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Body Movin'

Dallas actor and teaching artist Ivan Jasso uses his body to transform into characters - on stage and in class.

by Hady Mawajdeh 2 Mar 2017
Ivan Jasso

Ivan Jasso was born and raised in Dallas. He attended school at KD Studio Actor's Conservatory. Since graduating, the actor has done TV commercials, voice-overs, TV shows and he's showcased his talents with local theater companies like Cara Mía Theater, Dallas Theater Center, Undermain Theatre and Amphibian Stage Productions. But lately, he's played a different but important role: teaching the ordinary folks from his old neighborhood what it means to communicate on stage.

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

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“Buñuel Descending” at the Ochre House Photo: Karlo X. Ramos

In movies, acting is all about the face and the close-up. But on stage, actors must use their entire body. This week,  Art&Seek learns how Dallas actor and teaching artist Ivan Jasso uses his body to transform into characters — on stage and in class.

Interested in watching Ivan Jasso at work? Then head to Dallas’ Latino Cultural Center for the premiere of “Yemaya’s Belly.” You can also see the students he trained in Dallas Theater Center’s production of “The Tempest” Both shows open this weekend!

Just off Northwest Highway, near Bachman Lake, there’s a community center called Bachman Lake Together. It’s a learning center for children and a gathering place for parents. But for the past few months, one classroom has been serving as an acting studio for neighbors who speak English as a second language – and who’ve never been on stage before. The class is taught by local actor Ivan Jasso.

“I try to keep it light and fun,” says Jasso. “We focus a lot on movement-based communication and how to use our focus, our eye contact and our body to best communicate what we want.”

The class is part of a new program spearheaded by the Dallas Theater Center. The program is called Public Works Dallas. It will put 100 ordinary Dallasites on stage with professional actors for Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill community theatre show. If anything, this is a show about the community.

“Public Works Dallas starts off with the fundamental idea that the arts and shared cultural experiences belong equally to every single human being,” says Kevin Moriarty.

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Jasso is teaching families how to use their bodies when acting. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

Moriarty is the DTC’s Artistic Director. He selected Jasso to teach this class because he speaks Spanish and English and he has experience teaching students of different ages. Moriarty also says Jasso has unique abilities he wants the students to see.

“Ivan has an immense amount of skills as an actor,” says Moriarty. “The one that was perhaps most immediately apparent to me when I first had the opportunity to work with him is ability to physically embody a role.”

That’s a skill Public Works Dallas needs for their newcomers. And Cara Mía Theatre’s Artistic Director David Lozano believes they picked the right instructor for the job.

“He’s got an ability to transform,” says Lozano. “I think it’s because he’s got access to a sort of kinesthetic intelligence, which has been great for me as a director. I’ve seen him do so many things that I never expected.”

But for Lozano, it’s not just Jasso’s physical capabilities that impress. It’s something indescribable.

“What is so profound about an actor like Ivan is that when he’s seen on stage, it tells young Latinos and young people of color that we can actually make it,” says Lozano.

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Jasso and actress Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso in “References To Salvador Dali Make Me Hot” by José Rivera Photo: Adolfo Cantú-Villarreal – TZOM Films

Jasso is a first generation American, the son of laborers. He grew up in Dallas, just a few blocks from the Bachman community center. So he sees a lot of himself in his younger students.

“I grew up speaking Spanish and English,” says Jasso. “And to use both languages in the class – with the parents, with the children – it feels like it’s bringing everybody together. It’s connecting everybody.”

At a rehearsal for his role in Cara Mía Theater’s new show “Yemaya’s Belly” the actor transforms himself. The handsome, 33 year-old with a contagious smile becomes a macho bully.

The lanky limbed actor looks physically different. His entire manner shifts. His walk – more slouched than upright. His voice – more menacing. And his eyes lose their joy and become hostile.

Jasso learned some of that at KD Studio Actor’s Conservatory in Dallas. And it’s that ability to modify himself that has companies like Amphibian Stage Productions and Undermain Theatre hiring him. Just ask Kevin Moriarty.

“In the last six months, I’ve offered Ivan two large roles and both times he had to turn them down, because he was already booked up to do other work,” says Moriarty.

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Jasso in Cara Mia Theatre’s “Zoot Suit.” Photo: Adolfo Cantú-Villarreal – TZOM Films

As Jasso’s skills expand, Moriarty believes, so will the depth of his roles.

“He’s still in that amazing creative time of his life where he’s continuing to find new parts of his voice,” says Moriarty.

Cara Mía’s Lozano agrees. He says that there aren’t many theater companies producing work in North Texas that cater to Jasso’s bilingual abilities, so Jasso has to be great in both languages. That may benefit him.

“I think what we’re seeing with Ivan is that he’s becoming a pioneer of sorts,” says Lozano. “He’s working with so many different companies and flexing so many muscles that it’s almost impossible to know his limits. But more importantly, he’s showing young Latino actors in North Texas that this can be done.”

Away from the spotlight, Jasso is back in the neighborhood where he was raised. With his Public Works Dallas students, he tackles one of his more important roles – he’s a teacher.

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Ivan Jasso working with students for Dallas Theater Center’s Pubic Works Dallas project. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

How does living and working in North Texas affect the production of your art?

Well, I grew up in Dallas. So there’s that. But I think we have a fantastic theater community. I’ve always felt as though there’s been work for actors. Through the years, I’ve heard a lot of people – especially early on – say, ‘Look man, if you want to do something, you got to get out of Dallas.’ And to a certain extent that is probably true, but I feel as though there’s such an engaged community that has continuously been growing and that there are so many different projects going on that there’s always work.

But again, back to how it’s affecting me… (sigh) I don’t know if North Texas affects me too much. I don’t know what it’s like to work or to be trying to find work in another city. I don’t know what it’s like to try and make it elsewhere. I’ve mostly experienced home and it’s been good to me. Yea. It’s been good to me.

Have you considered making a move to Los Angeles or New York City in order to pursue bigger opportunities?

I have considered it. Especially early on in my career. I had a couple friends who moved out there [to L.A.] – some of them stayed, and did a couple things, but some of them are back. I still think about it. And have really given it some thought recently, but not necessarily relocating. I’ve just been considering making it a second location. I would like to be able to go out there and make connections. I know some people that I have met on sets who live out in LA and they’ve been really gracious. They’ve offered help and housing. So it’s something that I have in my mind as a possibility. But just as a way to venture out a little bit more.

Are there any rituals or procedures that you go through prior to acting? Either on stage or on screen.

It all depends on the project that I am working on. The show that I am working on now is for Cara Mia Theatre Company and they work a lot with movement and using the body. So a lot of our rehearsals start out with stretching, exercises and several movement sequences. And I think that’s great, because it allows the ensemble to work together before the real work begins. But not everybody works that way. For me personally, I also do some stretches and get my body loose. I do some vocal warm ups. I also do some work to help me with my articulation. You know, if I’m working on Shakespeare I need to be able to speak quickly and clearly. I also work with my voice in different registers. So I can speak in a higher or lower tone voice.

You’re a big fan of the musical “In the Heights.” And I read that your dream role would be Usnavi. Are you a singer?

(Laughs) I have done musicals. I am doing more theater than musicals these days. But, growing up, I was really big into hip-hop and stuff, because I loved rap. My cousin introduced me to the music and stuff, so that was big in my life and I still love it. So when that show came out and it was a mix of rap and the theatrical Broadway sound PLUS Latin flavors, you know, I was all about that! I was like, ‘Alright man! Lets do this!’ Especially because the hip-hop and rap in that show was real. It was skilled. It wasn’t somebody just trying to make it feel like it has hip-hop influence. It actually had it. So of course I would love to be in the show and now Lin Manuel Miranda has “Hamilton,” so that’s another great show people love that I would love to be in.

Do you have a part-time job that allows you to pursue your full-time career as an actor? Or are you working full-time exclusively as an actor?

Well for maybe two or two-and-a-half years I have just been doing acting work. Whether that means teaching or participating in educational programs or theater or even TV, film, voiceover work or commercials. So I have been very fortunate that the work has been so frequent over the past two years. That means I haven’t had to have a “day job,” because acting has been my “day job” and my “night job!”

How do you find time for yourself? How do you maintain balance?

Well, the good thing about this life and this work is that when I am not doing a project or participating in a rehearsal, I don’t have to do anything else. That means I can use my time to have a glass of wine or whiskey (laughs). Also, this schedule is very all over the places. So if I do not have to do anything in the morning, because I have rehearsals at night and an after school program with kids around 4 pm, then I will utilize the earlier part of the day to relax, make breakfast and have some coffee. You just learn to work with the free time as it comes, because it changes every day.

So you just adjust and make the most of your time then?

But I also have chores and stuff. I have to clean the house and pick up after myself after I make those breakfasts. I guess I am just a big supporter of living happy. I try not to over stress about things. I know it’s hard, because when you’re working things can pile up and there are deadlines and things you have to accomplish. But I feel like it’s super important to find some kind of time to release everything. Whether you have 30 minutes or longer, I think it’s really important to detach and recharge.

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Cara Mía Theatre & DTC’s co-produced “Deferred Action.” Photo: Karen Almond

When did you begin to call yourself an actor?

When did I? I don’t remember a specific moment, but I guess as soon as I started going out there and auditioning for stuff I called myself an actor. Like, even if I was working for free or doing things that were small. I just always thought of myself as an actor. I remember thinking, ‘I’m an actor.’

I used to be a manager of a couple departments at a young age, like for a company, you know? And it was a good job. I had salary and benefits and everything. But I used to think to myself, ‘If I keep doing this, then this is going to be what I do.’ And I thought about it and I knew this is not what I want to do, because I’m an actor. Or at least, I wanted to be an actor. And at that time, I wasn’t doing that much. I mean I was acting, but sparingly, and I wanted to be able to be available to do more and to really pursue an acting career. So I quit. I guess I just always thought I was an actor.

Are you creatively satisfied?

Yes and no. I feel like there are things I want to pursue in the arts world, but reflecting upon what I am doing currently, yes. You know, it’s not like I only do one thing. I’m not only doing Shakespeare or only doing comedy or anything like that. It’s been a mixture – I feel lucky to be able to have done everything I’ve done. But I feel like there’s more. There’s always more and I cannot wait to see what happens in 2017.

What makes you different from others working in the same craft?

I’m Ivan Jasso? (Laughs) That’s a tough question because I feel like my answer may not be that different, you know? Like there’ll definitely be someone out there who hears what I said and say, ‘That’s not that different! I’m like that!’ But maybe it’s my easygoing attitude? I feel like people aren’t as easygoing and that things can really affect people deeply. And don’t get me wrong, I can be hurt or annoyed with decisions that are made that affect me in which I had no say, but I think I have an easygoing attitude and am able to brush things off quite easily.

The other thing I think is unique is that I am a [Dallas] born-and-raised  actor. That’s been changing some as the North Texas theater scene continues to grow, but I feel like that used to not be the norm. I guess we’re all different (laughs). Like I said, I’m Ivan Jasso.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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