Tisch Drama Alumni Spotlight: Amyra León

Thursday, Oct 10, 2019

Amyra León headshot

Amyra León (class of 2014)

Rachel Friedman of Tisch Drama’s Office of Career Development & Alumni Engagement recently caught up with musician, playwright, author, and educator Amyra León (class of 2014) to talk about music, London, what success looks like, and how to navigate a career as a multi-hyphenate artist.

What are you up to right now? Where has your work taken you?
I live in London—I’m gearing up to release my debut album WITNESS this fall. It has been a labor of love so I am itching to get it out into the world. I am currently composing a piece for orchestra in collaboration with Sivan Eldar that will be played by the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon, the Paris Chamber Orchestra, and the National Orchestra of Montpellier. I am the only untrained vocalist to work with these orchestras as well as the only vocalist to compose their own parts, so it has been a special experience. My debut play, VASELINE recently premiered in London and will be returning next year—2020 is a big one for releases as I have two children’s books coming out, the premiere of the orchestra composition, and a bevy of incredible collaborations, as well as a short documentary about my life. I spend most of my days between three different industries and careers. It’s really chaotic and wonderful.

How did your training at Tisch Drama prepare you for a multifaceted career?
I was in Tisch Drama’s Experimental Theatre Wing (ETW). We had a lot of interesting classes that challenged our bodies as performers and made us keenly aware of the way we tell stories with our bodies first—which opened me to the understanding that there are multiple ways of speaking. I was a poet first, so it was really interesting to find what melody did to my work, and how it opened up this entirely new space of opportunity. A lot of that had to do with the intense classes we had at ETW. I took a storytelling class with Rosemary Quinn, and she served as an incredible mentor throughout my time at NYU. She really held me accountable to not only go after the things I was good at, but challenged the aspects of myself that I wasn’t ready to explore. So having strong, powerful educators created a sense of accountability in me, as an artist and storyteller.

Can you talk about your music journey?
I really didn’t sing until I was about 20. I was deep into my third year and took a songwriting class—but still didn’t identify as a vocalist. My fourth-year thesis show for ETW was called In the Chrysalis, and I realized, after the voice classes, that some of these poems should be sung. That was the first time I challenged myself to include music in my writing. From there, it fell into place quite quickly. I started performing music mixed with poetry. I realized that whether people liked what I was singing or not, my voice as a singer allowed people to listen to me and to experience my work in a very visceral way, which I love. And it has become my primary role. But it was indeed my thesis project that led me to the understanding that I could identify as a musician.

Burning in Birmingham

From 'Burning in Birmingham'

And how did it bring you to London? Aren’t you originally from New York?
Yeah, I’m from Harlem. I studied abroad in London when I was at NYU, back in 2013. I had a lot of free time, so I performed in competitive poetry slams—and I won a shit-ton of them. I kind of made a name for myself quickly that semester as a poet on the rise or “that poet from New York,” because I was out here introducing myself to this community and suddenly winning their competitions. When I left at the end of the semester I knew I’d be back. I was able to book things right away and started getting commissions here in London. I started giving keynotes on the importance of diversity in literature, teaching workshops, and assisting institutions with the cultivation of their diversity initiatives. After a few years of successful seasons, the move finally occurred, as I needed to work on several commissions that were to be presented to UK audiences—and I wanted to take time to truly know the community my work was going to serve. I wanted to be more intentional and aware of my identity in this new space and how my work would impact this community of people.

Do you have advice for students who are interested in pursuing more than one type of art?
I think, honestly, relax, and find your patterns of rest as you are navigating the careers or the identities you want to take on as an artist. If you keep yourself as the priority by focusing on your work and integrity, as well as your comfort and patterns of self-care, you’re really capable of doing anything. I don’t try to cater to a certain audience. I try to cater to honesty. Doing that makes space to challenge yourself and to check when you’re being authentic and when you're not. That creates a space in which people, when they come to you, know that they’ll be coming to you, and knowing how vast you are. Relax into everything, make space, and don’t let the title of any identity constrict you from moving forward and exploring other ones. The more relaxed we become with these labels, the more we can explore our true essence as artists.

What does your creative process look like?
It really changes depending on the medium. Music, I tend to write on piano or with a band, and depending on who I am writing with, the process is very different—but both stem from improvisation. When it comes to poetry, they're kind of just free thoughts. I believe in editing a body of work but never the individual pieces. So if I write something and it doesn’t say what I mean, I don’t edit it to say that. I write something new. So if this poem is supposed to be about something and it’s not, I’m going to let it be what it’s about and move forward, which creates a place where I constantly have content, and I’m constantly faced with having an abundance of work before me. It then becomes about solidifying what I’m trying to say right now, and allowing everything else to fall into place as it does.

How do you define success?
When I graduated, my goal was to make my rent and afford food. I started putting seeds in different places and seeing which one was going to financially allow me some freedom. So initially, that’s what this success was: can I pay my rent? At some point, I started talking to labels and getting book deals, and it was all about the industry and the way the industry worked—until I realized the industry didn’t serve me. Then, success was really being the person who dictates my time and how my story is received in the world. Music brought a lot of liberation because I found new ways of expressing all these different ideas that I didn’t see present in the industry at all. The truth is success is enjoying that I no longer know hunger, and always being honest in my work.

I really appreciate that, and think it really resonates with how we tell students that success doesn’t necessarily mean “fame.”
I think it’s important we do not shortchange the dreaming—you can want to be famous, but your intention should definitely be beyond that. Do I care if I’m on a top 100 list? No. I just want my work to reach as many people as possible. Doing that really is within our reach. We just need to make sure we really empower one another, especially our peers, especially the upcoming emerging artists, and that we don’t have to accept conditions beyond the ones we are willing to create for ourselves. 

Do you have any concluding thoughts or ideas?
Make space to be intentional and invite yourself to a level of accountability that you allow your community to also hold you to, especially the way everything is shifting, and conversations are suddenly happening. Allow yourself to really be present in the work and to make things that matter—not necessarily to the world, but to you. Value yourself, your creativity, and make sure you protect your work. It is an extension of you.

Find Amyra León’s work: FacebookTwitterInstagramYoutubeSoundcloud, and Spotify