A multi-talented actress, singer, dancer talks about the obstacles of colorism and Latin stereotypes in the theater industry.
Meet Megan Elyse Fulmer, part of the 2022 cast of ¡Americano! the Musical! which premiered this spring season in NYC. Fulmer is of mixed ethnicity; Puerto Rican on her mother’s side and Irish German on her father’s side. She says that her image is not what comes to mind for many people when they think of a Latina due to her fair skin coloring and curly red hair.
Originally from Morrisville, Pennsylvania, she attended Montclair State University to receive her BFA in musical theater and was able to do it in three years allowing her to take a year off in the middle, go on tour, come back and work straight through summer, fall, winter and spring to graduate on time. After graduation, she moved to New York and has since been on theater tours, done regional theater, and landed some television spots.
I asked Megan how she got into the theater business. Megan says she was always a very bubbly and hyper child, but was incredibly attached to her mom. She didn’t do well around other people When she was two, her mom entered her into pageants. Still too young to walk down the stage on her own, these were the types of pageants where moms would walk down the stage alongside their toddlers holding their hands and guiding them. She recalls seeing an old video of her mom walking her down the stage and then standing at the top of the stage waving to her father and brother. This time she enjoyed her experience because when the pageant people said, “Thank you. Megan”, her mom had to actually grab her hand and make her exit the stage. She loved the attention.
Because she was such a bundle of energy, her mom enrolled her into dance classes which at first, she didn’t like. Her mom pulled her out for awhile, thinking maybe she was just too young to start. The following year when she turned three, her mom enrolled her again. This time Megan lasted for about four months when again, she decided she wanted out. Megan laughs about telling her mom that she didn’t want to take the classes anymore. Her mom basically told her since she’d already paid for Megan’s costume she was going to have to keep doing it. Ultimately, it was her first recital that changed her mind. After that experience, she was excited and told her mom – “mommy, I want to do it again!”.
Her parents have both been incredibly supportive of her creative endeavors, but also had a strong belief in making sure Megan furthered her education as well. Neither of her parents had really been able to pursue extensive higher education. Her mom was only able to complete two additional years and her father didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. Her parents told her and her brother that it was their job to be enrolled in some form of continuing education and they would be there to help out as much as they could.
Megan recognizes how much her mom sacrificed to pay for all of her dance classes, voice lessons and acting classes as well. Megan recalls that if there were any summer programs available in New York City, her mom would do whatever she could to get her there. Her mother saw how passionate she was about the performing arts and encouraged her to nurture her talents without pressure.
I had the opportunity to interview Megan and got to ask her some of our favorite questions.
How did your roots influence your career path?
A lot of the women in my family didn’t get the same types of opportunities that I did and I think that’s a big reason why my mom pushed me a little differently. My mom was a lot tougher on me than a lot of the kids I grew up around. Sometimes she was even tougher on me than my dad was.
I was never a Daddy’s girl, so with my dad, if I had something that I thought was important and needed to speak about, I had more of an opportunity for my dad to kind of listen a little bit more. With my mom’s Latin side, the typical answer was usually, “because I’m the adult, you’re the child and this is what it is”. That would be the end of the discussion. They each had different upbringings, very true to their individual cultures. That could sometimes be hard for me.
My grandmother didn’t get to graduate high school. She got pregnant at a very, very young age. She wound up getting her GED later in life, after working in a factory for years. She ended up becoming a special ed teacher, but she didn’t get to fulfill a lot of the things she wanted to do because unfortunately she passed away at 53 from cancer. I was eleven years old. She was so young, so vibrant and she had also come out. She divorced my grandfather and after some time was able to feel confident enough to say “I’m a lesbian”. She was able to live her truth in a way, but just not long enough.
My mom never got the opportunity to go back to school and then she met my father and had a family. She didn’t really get to solidify a career for herself. I’m the first female on my mom’s side to get a degree. I was the first person in my immediate family to get a college degree. After my junior year of college when I went on tour, I could have chosen to not come back home to finish school, but I felt an obligation and a duty to set an example especially for the Latin women in my family. I felt I needed to break those barriers because I have a lot of younger cousins who are female, and Latina and I wanted to be the one to say, “Hey, let’s break these patterns. Let’s break some genetic trauma. Let’s really put forth what we can do!”.
Are there any big obstacles that you feel you’re faced with either being a Latina or a woman in the your industry?
Yes, but in a different way because if you didn’t get to know me, you probably wouldn’t know I’m Latina. For example, I would be called in for productions of West Side Story, In the Heights, On Your Feet, and I wouldn’t make the cut based on my appearance. I booked my first tour when I was nineteen, I’m twenty-nine right now and this is the first time I’ve been cast as a Latina woman in a show (for ¡Americano! the Musical).
I also had a casting director ask me something unusual when she called me in for A Chorus Line. It was for the role of Diana Morales who is Puerto Rican. The casting director said to me , “umm, I just have to ask – do you have experience speaking Spanish?”. My response was, “my mom’s Puerto Rican”. She then said, “could you answer the question without me having to ask the inappropriate one”.
It kind of put a bad taste in my mouth but I realized that’s just how the industry was. It was something that would really break me down. For a long time, I felt that I wasn’t exactly Hispanic enough for the Hispanic side of the family. Then, at times, I felt a little out of place with the white side of my family, because I had this other cultural background.
There are a lot of different cultures on both sides of my family and luckily, my family has been able to embrace that. Sometimes I felt a little out of place, but I think it was one of those things that my whole family was navigating through bringing all these cultures together, and sexual orientations and everything else.
Because my family was able to work through all of this, I think I would get even more frustrated with the theater industry because although the industry says it wants to be open, and fluid, and accept all people, it’s really not like that. For a long time, a lot of my friends who were Italian would get roles in West Side Story or anything else that was a Latin role because they were dark haired, dark skinned, and they just looked a certain stereotypical Latin way. They looked like what someone in the industry thinks Hispanic is supposed to look like. Meanwhile, I have family in Puerto Rico with bright red hair, too like me. You could also go to Columbia and see, blonde hair, blue eyes; You can go anywhere and see different types of Hispanic looks.
Colorism is such a big thing in general and it’s a whole separate topic especially within the BIPOC community you see a lot of colorism. I just wish we could embrace everyone no matter what shade. At the end of the day, how you identify when you’re of mixed background can depend on how you grew up. I was around my mom’s side of the family more than my dad’s side and not for any particular reason except that all of my mom’s side of the family, lived closer. We also had family coming from Puerto Rico every summer and because that was what I was surrounded by more, that’s kind of how I identified more. It was one of those things that just resonated deeper with me. Unfortunately, I’m not fluent in Spanish but I understand enough. I do my best to speak it. I sing in Spanish.
I also think that within the Latino community, there is a determination. I think that made me a stronger woman because I’m very sensitive and I wear my heart on my sleeve. I think I needed that in order to find more strength to stand up for myself, especially in this industry. There were times that I felt like my background made me feel I wasn’t enough for certain productions. I started fighting to really get myself in there.
I remember going in for On Your Feet, the first time before it was on Broadway and I got cut immediately. I just got chopped. I knew I had killed it and I was just very taken aback because I knew they wanted an all Latino cast. I’m one of those people that is super realistic with myself. If I did well in an audition, I’d be like, “okay, I think we’re going to get a call back” or there were times that I was like, “nope – that was not right. I’m cut. I’m done”. Maybe I just had an off day and I’m like “okay – well, I didn’t get that. that role is not gonna happen for me”. In this situation, with my last name of Fulmer, and my looks, they may not have known I was Latina.
So then a year later, I went in again and I wasn’t in the actors union at the time. I didn’t have an equity name. I didn’t have an “actor name” I guess you could say. So I was on the subway on my way to the audition just thinking about everything and I decided to change my name. So I went in with my mom’s maiden name as Megan Elyse Justiniano and I made it all the way to the end! Maria Torres who was the associate choreographer came up to me and said, “so I have to ask about your background because Justiniano sounds Italian”. I said, “I’m not going to lie. My real name is Megan Elyse Fulmer. Justiniano is my mother’s maiden name. I am Puerto Rican and the Justiniano’s were in parts of Spain and Italy. That’s why it has more of an Italian sound to it, but yes, I’m Puerto Rican and my father’s Irish German and she’s like, “okay, cool”. She wound up hiring me for pre-production for a different show that she was doing. She has invited me to other things since then. She’ll always send me emails about workshops she has and everything else, but well, I don’t know that that would have happened had I not changed my name that day.
Now having had that experience, and now, finally being cast as a Latina, I refuse to change my name again. I won’t do that again. I am who I am. I am a Fulmer and I’m also Latina. I don’t want to take away any parts of my own self to fit a stereotype.
I look at my family. I look at my mom’s side and I have cousins that are half Jamaican and half Puerto Rican, or half African and half Puerto Rican. On my dad’s side, we have African, Irish, German, Filipino mixes and their are different sexual identities as well. I look at everyone on both sides and feel like this is what America claims to be so why can’t we embrace it?
I remember when I was younger, people would look at me with my mom and thought she was my nanny. I also remember when I was sixteen and walking with my little cousin who is of Black and Puerto Rican mix and was probably, five at the time. I was taking her to the park and I saw women looking at me sideways giving me dirty looks. Looking back, they probably racially judged the situation thinking I was a white teen who got knocked up by a Black guy and was the “16 and pregnant” stereotype.
What kind of advice, would you give anyone considering a career in theater.
It’s more of a saying, I had a dance teacher from the time I was thirteen who wound up becoming a professor in Montclair, New Jersey. He would look at us and say, you’re all soup. One of you is Lipton, one of you is Campbell, one is Progresso. What is it about you? What is your secret recipe? What’s going to make me want to buy your product. What’s going to make me want to hire you? What makes you who you are? For me, being mixed, people looking at me and not knowing what to make of me. That’s my super power.
I have done a lot of work on self-discovery, not just on my craft but on myself as a human being and finding who Megan is outside of being a performer. And so, I think it’s so important to really do the work to discover who you are. What makes you who you are, your traumas, your struggles, the things that make you your best because I will tell you right now, I’m not the best dancer. I’m not the best singer, and I’m not the best actress, but I am a damn good performer. And I know what makes me stand out, and I know what I’m passionate about. And I know how to bring that through in my performance, and that’s what gets me in the room. And that’s what gets me the job. I know what it means to stay invested and to continue to work as hard as I can every day because if someone was kind enough to see that in me in the audition or wherever, then that’s what they’re going to get from me every single day when I show up to work.
You can’t just do that in a 1 hour audition. You have to bring that every single day.
What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Passionate is definitely one of them. I’m also a very positive person, very determined. I don’t know. I don’t like talking about myself but I guess the third thing that comes to mind is grounded because it’s something that I don’t necessarily know how to fully do yet, but it’s something that I really strive for.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I’d like to say that I want a Debbie Allen type of career path. I did an episode of SVU before the pandemic hit and TV film is something that I really want to do and it’s something that I’ve always really wanted to do, but I also want to make my Broadway debut. I hope the show ¡Americano! the Musical goes to Broadway, and I hope that if I’m going to make my Broadway debut, it’s with a show that’s as important as that one. This show has been the most fulfilling thing in my career. I come into work every day and everything that I do. I am on this emotional roller coaster with this story at all times and I’ve never felt that way before, and so I would love for this to be my Broadway debut and then do more TV film and my ultimate goal, which I don’t know that it would be in ten years necessarily. I want to open up my own performing arts studio in an area that needs it. I’ve gone to my home town and other places every summer and I’ve taught kids all over the country. I’ve taught at different universities and performing arts centers and things like that. It’s something I’m very passionate about, but I want to make sure that I’m satisfied enough with myself and in my own career . I also want to be married. I want to have kids. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people like Deborah Cox, who’s done that all and Rachelle Rak and Mariska Hargitay. Mariska was the director for my episode of SVU and to see her work the way she does; to see these women in the industry that have families and careers that are really making it in their own way. That’s something that I strive for, and I hope that that continues to evolve in the 10 years.