Jo Vito Ramírez traded a major in astrophysics for a life in the performing arts, and the genderqueer actor and performance artist hasn’t looked back since.
A specialist in theater for young audiences, they are currently appearing in “The Snow Queen,” the latest work in the children’s series at Arden Theatre Company. Ramirez plays a variety of roles, from a troll to the Prince of Summer. The new production is based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen — the same one that inspired the Disney mega-musical “Frozen.”
PGN recently spoke with Ramírez about their background and education, goals as a performer, and what draws them to children’s theater. Some responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you first become interested in the performing arts?
I started performing when I was in middle school, and that was entirely because the folks who were in the performing arts were the exuberant weirdos. They were the ones who wouldn’t make fun of me or each other. It was a little, beautiful, strange community — and community is the reason I do theater in the first place. The first show that I did was “West Side Story.” Ironically, and perhaps problematically, I was the only Puerto Rican person in the production, and I played Riff, the leader of the Jets. Maybe they were overcompensating.
Did you know right away that theater was the path you wanted to focus on?
Well, there weren’t many opportunities for the arts in my schooling. I grew up in the Bronx, and I was definitely given a math and science track for most of my education. STEM was a heavy influence. In high school, the arts weren’t really available, so I started a drama club that I believe is still going at the school. We played improv games, did some scenes, and eventually it started being called “The Gay Club.” We wore that term in stride.
Did you study performance in college?
I was accepted to college under the pretense of astrophysics. I was unreasonably fascinated by the study of the ginormous and the miniscule, the way that heavenly bodies move, the fabric of the universe. When I got to college, my main goal was to become the next Einstein. But that wasn’t in the cards for me. In terms of high school, I was kind of a hotshot in math and science, but when I got to my fancy college, I realized that I was woefully behind. Ultimately, the math became too much for me. My plan had always been to be a theater minor. Though I loved theater, the way I was brought up didn’t allow me to imagine theater as a legitimate career path. One of the things college taught me — perhaps the most important thing my time at Haverford/Bryn Mawr taught me — is that I have to live my life fearlessly. Many of the privileged kids I went to school with grew up believing the world was their oyster, and they carried themselves very lightly. They thought they deserved to be wherever they were. I wanted that — and theater was the thing that made me feel most comfortable and something I seemed to have a knack for. I decided this is where I am, where I’m happy, and where I choose to be.
Can you tell me a little about “The Snow Queen” and your roles in it?
Everyone in “The Snow Queen” (except The Snow Queen herself) plays a troll, so I play a troll. I also play Fred, the prince of summer; one of the flowers of spring; and the Laughing Robber, who is an inhabitant of autumn. We cycle through different seasons in “The Snow Queen,” so those of us in the ensemble have the job of cycling Gerda (the main character) through the seasons and building out the world of the show.
You have done several of the children’s shows at the Arden over the past few years. What draws you to this form of theater?
I feel particularly suited to this work. I find that particularly at the Arden, the children’s theater productions I have been a part of are story-based, and that’s part of their mission statement. It’s story-forward work. Of course, the social critiques and the political relevance are there, but they come out of the story in a really soulful way. The reason I like children’s theater is because, as a performer, you have to give a fully embodied performance. Your work is fully steeped in the world. I prefer an artistic process that is free of artifice. Children’s theater seems to be generally less pretentious, and I like to work that way. It lets the heart of the story come through.
“The Snow Queen” continues through Jan. 26, 2020, at the Arden Theatre Company. For tickets and information, visit ardentheatre.org.