If you’ve ever seen Cashae Monya on stage, chances are you haven’t forgotten her.
She’s played everything from a 14-year-old Lady Capulet (who cried real tears) in Romeo and Juliet to blonde bombshell Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors.
At age 17, Monya was cast in La Jolla Playhouse’s Memphis before it went on to Broadway, and later originated the role of a sweet park ranger in the Playhouse’s Miss You Like Hell before that opened off-Broadway at the Public Theater.
Last month, Monya won Actor of the Year at the Craig Noel Awards, which honor excellence in San Diego theater (and got referenced in an episode of BoJack Horseman). But Monya, a South Bay native and Coronado School of the Arts alumna, is taking a break from the stage for a new career in Hollywood.
The recent Carlsbad resident tells us about the transition from stage to screen.
When did acting go from being an activity to a profession?
It didn’t take long. I did my first theater production when I was 14 (Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet. I cried real tears when my daughter, Juliet, died). In the fall of my senior year, when I was 17, I booked my first professional acting job in a play at (the now closed) 6th @ Penn called Anton in Show Business. The next show I booked was Broadway-bound Memphis at La Jolla Playhouse a few months before graduating high school. I turned 18 three days into rehearsal for Memphis. I’ve been working regularly in the San Diego theater scene ever since.
What other roles may we have seen you in?
Crowd favorites include: Pecola Breedlove in Moxie’s, The Bluest Eye; Marcy Park in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at North Coast Rep; Billie Holiday, Roxie Hart (Chicago) and Sally Bowles (Cabaret) at ion theatre; Pearl: a soulful park ranger, a role I originated in Miss You Like Hell at La Jolla Playhouse; Yitzhak in Diversionary Theatre’s punk-rock spectacular, Hedwig and the Angry Inch; Audrey (Little Shop of Horrors) and Gary Coleman (Avenue Q) at New Village Arts.
How did it feel to win the Craig Noel award for actor of the year?
It was incredible. Thinking of it makes me feel all fuzzy! I’ve wanted to win this award for many years and when it finally happened, it was perfect. What was most gratifying, though, was the outpour of congratulations and support from my family, friends and peers. The next day I received so many emails, texts and online messages from people just wanting to tell me they were proud and happy to see me win. That meant so much to me, I’m crying just thinking about it. Winning the Craig made me realize, “Wow, so many people are rooting for me!” It was a motivating and uplifting realization.
What do you think you did differently this year to catch the attention of the critics’ circle?
Facial hair. It had to be the beard right? My own mother-in-law walked right past me when I played Yitzhak; I was unrecognizable. Hedwig closed and three weeks later, Little Shop opened! From playing the angry, little man in the corner (in Hedwig) to center stage as the loveable blonde/bombshell (Audrey in Little Shop) … quite the transformation. Also, my commitment to yoga and healthy eating has notably improved the quality of my singing abilities; I ultimately believe I won the critics over with my vocal prowess and versatility.
But you’re taking a break from theater?
Back in the fall, I decided Intimate Apparel (at New Village Arts) would be my last show before taking a break. After performing in four productions in both 2018 and 2019, I started to feel burnt out. My passion for theater has dwindled and I’ve been yearning for a new challenge. I was feeling uncertain about moving forward, and winning actor of the year gave me closure and reassurance.
You’ve been branching out to Hollywood, how is that going?
Honestly, pretty well! Though I wish I already had a starring role in my own heartwarmingly goofy sitcom on a major network, I have to constantly remind myself to be realistic yet hopeful. In a lot of ways, getting an agent and auditioning regularly in L.A. has only opened me up to more rejection. But I’m loving the challenge and I feel more inspired than ever. I’ve been signed with my L.A. agent for about a year and a half and I’ve auditioned for the Disney channel and a Super Bowl commercial. And though I didn’t book Disney or Super Bowl, having the opportunity to audition was a major step towards my goals. It seems as though Hollywood is interested me, I’m very pleased with the amount of audition requests I receive. I’m confident that once casting directors get to know me, I’m going to work as regularly in L.A. as I have in San Diego. My Hollywood pursuits have taught me the importance of patience, letting go of outcomes and the appreciation of even the smallest victories.
Tell us the difference between going out for roles in TV/film versus theater?
When auditioning for commercials, bringing a headshot/resume is not required. I noticed that difference right away and it took some getting used to. TV/commercial/film auditions have a much quicker turnaround than stage roles. For instance, I had an audition at the La Jolla Playhouse that I knew about for weeks. My L.A. audition opportunities usually come the evening before, or even the same day. I find the fast pace to be very exhilarating. I’m still discovering and navigating the differences between the two fields.
Share a day in the life of an L.A. audition …
As soon as I get the audition notification, I start plotting my trip to L.A. Deciding whether to drive or take the train, canceling previous engagements, memorizing lines, planning outfits, buying Amtrak tickets, etc. I get a rush of adrenaline every time it happens; it’s so exciting to me.
I wear my audition clothes while I travel because looking good makes me feel good. Part of my prep is choosing outfits that travel well and fit the wardrobe requirements for any particular audition. I do my makeup on the road so my face looks fresh. I have perfected the “car beat,” as I call it. I take snacks and save a podcast for when I get bored and need inspiration to focus. All this prep and travel to be in the audition room for 3 to 8 minutes.
Afterward, I call my husband (Matthew Meads), get food (pretzels in Union Station) and head home.
How do you handle rejection?
Ugh. Rejection can be frustrating, heartbreaking, baffling, unsettling … I really can’t stand it but I’ve come to appreciate the valuable lessons that come with it. I allow myself to be upset and discouraged. Feeling disheartened reminds me of how passionate I am about my career, and it reminds me of my humanity. I want to be successful so badly, so it’s natural to feel upset when opportunities don’t materialize as planned. Yes, rejection bruises my ego but it also ignites my drive and passion. Once my bitter feelings subside, I seek out ways to grow from the experience. I experienced more rejection than I hoped for in January and though it was disappointing, I’m grateful for the perspective I gained. “Rejection January” was followed by “Award-Winning February” and in this business, it be’s like that.
Do you have a pre-performance ritual?
First, yoga. Yoga is my pre-performance ritual for life in general. I love walking to the theater, if possible. Walks are a great way to warm up and boost endorphins before a show. I like having ample to time to settle in. I have a cup of tea with honey and light a candle. And of course listening to music and prancing around the dressing room is an integral part of my pre-performance ritual.
What do you always keep in your dressing room?
My SpongeBob blanket I’ve had for 13 years, pictures of Matthew and I, a sweet treat (dark chocolate peanut butter cups are my current favorite), toothbrush/toothpaste and my script.
Do you have advice for young actors of color just starting out in the business?
I want to encourage young actors of color to resist labeling their diverse traits as “disadvantages.” Know that your uniqueness is your best attribute. I’m a short, gap-toothed, black woman. The world wants me to believe that those qualities will hinder my success in such a competitive and superficial career path, but I refuse to believe that. My small stature and gap-teeth make me uniquely me, so I wouldn’t change a thing. Your diversity is a gift, not a curse. And have fun! If you’re not having fun, seriously, what is the point?
What lessons have you learned in this industry that you wish you could tell yourself when you were starting out?
I wouldn’t tell myself anything, because I was 17 and I wouldn’t have listened. It’s been such an amazing adventure, and I am so proud of what I have accomplished in San Diego. As a kid, I would anxiously ask, “Where are we going??” every time my grandmother and I buckled into our car. My Granmie would always reply, “Just ride.” That’s what I would tell myself: Enjoy the process and “Just Ride.”