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Artist of the Month: Alia Cuadros-Conteras

The Beauty and the Beast star shares her passion for theater and the importance of the arts in our society.

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Backstage, the murmur of performers running through their lines one last time and the indistinct sounds of various vocal warm ups create a busy atmosphere. Yet, Palo Alto High School (Paly) senior Alia Cuadros-Contreras is unphased; she gives herself headspace in an isolated corner, focusing on perfecting her first song of the show and being present within her character.

Although she has been in theater since she was nine years old, Cuadros-Contreras didn’t decide to commit to musical theater until freshman year. Her passion for musical theater not only stems from her love of storytelling, but also the emotional connection that develops between her and the audience through singing and dancing.

“Singing is a wonderful way … to express inner feelings to be able to look inside a character’s mind,” Cuadros-Contreras said. “When they have their solo on stage and they’re singing their ballad by themselves, it’s a great way to get a glimpse into a character. I like musical theater a lot because it’s a heightened way of expressing humanity on stage, which is why I also love straight theater.”

Growing up in Silicon Valley, which is known for being a very STEM-oriented community, Cuadros-Contreras faced a lot of criticism for her choice to pursue the arts. As a strong math and science student, she has had teachers doubt her choices to “waste away her smarts” for a passion that will not make her as much money.

“It really sucks…I’ve had people tell me ‘but you’re so good at math, don’t you want to go into STEM?’” Cuadros-Contreras said. “Whenever I have to miss class or need an extension on something because I have rehearsals, many of my [math and science] teachers are always like ‘Why are you in theater? Why are you wasting your time doing that when you’re so good at math and science and all of these things that can actually be beneficial to society, that can also make a difference in our world?’”

However, she feels as though having grown up surrounded by a community that does not support the arts as much as it does STEM has helped her develop a stronger appreciation for the arts in general; it has allowed her to realize her own opinions on why the arts are such an important part of our culture.

“I think that arts are really important because they help build compassion in society,” Cuadros-Contreras said. “I feel like it’s

the best way to see people on stage, to see parts of ourselves on stage, and see how we’re more similar than we are different. You see someone on stage, and they’re experiencing similar things to what you’re experiencing, you get to see them go through that struggle, you get to sympathize with them; so I feel like this allows us to understand each other better, to understand ourselves better, and to be more sympathetic and compassionate to those around us.”

Though she typically selects characters based on her vocal range and physical size, Cuadros-Contreras has portrayed a vast range of characters, both male and female. Most of her success when portraying a character on stage stems from her ability to think like her character. All of her character’s thoughts and emotions become hers, and she becomes fully immersed in the character that she is portraying.

“When I’m on stage, it’s weird because I’m aware that there’s an audience, but at the same time I’m so immersed in my character that I feel like I am my character,” Cuadros-Contreras said. “I have to get what my character wants, I have to say what she needs to say to get what she wants, I have to achieve all of her objectives. It’s weird because even though you have an awareness that there’s an audience, you’re so invested in your relationships with the other characters and what you’re doing on stage that it doesn’t really matter that there’s someone watching.”

Over the last two summers, Cuadros-Contreras has attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts theater programs to improve her vocal, dance and acting skills through intensive training. Next year, she plans to attend NYU Tisch for her undergraduate studies to obtain her Bachelor in Fine Arts (BFA) in drama, followed by her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in teaching theater. She aspires to become a theater professor while acting professionally part-time.

Caudros-Contreras said: “I felt almost ashamed, like I’m wasting all of these smarts that I have doing something like theater, when doing something creative in the arts is also a different type of intelligence. It’s just different than the intelligence used for STEM. The idea that you can’t make money off of the arts is kind of stupid because it doesn’t hold full validity …  you can always make things work.”

palo alto high school's arts and culture magazine
Artist of the Month: Alia Cuadros-Conteras