From Tufts to Broadway
Joel Perez, A08, is a cast member in the Tony award-winning musical Fun Home
Joel Perez (right), A08, returned to campus to meet with students for a series of events arranged by Noe Montez (left), assistant professor of drama and dance. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)
by Alexandra Erath, A16
Like many of his classmates, Joel Perez, A08, entered Tufts with a plan: take pre-medical school courses and become a doctor. Although he had enjoyed acting in high school, he had never thought of it as a possible career option.
But by the end of his sophomore year at Tufts he had realized that pre-med wasn't for him. "I had these classmates who lived and breathed medicine and who needed to be doctors," he explains. "That wasn't me. I would have a great bedside manner but my patients would end up dead."
Perez had been acting in both plays and musicals since his freshman year at Tufts, and as he grew disillusioned with the prospect of a future in medicine, he found his calling where he had the most fun. "When I was in the rehearsal room, I was just having such a great time," he remembers. "And I was challenged in a good way, not in an insurmountable way like with chemistry."
Perez cites his involvement in the student-run musical theatre group Torn Ticket II's production of Hair as a turning point. "A show like Hair meant a lot to people who grew up in the late '60s, early '70s. That sort of hippie rebellion against Vietnam was a big part of a whole generation. Doing that show and having audiences come and react was the first time I realized that theatre could be about more than just entertainment. It's also a powerful tool to elicit emotion."
He declared a major in drama in his sophomore year, and seriously considered transferring to a conservatory, or to an arts-focused university. He stayed, citing a fondness for his Tufts friends and professors, such as Senior Lecturer Sheriden Thomas of the Department of Drama and Dance, which made him reluctant to leave.
This was a choice he doesn't regret. "I think it's been an asset that I have a liberal arts degree from a school like Tufts," he says. "It's given me a different point of view."
After school, Perez briefly moved back home to Lawrence, Massachusetts, before heading to New York City to do what he calls "the stereotypical waiting tables and auditioning thing." Like many aspiring actors, he admits to occasionally experiencing some doubts about his choice of careers. But he kept at it.
"I just wanted it so badly," Perez explains. "Acting is risky. But with any job, you're taking risks. And sure, there might've been a more practical route, but then I would've been living the life people expected of me, rather than the life I wanted."
Joel Perez, A08, with Ruben Salinas Stern, director of Tufts Latino Center. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)
His big break came when he landed a role in a touring production of In the Heights, a Tony award-winning musical set in a predominantly Latino Washington Heights neighborhood. Perez was an ensemble cast member and was also the understudy to the lead male role, Usnavi. Since then, his acting career has taken off. He has done television and film work in addition to other stage roles, and he is currently starring on Broadway in Fun Home, winner of the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical. Perez appears as Roy, a role he originated in the show's off-Broadway run.
As Perez describes it, Fun Home is based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, which details her intense family history, especially her relationship with a closeted gay father who committed suicide just months after she came out as a lesbian.
Although it sounds like a tragedy, Perez believes the show "is more about family, and the relationships between parents and children." "It's a beautiful, beautiful show," he adds.
While Perez sings and often appears in musical roles, he is quick to correct musical theaters' reputation for being "fluffy." "Music is so powerful, and if it moves you in a certain way, it can make the impact of theatre so much deeper."
Recently Perez returned to the Medford/Somerville campus in order to teach a master class to Tufts drama students and to give feedback on selected scenes from their current department show, Next to Normal. Perez says he's always been impressed by the Tufts drama department, and was "blown away" by the quality of the students' performances in Next to Normal.
Perez is continuing his focus on acting, although he mentions that he may like to explore writing and directing in the future. He enjoyed teaching the master class at Tufts and is open to teaching, but not anytime soon because he declares he still has "a lot to learn."
When asked for advice for aspiring actors, Perez is full of a ready wisdom that makes a career as a motivational speaker a viable fallback for him. He has two major pieces of advice. The first: don't compare yourself to other people.
"Everyone's journey is very different," he says. "Don't feel like your acting career should be in a certain place because that's where someone else is. Acting is a profession that has no guidelines—there's no set map or track toward being successful."
His second insight is to "define success as what it means to you." "Make goals like, 'if I'm doing work that I'm proud of, that's a success.'" he says. "Success means something different to everyone, so don't worry about anyone else's idea of making it big."