Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: episode 23

Robyn Corujo

In this episode, I am chatting with Wonder Woman. Literally.

Before Robyn Corujo became the superhero beast she is today, our paths first crossed in my first year at Spring Valley. I had just turned 24, not married yet, and was coming out of my own performing career. I took a gig directing and choreographing this high school show called Bye, Bye Birdie, taking over for a duo who had run the shows for many years. While I might have been qualified enough, I had no idea about the “cult of Thespians” that I was walking into. At that point, I was just looking to cast a musical and prove to myself that I was up to the task of leading the motley crew of adolescents who were well organized with a 50-year legacy behind them.

During the auditions, a long, lanky senior named Robyn Corujo stepped center stage and belted out something fierce. I don’t remember what she sang, but I do remember thinking, “welp, that’s Rosie. One down…”

Though we only worked together for that one show (she graduated in the spring of 1996), Robyn made a distinct impression on this theater kid. Over the years, our paths would continue to cross. She went to my alma mater, Montclair State University, and graduated with the same BFA in Acting degree as I did. I remember going to see her as Helena in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and beaming with pride that one of “my kids” (who was just six years my junior) made it to the Mainstage theater that I performed in years before. She made it a point to remind me that I wrote the letter of recommendation that helped her to get into the program.

Since graduating college, Robyn has worked in theater, film and TV, and to supplement income in-between acting gigs, she also became a certified Group Fitness Instructor about 17 years ago. Since then, she has become a fitness beast, leading classes in all sorts of exercise modalities. This is where the Wonder Woman moniker comes in; whatever class she leads, there’s no way to actually keep up with her. Strength, stamina, lithe and graceful – she has it all, and she challenges anyone who walks into her class.

As I mentioned, our paths continued to cross over the years. Our first reconnect was back in August 2015, when a new aerial yoga studio had opened up and I thought it might be a fun summertime treat to try. I walked in to the class and guess who the instructor was? You guessed it – Robyn. She introduced me to this amazing world of “flying” and hanging upside down in a silk hammock. Oh, how the tides had turned; the student became the teacher, and I couldn’t have been more excited for the experience.

Robyn and I were both excited to take some time to share stories and reflect on our memories of the past. After all, Robyn was of my very first Thespian graduates, so I hold a special place in my heart for her. In a way, for different reasons, we both appreciate each other for the roles we have played in our respective paths to adulthood.

Reflecting on having something to prove

At 17, Robyn was brimming with energy, confidence and talent that largely had gone untapped.

I had so much to share. I had so much passion in me. I knew that I had something special as far as performing goes. But nobody was giving me a chance. I had wonderfully supportive family and friends but I just knew that I had something else that I wanted to show; I was a bit frustrated. I was like Bambi trying to find her legs: awkward, hadn’t grown into myself yet, hadn’t discovered yet who I was.

Looking back, she acknowledged that she had a feeling of invincibility that often accompanies adolescence which enabled her to take more risks. Eventually that paid off, but it wasn’t until her senior musical when she finally felt validated. Prior to that, she was always waiting for her chance to shine.

Most kids did not have Robyn’s confidence or passion, and to think that her enormous talent had previously gone unused was a foreign concept to me. That kid performed circles around her peers, and I was a completely unbiased outsider at the time. From my perspective, I had an ace in the hole – this kid could belt out “Spanish Rose” with the fire and sass of Chita Rivera. For Robyn, it was so much more than just a school play to me. Neither one of us treated that show like “just a school play.”

Our new relationship was mutually satisfying. Each of us having something to prove, it seems we leaned on each other to make that happen. I provided a new structure to organize and execute their show experience; Robyn and her peers provided the captive “audience” to receive the instruction to shine as brightly as they could.

Everything was so professional. The attention to detail; I remember all of us sitting up a little taller and paying a little bit more attention ’cause we were like ‘oh, this is different’, but in the best way.

Robyn noted that she was appreciative of the collaborative nature that her new director brought to the table: It was a safe space for creativity to flow. As that new director, I needed my performers to use their brains as well as their skills and talents to help me put something together as complex as a musical show. I’ve never been fond of the idea that I was just “putting on a high school show,” lording over kids and thinking that I know better than everyone else. High school students have so much to bring to the creative process; their capacity for critical thinking and being imaginative should be a boon for any director. I needed them to meet me halfway and use their gifts so that we could combine our resources to make something gorgeous.

To do that, they also needed to tap into their own sense of discipline. There was an intense focus in rehearsals that helped Robyn to further develop the work ethic instilled by her parents at home:

To me, it was comforting to find myself in another environment where that was so focused upon. It was like, ‘listen, if you want to get on that stage and make a difference, you’ve got to be prepared. Once preparation meets opportunity, that’s when you go. I definitely felt different from the audition process to closing night; I felt changed. I felt calmer, more grounded in who I was. It was life-changing.

We had that in common; Bye Bye Birdie was the proving ground that enabled both of us to confidently consider our next career moves. Through that first experience together, we discovered strengths that enabled us to open new doors to explore new opportunities. Robyn followed the path of a performing artist, I jump-started my career as an arts educator. We haven’t looked back since.

Finding your voice

When you’re young, it’s so important to have opportunities to figure out who you are, what your passions are, and how to express yourself most authentically. Robyn reflected on how her arts education experiences helped her to do that:

One of the reasons why extra-curriculars and arts education are so important for children is because not every child is going to shine academically. I didn’t. Everybody finds their voice in a different way. Over the years, I’ve looked back and thought ‘what if I didn’t have that opportunity?’ It would have changed the entire path of my life. I think being able to find and understand a sense of self at such an impressionable age was very important for me because it helped me find my voice, both literally and figuratively and it helped me to be more confident in who I was going forward.

Moving forward, Robyn learned how to take that blazing confidence and harness it more effectively. Her unbridled passion and excitement is now more focused, and she has applied that calmer, more grounded confidence in a more advantageous way in her professional life.

What does Robyn grapple with now?

Of course, when you are adulting, there are many complicated layers of life with which to grapple. For Robyn, the struggle has been about understanding the power of the word ‘no.’ She refers to herself as a recovering people pleaser, as so many creatives are, always fighting the urge to keep people happy and avoid confrontation.

You should make people uncomfortable, you should rock the boat if it’s something you feel something you’re passionate about, and it’s your authentic truth to speak up for yourself and say ‘I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to work for me.’

The only thing I’d take issue with is the “I’m sorry” part of that statement. This is the plight of the performing artist; not only are we conditioned to feel compelled to gratefully accept any and every offer, no matter how inconvenient, uncomfortable or toxic it might be, we also feel guilty about not accepting those offers, as though someone else’s burden is our fault. In taking less-than-healthy opportunities, artists often find themselves miserable and stagnating. Robyn the people-pleaser has been working on better advocating for herself and embracing the power of the word “no.”

Part of her real-time strategy is about giving herself the gift of time so she can be more mindful of her decisions. Here are some responses she uses when she is giving herself some time to consider:

  • Let me get back to you.
  • Let me check my schedule.
  • I’m not sure if that’s going to work, so I’ll be in touch.

This way, she gives herself the space to think about whether an offer is something she really wants. If it is, more power to her. If not,

At least you took that time for yourself first. And if you do feel certain that you don’t want to do it, say that, because you don’t want to waste your time and you don’t want to waste other people’s time.

Making important life decisions with herself at the center of the choice is a skill that Robyn learned that the hard way. That hard-earned wisdom has taught her to be wiser about the things in which she invests her time and effort. 20/20 hindsight is both a curse and a gift. If only we had some of that wisdom sooner… She quoted the wisdom of Maya Angelou:

Now that I know better,
I do better.

Robyn’s self-care strategies

Robyn is a firm believer in putting yourself first, not last, and taking the time to take care of #1. She looks at self-care from a two-sided perspective: there’s the fun, bubble bath side and the grittier, darker side.

  • On the fun side, I love a glass of wine at the end of the week with my favorite show, I love a good spa day. Movement – exercising has always been a form of self-care for me.
  • On the more difficult side, therapy, shadow work, and calling yourself out when you’re the one that’s wrong. It’s uncomfortable, it’s icky, and it’s not fun, but it’s so necessary to understand where you’re the problem or the drama.

Bottom line, the more difficult part of self-care is about saving yourself by working through the uncomfortable things so they don’t persist as problems. That way, the bubble baths and spa days can be so much more effective in soothing your soul.

Sharing wisdom

Robyn was full of good advice from the many lessons learned on her journey through adulthood. The wiser, calmer, adult version of Robyn had a few words for her younger self:

Pipe down. Don’t try so hard. It’s along the line of ‘work smarter, not harder.’ I had a tendency to push too much. I wanted something to happen so much. I would do everything in my power to try to make it happen, and sometimes you just need to step back, relinquish a little control.

She had a few more good thoughts that she wanted today’s teens to think about:

Everybody is so focused on themselves. Don’t worry so much about what other people think or what they’re saying about you.

It is important to have an open mind. We think that we know exactly what we want. While it’s wonderful to be clear on what you want, it’s important to be flexible about how it’s going to come to you. What if what you want isn’t exactly what you need, and when you do get what you need, it’s a little bit better?

My favorite phrase has always been “progress isn’t linear.” Robyn has come to understand this as well as I have. Whether we like it or not, we are all following the path we are meant to be on. Maybe the timing doesn’t feel right, maybe we don’t like all of the choices we’ve made or the things that happen to us, but there is something to be gained from living in and learning from the process. I am grateful that I have a wonderful woman with whom I share a strong connection to the early stages of that process. I think our paths will continue to cross as we evolve further into our creative spirits.

Follow Robyn on Instagram @itsrobynwitha_y

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