UNC student, Jose David Reynoza, describes the genesis of a passion project based on learning about success as well as multicultural activism.

With your experiences here at UNC, there's something called operation cheesecake?

Yeah, it always makes me laugh. I think there's a nice smile and laugh is because I think it's funny when other people are asking me about Operation: Cheesecake and hearing the words, Operation: Cheesecake.

It's such an odd title.

Yeah. And it's a little bit tied into the fact that I had put things on a shelf was because, back in 10th grade of high school, Brighton High School with my director of Jane Archuleta, encouraged a lot of student work. Like it was a lot of us wanting to write a one act and try to produce it. Or if you, I did a dance, a couple one acts. I turned it  into her and I got produced there as part of like the student work and whatnot.

So with that encouragement, I wrote a one act called Operation: Cheesecake and it had really nothing to do with kind of what it has the meaning of what it has now, but then it was a silly story about two flight attendants that were trying to meddle in the love life of two random passengers but they didn't want to get caught by their boss and everybody. And the story was that they had to come up with a code name for their mission and that flight was known for their cheesecake. So one of the flight attendants chooses Operation: Cheesecake as the name. And I wrote this show with a friend of mine from high school too.

And so we, yeah, it was Operation: Cheesecake. That was a play. That play was part of a box of things that I put away that I thought I was never going to see again because I was settling with life. I was like ready to be like, okay, I'm not going to pursue theater. I'm goin to go this different path. And then when I decided I was going back, I dug back that box. And actually it was when I started doing shows regionally a little bit more, I dug back to that box. The first thing I saw was the play Operation: Cheesecake. And it just seemed like a moment where things clicked in my head of like, ‘that's funny that that's the first thing I see.’ And it's taught me about creating art.

I thought back of my journey and the definition of success and my definition of my impact on the world changed so much in that short span and that three and a half years, almost four years, I thought it was one thing. I thought it was another, I thought it was another, and it was always based off of what other people were thinking that success was or your impact in the world was too. And I decided at that time too that that was a symbol. And so to me then Operation: Cheesecake was the mission in life to be successful or the mission in life to make an impact in the world. And so it became code name at the time of like what I started doing, like little YouTube videos, asking random people. I would go, I went on to the incline mountain down in Manitou springs and as I was going up and stuff, sometimes I would stop and I would have a conversation with a random stranger and be like, 'what does success mean to you?' And they would start telling me and having conversations and I was, I asked them, do you mind if I record that? And then would you phrase that as well, your Operation: Cheesecake is your mission in life.

So let me get this straight. Your climbing Manitou Incline... And correct me if I'm wrong, that's, that's like the giant stairs, right? So people are climbing up these giant wooden stairs and you're coming up and 'excuse me Sir or Madam...' And you're asking that question?

Pretty much. Well, I mean I started with small talk. It was always just like, ‘yeah, this is hard, this is my second time, this is my third.’ Depending on what time of day it was. And people, the thing I feel like probably exhaustion makes people feel... It Let's their inner most feelings.

I'm pretty sure that's how like they do with the reality TV shows, they make them stay up for a long time, maybe give them some drinks and just make them kind of like a little loopy in the head.

And the best answers were actually at the top of the, of the hike or climb/step climber. At the top, everybody was just feeling so excited that they got up there that they thought about immediately, 'I just did that.' So when I brought up that question, like it was just a common conversation. So I was like, cool.

Yeah, success would probably look a lot different if you're asking someone who's just starting the climb versus at the top.

Yeah. But that led to developing something even further. I started asking friends. I wanted to start a YouTube channel completely and maybe a podcast or something. And it just kind of sat there. I was like, okay, this is now a thing that's bubbling and it's all about your impact in the world and 'what does success mean?' And, and it just kept going. And then I went here at UNC my freshman and sophomore year, I just started trying to do as many entrepreneurial things combined with theater. And so because of time and coming back to school and still having to work full time, pretty much with everything it was me deciding, okay, am I going to put this on hold? What am I doing with Operation: Cheesecake? It's this type of project. It means this, but what am I doing with, with my time? It just sat there. It was bubbling over my head as I was making connections with fellow student entrepreneurs, with fellow student activists too.

I started going to the cultural centers a lot and started seeing some of the things that other student groups were doing. Some student groups were raising a lot of money for different organizations that like really were making an impact. And I decided if I can I combine that with theater. Is there something I can do to spread a message with theater. That combined with everything in both our different universities ours as well specifically and the industry in general these past of quite a few years now, it has been a huge conversation on theater and what does proper representation mean? What does proper diversity representation on film and TV and movies and, and all of this mean?

And so I'm sitting here kind of stuck between two roads of like, ‘this has to do with my career,’ but I'm seeing all these organizations doing something that's making an impact in people's lives, like normal civilians. But then I was able to connect the two and realizing, wait, but the representation and diversity on TV, all of these people see, and that's the reason this conversation is important is not because of us as actors getting put in shows or us as performers, like getting the opportunity to play these roles that are properly represented. If it's a Latino role, anybody who, who's Latinx shouldn't be playing that role type of thing. It has nothing to do really with our validation. To me I started realizing more of like it has to do with the audience. It feels great for us to get to portray roles that we identify with, but the audience is the one that's getting affected by this representation now being proper or the diversity not being there on the screen or even behind the table.

And I started thinking and having conversations with some faculty members too, and just about the fact that for me, as I was growing up, I never thought myself as someone who could be a superhero. All the superheroes were white. My favorite superhero was Spiderman, but it took a long time as I was looking at comics to finally run into Miles Morales and be like, 'wait, he's a mixed dude and I could be a Spiderman now.'.

And so I realized that that aspect of things tied in everything that I kind of was trying to do, trying to make an impact in the world with something that I was passionate about and that was relevant right now and part of the conversation that we're having today with stuff. And thus the idea of starting a student group that would deal with a lot of these things started so that impact in the world and finding your own methods of success that way and the, there was kinda had to be a search for a name for a student group and it tied in very well with Operation: Cheesecake and that mission in life to be successful. Cause as we kept talking about what does it mean to be successful and no matter how often you talk to different people in one way or another was to make a difference in something. If we talk to someone who was looking at engineering, like they wanted to create something that hadn't been done before, it was always innovation. It was always like something about making an impact in society today. And so, so that's why we decided, you know, I proposed it to a couple of the people that I was trying to get, help me start the group and explained briefly why operation cheesecake was the kind of the name and stuff. We all decided, you know, like, that sounds great. Let's do it.

How many people?

Originally, it started with four of us trying to start the student group. And then from that we started reaching out to a couple other people. I just started being told also by faculty like, 'Hey, this person would be great to have and this person would be good to have.' And yeah, we started, we then had about 12 our first year going. And so this is our second, last year was our second year going. And so our first year we had 12. Our second year going, we had about nine. Going into this year, we're starting like in regards to the application and stuff cause we have about nine again. But in our constitution for the student group, we set out to have about 12 producers and unlimited number of members. So members can be who, whoever wants to be part of this mission and this change and these things happening. But the producers, the, those nine and those 12 and, and vice versa, those, they're always taking the lead in making these events happen.

So let me try to make sure that I'm understanding Operation: Cheescake.

Yeah, it's a lot.

It is but I, I'm seeing where it's kind of coming from, from what you express, but I see it as you're wanting to make an impact through the use of entertainment. And, and with that, there's this background, this curtain of social activism. Would you combine those three to say that's operation cheesecake? The ingredients?

There's actually a big unit as well that a lot of Theater Ed students get to take. And it's theater for social change. And one of our current vice president, her name is Hannah Gallen, brought up that that probably is the best way to define a little bit of what we want to do is this theater for social change. And that's what we kind of focus on.

So you're coming into your third year of Operation: Cheesecake and you say that there's 12 producers and many members. Can you give some examples of maybe what these producers are producing?

Yeah, so fortunately we've had a lot of support from the cultural centers. That's, that's been the biggest thing that we've been able to do is we work alongside the cultural centers. In our very first yea we did our connections with them and it took basically that cause we ended up starting in the end of the Fall, so as the spring was coming, we realized that a lot of events were kind of already planned. There was a little bit more of like a, ‘let's have a conversation for this coming year and what we need to do.’

We also ended up getting a strong connection with multicultural Greek life. And a lot of those clubs and orgs. The Multicultural Greek life here on at UNC campus do a lot of community service. So when opportunities to be a part of these events came up, they said yes to a lot of them. And so with that said, our very first event that we did was a panel. So we did a student panel that we put up on Youtube. It's on our YouTube channel.

And with that we have a panel that's about an hour long of students of color, students who identify as students of color talking about their experience from high school into college and universities and what they're expecting beyond. And so it was very much an hour of talking about how things sometimes are biased without really needing to be bias from beforehand. How, sometimes students who are applying to universities from high schools, their resumes won't look the same as a white students resume because potentially they're drama teacher in high school saw certain roles just biasly as a person who was white. And so, a lot of the times they're just going with 'the rolling with the punches' type of thing and we want to do this show, ‘okay, cool. Who Do we have?’ And they just pick someone that could sing it and look like a, instead of trying a lot, sometimes theater teachers, high school theater teachers aren't thinking of how, how it could, what it would mean to the audience to see this a little differently or to vice versa and whatnot.

And does this really have to do with race or not and, and whatnot. And so through that panel, we realized and at the time the person who was in charge with recruitment at PVA realized that the, she mentioned that she didn't know, she didn't think about that fact and the weight on high school resumes have on acceptances to certain programs because if they played more leads they'd get put to the top of the, of their consideration on top of auditions and whatnot. But like that is definitely an influence. So we are ready to discuss that. And so we're in working a lot of how else can from that panel that we recorded and talked about. We're trying to see how else we can now use some of that information that we were able to talk about to help and connect with high schools and better prepare some of these students into some of these applications to continue helping make universities diverse.

So that's a little bit of that event. We also do cultural ones. So we did a, Dia Los Muertos, Day of the dead, we did a big carnival with performances, but also in between performances we talked and described certain aspects of the actual tradition. We're in conversation with APASS to be able to see if we can do something for Lunar New Year.

Sorry, what's APASS?

Asian and Pacific American student services. Yeah. And so we want to see if we can partner with them this following year to do something for Lunar New Year. And then, and so that's kind of like the cultural events that we just, if there's a holiday that we could help provide some well-represented or diverse entertainment by doing the search of finding students who identify in certain roles but can do the performances themselves, then be able to provide that. So it's a little bit of a both liaison and just a performance opportunity that will suffice the group presentation.

And then lastly was that we look to do for production for productions as well. So for play or for musical, that has a theme that's similar to that. We applied last year to our studio season and our studio season for school of theater arts and dance is something newer that Dr. Rand Harmon helped put into place as well. And it's to be able to encourage this entrepreneurial side and the student group production side of things. They pick three productions from pitches, from student groups to given a certain budget to do a show to a little bit higher scale with an actual venue during the semester.

When you say actual venue though...

So like, well, yeah, I guess that's a, that does make a difference with the actual venue. We as student groups, a lot of the Times use whatever is left of anything out here.

Just like any platform?

Yeah, that are either sometimes in like a smaller, like Lindau auditorium in the Michener library, or we will look at any of the smaller auditoriums throughout or sometimes the outdoor auditorium or the gym or like a classroom type of thing. But what the studio season does is that they work alongside like the Hensel Phelps, which is 200 and some seat theater, actual like presidium theater and be able to get it for the week so that we can do a tech week and a performance in an actual space that way.

All right. We're getting into some good stuff, but we're running out of time. Let's go to the next one.

Great.

Music:

Good Old Neon – At the Lab We Work and Play

Pactia – Salix