Reach for the Sky: A Journey of Self-Discovery

College is a time to find yourself, if you’re lucky. For Cole Romero, future December 2021 grad, that journey culminated with Reach for the Sky, a music-filled full-length play they wrote and directed and which ran at the Schwartz Center’s Black Box Theatre October 28-30, 2021. The production follows Sky, a non-binary college student, talking to the many personas in their head in an attempt to understand and accept themself.

Despite their busy schedules, I was able to chat with both Cole and Lila Rallatos ‘24 (she/they), the lead actor, about their experiences with the show and Cornell more generally.

Cast photo

Cole and the cast of Reach for the Sky: Lila Rallatos, Sarah Lu, Fannie Massarsky, Matthew Saylor, Hannah Irvine, and Jack McManus.

Cole has wanted to major in right off the bat and declared just that in the fall of their freshman year. They participated in Festival 24, 10-minute PlayFest, a production of Spill, and did work with the student-run Cog Dog Theatre Troupe, all as an actor. “But I never really felt particularly challenged as a performer,” Cole says. Being cast in Much Ado About Nothing in Spring 2020 promised to be an exciting challenge, but COVID had other plans.

While exploring the PMA curriculum, Cole found inspiration in Playwriting II with Aoise Stratford and the Fundamentals of Directing sequence with David Feldshuh. Those classes helped them develop an interest in storytelling, and they went on to direct for Festival 24 and 10-minute PlayFest, co-direct the full-length original musical There For You at the Schwartz Center, and work with Professor Feldshuh independently, including as a TA for the Directing sequence, to further their understanding of the craft.

There is a lot to experience at PMA, from set design and costume design to screenwriting, and stage management. “You could learn separate things with directing somebody else's script, acting in somebody else's script, writing a script that somebody else directs,” Cole adds, “but it's so cool to be able to put it all together with something that is, in a sense, your own.”

Of course, as a creator in the performing arts space, one can never do this alone (unless they are Bo Burnham). Taking a look at the Reach for the Sky program, one can appreciate the amount and variety of talent that went into producing the show. Luke Ellis ’24 wrote the music. Adam Shulman ’23 designed the set while on Study Abroad in Rome. 6 cast members majoring in things as disparate as Government, Psychology, and Math, and one a Masters of Public Administration student, made the script sing (at times quite literally).

It’s a lot to talk about in the two hours Cole and I have. This show could not have been done without Arin Sheehan ‘22, the producer, Cole says. She managed all the back-and-forth between different parties, and, like Cole, insisted on professionalism.

The cast, Cole says, was awesome to work with. They were excited to find six people who connected with the humanity in the material, then figured out who could play whom. Actor chemistry sometimes takes a while to help develop as a director, but because all the actors were open to the show’s message of “life is messy and that’s okay” (paraphrased by this author), chemistry was easy.

Initial rehearsals involved only 2-3 people, so it was difficult to imagine how the ensemble would stay on stage throughout the play as the smaller scenes played out, but when everyone came together, and then the lights and sound did too, the show felt alive. Cole wanted Sky to have one raw moment alone with the audience, right at the beginning. Then, both Cole and Sky knew, it was going to become a show of memories and Sky talking to various characters in their head, an amalgamation of self-reflection. Cole wanted all the actors to be on stage for that

Sky on stage

Sky (Lila Rallatos) alone on stage at the top of the show. Dress rehearsal.

Reach for the Sky is Cole’s thesis project, and has evolved significantly. The text started as a Broadway-style musical about a closeted individual, but that quickly proved unexciting to Cole. They reached inside themself for the most raw and true moments to tell their own story. Getting their proposal accepted to perform in the Black Box gave the show more clarity. The bulk of Reach for the Sky as we know it was written in August 2021, at speeds possible due to everything Cole had learned at PMA.

Once written, Cole saw it as a story on a page and sought to pinpoint specific emotions to convey with each scene rather than focus on the strictly autobiographical. After all, a play that’s a metaphorical conversation between different parts of one’s self can’t be documentary theatre. “All this [that’s part of the show] could have happened to me, in my head, at some point, but I never would have known because it's all subconscious,” Cole reflects. Add to that the idea that they wrote the show, the words originating in their head… and it gets really interesting.

The script changed quite a bit as part of the rehearsal process. A poignant scene in the piece concerns Sky calling their ex-girlfriend to tell her they are non-binary, and the ex-girlfriend supporting them through that. “The confusion of being accepted in one way, but rejected in a different way” was the point Cole was trying to convey, and going from Sky retelling most of the story to different attempts at an actual conversation made the scene as powerful as it is now.

“The past can really shape you,” Cole says when asked about the show’s themes. “It can be very transformative, but you don't have to let it control you. That takes a lot of work, though.” The show is about Sky discovering and coming to terms with their gender identity and the mistakes made, and hurt inflicted on the way. But for Cole, it is first and foremost a human story, told by a queer individual being honest (in a very compelling way). “It wasn't about trying to communicate some grandiose message about, you know, the queer community. It was simply just saying, this is an experience that I've had as a person. I just so happened to be queer. And this is part of my journey of being there.”

Lila Rallatos ’24, an Environmental Engineering major and the actor playing Sky, has nothing but respect for Cole having gotten to know them through this production. “There was one time where I was having a lot of trouble trying to convey a really complicated set of emotions that Sky was feeling,” she recalls. “And Cole was like, ‘give me a single thing that Sky wants.’ They want everyone to leave them alone. ‘Okay, look at each actor and say, leave me alone.’ Okay. ‘Now run the scene again.’ And then I suddenly understood it,” Lila says. “And I thought, how did they get in my head like that?”

image from dress rehearsal

Sky (Lila Rallatos) is under constant pressure from the rest of the personas in their head. Dress rehearsal.

Being a trans person, Lila has never gotten a chance to play a non-binary character before, so this experience was transformative, a “bizarre exploration of my own identity,” she shares. There was a lot of overlap in Sky’s and Lila’s journeys, almost to a scary degree. “Especially early on in the process I’d often get home emotionally drained, because the scenes that we were rehearsing reminded me of events from my own life. One of my favorite scenes in the play is the scene where Sky comes out to their ex-girlfriend as non-binary. It was so similar to a conversation I'd had with one of my ex-girlfriends about being trans. I felt that part of the reason why I needed to separate myself so clearly from Sky in my head was because it felt like I could have written this about myself.” At the same time, despite the commonalities, some of the things Sky did in the show were very far from her experience, which required some distancing too.

Cole hopes that this show inspires people to tell stories that are close to their heart. Lila, for one, has been artistically empowered by this experience. “The first short film I ever wrote,” she says, “is just two people talking to each other in a car. I wrote it a couple years ago, and kept going back to it, but felt like I could never tell the story that I wanted to tell. And then I came out as trans. And I realized that this story that I wanted to tell was about being trans, but I never had the words to describe it and put it on a page. And after doing Reach for the Sky, I have so many other ideas to further explore my identity in an artistic way. Doing the show kind of opened up the floodgates in my head as to what I can do with this medium.”

For Lila, as for Cole, a lot of self-discovery happened during the pandemic. “A lot of ‘gender’ is performance in public. When you're separated from that public, you're only left with how you perform to yourself.”  Being away from theater, where Lila was used to playing cisgender men, also helped her see how she wanted to think about herself.

Playing Sky, for Lila, felt open and exposed. “Of course, when you're performing you always feel watched. But there's a real difference between being an actor who's watched and playing a character being watched. One of my favorite aspects of Hamlet is how worried everyone is over how other characters perceive them. And that's how it felt performing this, enclosed and paranoid the entire time. And as crazy as it sounds, I loved that. That feeling was so outside of anything I've ever performed before. It felt so new to me, and I really enjoyed that.”

From my perspective, there seem to be three key layers that made Reach for the Sky so successful. First was Cole’s many memories from their actual life. Second was amalgamating them into a script over a period of weeks. And third was bringing in multiple collaborators with singular voices and working together to make a story. Reach for the Sky is a big and brave endeavor and I’m glad the Cornell community got a chance to see it, each of us with a different set of eyes, and be affected in some way.

image from dress rehearsal

A moment with composer Luke Ellis and actors Jack McManus, Fannie Massarsky and Lila Rallatos during the dress rehearsal for Reach for the Sky


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Cole Romero