It’s for good reason Alexandra Lainfiesta was thrilled to learn that Canadian College of Performing Arts students would soon be showcasing their talents in two musicals: Sweet Charity, which opens Feb. 1, and West Side Story, its year-end production.
It’s not just because the College alumnus happened to play Anita in Vancouver’s Theatre Under the Stars production of West Side Story. It’s because it was the College’s history of training students for musical theatre, and staging musicals to considerable acclaim, that inspired her to enrol here.
“I was absolutely attracted to CCPA because of the musical theatre,” said Lainfiesta, whose first experience when she moved to Canada from Guatemala eight years ago was studying at the College.
It was a perfect fit, recalled Lainfiesta, who grew up with tap dance, practicing since she was 13.
“That was something I just loved and used to do in Guatemala, and studying dance for jazz and tap at CCPA was so great,” she said, recalling her studies with Janice Tooby MacDonald and Michael Boston.
“They were so gracious and I appreciated their flexibility,” said Lainfiesta.
“I was between a level two and three tap dancer and they allowed me the flexibility to take both classes. I so appreciate that because the growth I had those two years was amazing.”
She also has fond memories of being educated by Glenda Balkan-Champagne, her first professional voice teacher.
“I had never sung with piano accompaniment before,” she said. “Being at CCPA gave me a thorough understanding of storytelling through music and theatre and singing. It taught me to trust in what is in the music already. In the musical score, the composer has already done so much work for you.”
Another College highlight, she said, was working with Stuart Aikins, the veteran film and television casting director who staged the Year II students production of Ten Lost Years when she attended.
“He works organically and it brings the story forward, and story is the most important thing,” said Lainfiesta, who during a visit to Victoria in December saw his Year II production of Middletown.
“It can teach a lot, especially if you’re a young actor, about trusting your instincts and who you are.”
During her two years at the College, Lainfiesta, 27, also found something she values deeply: family.
“A lot of my friends here seem like family away from home,” she recalled at a downtown cafe the day after her reunion with three former classmates who “became absolutely like family to me” — alumni John Han, Jana Morrison and Vaughn Naylor.
The mezzo-soprano who describes her singing and dancing experiences at CCPA as “phenomenal” was also introduced to Shakespeare by Christopher Weddell through monologues and script analysis at the College.
“I loved it because we were digging, like what an archaeologist does, but with words,” she said.
It inspired her to successfully audition in Vancouver in 2017 for Stratford Festival’s Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre, founded in 1998 by artistic director Richard Monette to give a select group of actors a 19-week intensive training experience with top-shelf Canadian theatre instructors.
Lainfiesta has appeared in three Stratford Festival productions so far and will appear in two upcoming productions — in a starring role in director Martha Henry’s Henry VIII, and in The Crucible.
“I think Stratford came to me as a gift of fate. I crashed the audition,” she recalled with a laugh.
“I was very grateful that Beth Russell, the casting director, and Stephen Ouimette, the conservatory director, agreed to see a crasher.”
Lainfiesta has had a successful career so far as an actor, playwright and producer since she graduated from CCPA. She went on to train at Vancouver’s Studio 58 for three years, has worked steadily as a theatre artist and co-founded Killjoy Theatre, a Vancouver-based theatre company that develops and produces new works written by female-identified or non-binary playwrights.
On screen, she can be seen as Soledad, a Latina character who finds solidarity with her neighbours in Bella Ciao, the multi-cultural Whistler Film Festival hit “set at the intersection of East Vancouver’s First Nations, Latin American and Italian communities.” It stars Chilean writer and actress Carmen Aguirre.
“It’s a beautiful film,” said Lainfiesta, who is beyond excited about getting to work with Aguirre again on Anywhere But Here, a theatre piece the Chilean Electric Theatre Company artist-in-residence wrote with hip-hop artist Shad. It makes its premiere in 2020 at Vancouver Playhouse.
Meanwhile, Lainfiesta has been giving back through events such as a performing arts fundraiser in Vancouver she recently
organized with theatre artist Mariam Barry to help immigrants working in the arts.
She says she has also come to realize the learning never stops.
“This industry is a lot of hard work, trial and error and falling and standing up again and keeping going,” says Lainfiesta, who advises emerging artists to find a mentor.
“I’ve realized I’m not young enough to know it all anymore,” she adds with a laugh. “The longer I’m in this career and developing my craft the more I realize I barely know anything in a way that is always new and exciting. Each show is never the same, from the rehearsal process to the stage.”