A five-week program at Emerson College that Elyza Guzman attended during the summer of 2019 changed her life, as it led her to enroll at the Boston school specializing in arts and communication after she graduated from Coahulla Creek High School last year.
"I had a moment, during voice lessons, about halfway through the program — it's hard to describe — (while) singing 'I'm Not' from (the musical) 'Little by Little,' which is very difficult to sing, when I decided to let all the stress and worries I had go and have fun," said Guzman. "I felt this rush of joy, because this made me happy, and I knew this was what I wanted to do."
Barry Pulliam, theater and choral director at Coahulla Creek, called Guzman "the real deal."
"As a freshman, she displayed tremendous amounts of raw talent, (and) thanks in part to her excellent coachability, strong work ethic and tremendous desire to improve, she developed her skills onstage to the point of being formidable," Pulliam said. "Behind the scenes, she is kind and supportive of her fellow cast members."
"In four years, she has never been involved in backstage 'drama,'" he said. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"She has often come to me when there was conflict within the cast in order to help resolve it," he said. "Her motivation was always 'I just want what is best for the show.'"
In Coahulla Creek's theater program, Guzman learned "how important it is to have good character and a positive attitude," she said. Because high schools have neither the time nor the budget of professional productions, "there's a lot of stress and drama when you get down to the wire, but the best way to go about it is to try to see the fun in everything, and that helped me avoid a lot of drama."
Guzman is "incredibly grateful" to Pulliam for multiple reasons, including the fact "his help with my singing drastically changed the game for me," she said. Furthermore, he alerted her to Emerson, so "he'll never really be out of my life."
During that five-week program, Guzman and her classmates lived like Emerson students, from the dorms to classes, and at the end of the experience, they each auditioned for instructors. Guzman performed a monologue, completed a music skills test, and sang "I Like Him" from the 1960s musical "Drat! The Cat!" which was brought to her attention by one of her classmates in the Emerson course. Guzman and the others then waited for roughly six months, and in December 2019 she learned she'd been accepted into Emerson.
"I was really, really happy," she said. "Emerson has a great networking system, I'm excited to be in the city of Boston, and I really liked the staff."
"Everyone was laid-back, and they talked to us like we were colleagues," she added. "There wasn't that weird power dynamic that (sometimes exists) between teachers and students."
However, there were "definitely moments of culture shock" when she first arrived in Boston in the summer 2019, she recalled with a laugh. For example, as a campus police officer delivered a safety briefing to the new arrivals her first day, the fact that "he didn't have a Southern accent threw me off a bit."
Guzman is a musical theater major at Emerson, and she believes the classes available to her will also assist her in writing plays and music.
She could eventually write plays and/or music for herself to perform, following in the footsteps of one of her idols, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of hit musicals "Hamilton" and "In the Heights," she said. "I hope to be more well-rounded by the time I graduate."
Guzman was one of two recipients of the Dalton Little Theatre's Keith McDearis Musical Theatre Scholarship last year. The scholarship is given in memory of the longtime Dalton Little Theatre actor, dancer, singer, musician and musical theater director who was active in both high school and community theatrical productions.
Guzman has reached this point in her dreams because "of the emotional support of my family," she said.
It's also pivotal to identify a reason to persist during dark times, she said.
"My reason is being a first-generation (college) student" and representing individuals with her background.
Mostly Cuban with some Mexican on her maternal side, Guzman's father's side traces its lineage to the Dominican Republic.
"I always liked to sing, and my family does, too," she said. "We all like music and Disney," and Guzman realized her home was on the stage when she performed in "The Little Mermaid Jr." at North Whitfield Middle School.
When she's not involved in theater, Guzman finds an "escape in comics, graphic novels and anime," she said. "That's my way to de-stress."