Chloe Soto applies her theater education to community programming
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Friday, April 8, 2022
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Friday, April 8, 2022
A story slam, a summer cultural festival, an ambitious mural project: These Holyoke-based projects share a common organizer in University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Theater alum Chloe Soto ’20.
Soto is the program manager for Nueva Esperanza, an organization which fosters “a vibrant, sustainable and powerful Puerto Rican/Afro-Caribbean community in Holyoke.” And while the connection might not be immediately apparent, Soto has found that many of the lessons she learned as a UMass Theater major apply beautifully to community organizing and cultural event planning.
“It's the tools that you have in your toolbox that you never know you're going to pull out, right? It’s not the exact tool, but I have the basics, and I'm going to figure it out,” she said.
Take essay-writing, for example: “All the essays I wrote, all the research papers I wrote, prepared me to write grants. A grant is really just another fancy name for a research paper or an essay — being able to use language and adapt it to whatever the situation is,” she explained.
Achieving a goal
It’s been validating for Soto, a nontraditional student (older, trans, a woman of color) who said she had always gotten the message that “people like you don't go to college.”
She tried a semester at Holyoke Community College (HCC) after high school, but even though she did well academically, she lacked confidence and, financially strapped, she left school to work instead.
In her 40s, she decided to revisit her dream.
“Coming into my own and knowing myself as a person, I said, you know what, I don't think this is beyond my scope,” she explained.
She started her academic career anew at HCC, and has high praise for the school’s “amazing support,” which she said prepared her for her “voyage to UMass.” Though she looked at other universities, her decision “was about the financials,” she said, noting that the Mass Transfer program enabled her to transition from HCC to UMass to complete her degree at a much lower expense than other options.
As for what to study, Soto briefly considered psychology but decided against it (“Do I really want to listen to people's problems, all the time, as a job?”) and gravitated toward another dream long-denied to double-major in theater and film.
Soto remembered seeing a performance of an opera, Carmen, on PBS when she was a young child, and although she couldn’t understand the language, the emotion conveyed by the singer nonetheless made her cry.
“What would it be like to put myself in that world?” she wondered, and her curiosity for the performing arts has been with her ever since.
Majoring in theater was the right call, as Soto found instructors in all areas of theater willing to engage with her desire to learn.
“Professors were quick to turn any question into a learning experience, not in a way that would make you feel less than, but in a way that encourages you to learn and to grow from whatever question you're asking,” she said, citing dramaturgs Priscilla Page and Harley Erdman as well as scenic design professor Anya Klepikov as examples.
She also loved working in the costume shop, where she came to regard costume shop manager Kristen Jensen as a mentor. “I think my love of fashion and clothes were the factors that got me into the costume shop. But what kept me there is what costuming does to a production,” Soto said. Learning how transformative costumes could be for an actor in embodying a character galvanized her interest in all areas of theater. “From set design to costume design, to the dramaturgy, to the research of the characters, to the practice of acting, it's this beautiful chaos that at some point comes together and creates an amazing show,” she said.
The department’s collaborative and creative approach countered the fact that UMass is a Predominantly White Institution, which made Soto sometimes feel lonely. “But within the department and how theater operates, there's always love, and there's always somebody there to support you,” Soto said.
Soto also advises students to take advantage of the Five College system — she took classes at Smith and Mount Holyoke and made contacts at these schools that she still talks to. “It expands your network,” she said.
Her big-picture approach to theater has meshed well with her current work.
“I'm part of a team that's bringing arts into my community through mural work and place keeping, and starting with the Puerto Rican cultural district,” Soto said. One of her biggest projects currently is a mural project happening in partnership with a nonprofit organization called Beyond Walls in Lynn, bringing to fruition a plan to put dozens or mural on the walls of building around the city. This involves both finding artists who have a vision for what should go on the walls, as well as the walls themselves. She’s also closely involved in planning the day-long Noche de San Juan Festival on June 25, which includes live music, food, art, a car show, and more.
“Being able to find the artists and nurture them, and then … creating workshops and opportunities for them to expand and grow their art as well — a producer of a play does the same,” she said.
Soto even had the chance to put her performance classes to use, as she co-emceed a Valley Voices Story Slam event at El Mercado in Holyoke last fall.
That brings us to Soto’s favorite memory at UMass. She was cast in the production of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play that was set to open April 2020 — Soto preferred backstage to onstage at UMass but auditioned successfully for this production. Sadly, it was cancelled due to the pandemic, but the night before the shut down, the company opened its final run to audiences, and welcomed a full house of department members and friends.
“I think it was such a pleasant surprise to see the department show up in force for the dress rehearsal, which would be our one and only performance of this piece,” she said. “But it's really indicative of the culture of the department. We're there for each other.”