditioning and having a day job at the same time. With time I grew to learn more about what was my style, what songs show me best at the actual audition time and what to wear to show who I really am and who I can be. I had incredible teachers at NYFA and I’m thankful for all the pieces of gold they gave me as guidance for this difficult journey though the musical theatre/film industry.
NYFA: Any parting thoughts for our readers?
IM: Musical Theatre is hard work and perseverance to its core. It’s about not giving up and showing up to those auditions even though you are tired, haven’t been seen for Equity calls or even if you are scared. I learned a huge lesson from a close friend of mine. My tour roommate, an immigrant from Malaysia who was on an O-1 visa just like me and was also non-Equity, booked the Broadway revival of “Miss Saigon” and made her dreams come true.
After that I realized that there is no audition too big. You want to be on Broadway, right? So you have to go to that Broadway call! She unknowingly taught me that you never know if you never try, and that if you feel you are right for something you have to go for it.
Funny story, that’s how I landed this “Legally Blonde” tour! I applied to get an appointment and didn’t get one. The day of the audition I looked in Audition Update and found the location of the singers call. I marched there determined to be seen and, because they were running ahead of schedule, they were so nice to let me sing for them.
Long story short: I crashed the audition and got the role. We need to believe in ourselves first and always.
The New York Film Academy would like to thank Ilda Mason for sharing a part of her story with our community.