Shaping the Next Generation with Suki Lopez
Though Suki Lopez’s first performing arts passion was for dancing, it didn’t take her long to catch the musical theatre bug. “Throughout my childhood I was very focused on ballet and I did summer programs with ABT and Joffrey and all that…it was actually, one of my trips to New York for these summer programs that I sort of fell in love with Broadway and was like oh wait, I can do this… so I kind of switched gears in high school and shifted my focus,” she explains.
Suki Lopez headshot
The Miami-born actress moved to the Big Apple to pursue the craft as a student of the prestigious CAP21 conservatory, and her first job after graduation was as a performer on Disney Cruise Line, an experience she enjoyed immensely. After that, it wasn’t long until she fulfilled one of her major dreams by joining the cast of the national tour of West Side Story as Conseula.
“As somebody who started as a dancer, it’s like the ultimate dance show,” she says.
Lopez also served as an understudy for the powerhouse role of Anita, and being able to strut her stuff as the character was one of her favorite moments of her career thus far. But while she was still thanking her lucky stars for being able to cross WSS off her bucket list so early in her career, the next exciting opportunity she stumbled upon is one that she never saw coming.
“It was almost like, wow, I obtained that goal I’d been reaching towards pretty early on, and after that I was like, I don’t know what I’m going to do next, I don’t know if something else is going to come that’s even better. And then I got Sesame Street, and then I was like, well, this is perfect,” she reflects.
Though she’d never planned that she’d end up on the classic children’s show, or even, given her musical theatre skill set, on television, once it happened, it seemed to make perfect sense.
Lopez and Elmo
“It just felt like, this is so right, in a way that I never expected it to be,” she says.
But her vivacious character Nina was actually the subject of a minor internet controversy shortly after Lopez first joined the cast. Partially because her character was initially shoehorned into scripts that were written for another non-latina character whose actress unexpectedly left the show, the production team missed some of the role’s seeming perpetuation of certain negative Latinx stereotypes.
“It was like, ok, she’s working at the laundromat, she’s working as a babysitter, it looks like she’s being the stereotype, she’s a latina working odd jobs… that’s not necessarily something to look up to,” Lopez said.
Looking back, she regrets not taking a stronger stand on the issue.
“I did say something, but I didn’t demand and I didn’t really push very hard for it, I just mentioned it….when you’re a minority you don’t always know how to, I mean, I was just happy to be there and I was just lucky to be representing so I didn’t know how much authority I really had as a first time cast member. If I had stepped into this now vs six years ago, being younger and not having seen the things that have happened now, I might have been more inclined to say something,” she reflects.
But the Sesame Street creative team was willing to make the effort to set a better precedent once they became aware of their mistake, and Nina is now not only a graduate student but a successful entrepreneur, making her a positive Latina role model that Lopez is proud to portray.
“It’s been really great to see that, that people get heard,” she says.
Lopez, Elmo and Big Bird
And aside from that early misunderstanding, her experience with the show has been an incredible one. She loves working with both her human and muppet castmates, and being able to have an impact on the show’s young audience is something that she cares deeply about.
“I mean, I plan to stick with it for as long as I can and as long as they’ll have me, because I think it’s just wonderful… Sesame Street is very in line with what I believe in, being able to use my talent to educate the next generation,” she says.
Sesame Street’s seasonal shooting schedule also allowed her the flexibility to move back to Miami two years ago, periodically returning to New York for filming.
“It’s a nice little balance that I’ve found there. I mean it does get hectic, but I’m enjoying having that duality in my life,” Lopez says.
Moving home also afforded Lopez the opportunity to pursue another personal passion: teaching.
“I think I’ve always known that I wanted to teach, eventually, like I collected all of my scripts and things that I was learning throughout college and all of my sides and stuff…so I would have something to show them on what the professional world really looks like, because I think that was something that I didn’t have,” she reflects.
She’s now come full circle to spearhead a new Miami Arts Prep program at Maria Verdeja School of the Arts (MVSA), which adds a musical theatre element to the dance-based training programs that she herself participated in as a child.
“Having the studio and working with the young up-and-coming students of the future is very exciting to me, I’m really enjoying that, I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would,” she reflects.
She’s especially passionate about MVSA’s college prep program.
“I really believe that that’s the one thing we don’t have here, that puts our South Floridians at a disadvantage…. I find that it’s really wonderful to work with those kids that are so focused and want it so much and really put in the time and the effort, it’s a joy to work with them,” she explains.
And though it required a little compromise, she was able to keep the program running during the pandemic as well, at first virtually and then in-person with COVID safety precautions in place, which she found incredibly rewarding.
“Cause at the beginning it was such a whirlwind for them… they went from a very consistent schedule to having nothing…so we really wanted to be there for them and be that outlet, and be something consistent that they could do every day even if they were stuck at home,” she says.
Lopez was also able to appear in two episodes of the upcoming season of Sesame Street despite pandemic travel restrictions by filming herself from home.
“I basically had to be a one person camera crew,” she reflects.
But now that COVID finally seems to be on its way out for good, she is eager to experience what the South Florida theatre scene has to offer.
“I think people have gotten really creative with ways to tell stories, I think the pandemic’s sort of shifted the way that we think a little bit, so I’m excited to see what comes of that,” she says.
And while becoming more involved herself is something Lopez is looking forward to down the line, between Sesame Street, Miami Arts Prep, and caring for her one year old daughter, she certainly has her hands full for the time being with the worthy task of helping shape the young minds that will grow into our theatrical tomorrow.
“I would love to, maybe, in the future, choreograph or direct a show here at one of the regional theatres… it’s not on my list right now cause I’m a little busy!” she says.