Chapman University alumnus and adjunct professor Nicholas C. Avila,’01 has returned to campus to direct the upcoming production of Anna in the Tropics, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Nilo Cruz (Waltmar Theatre, November 6-8 and 13-15, 2014). Above: Juan Julian (Donathan Walters ’14, right) brings the troubled marriage of Conchita (Zoe Donnell ’14, center) and Palomo (Cristian Guerrero ’14, left) to a crisis at the 1920s cigar factory depicted in the drama. Chapman theatre major Sarah Richards, ’18 recently met with Avila to learn more about his experiences as a Chapman theatre student, as a graduate school student at Yale, and as a working actor and director:
What was your experience like at Chapman University?
I had a good experience at Chapman. It was different for me because I was a transfer student, so I didn’t really know anybody; you build up your group of friends freshman year, so it was a little bit different and it was hard at first to integrate myself into such a tight knit group of students. Also I had a really great experience at the junior college I attended and I think I would credit the kind of passion I have for the theatre to the mentor that I had there. At Chapman I came to a new school with a whole new outlook and a system that I was being set up with so it was a little different for me socially and just in terms of getting acclimated. But when I came and met the professors here it was great because I got a new perspective on things and new information. Because of that I feel that I became a more well-rounded student.
What were the two different viewpoints you got from the two different schools?
I think that the craft we learn, if it’s working properly, manifests itself differently in every person who pursues the craft. The same tools that Michael Nehring teaches here are similar to the ones that I had learned previously, they just come out differently through me. I think that having different perspectives on the same set of tools and the same viewpoints is our responsibility as theatre artists in the craft. I think there were similarities, but seeing them through different perspectives and different applications of the same tools was very useful for me. I think it is easy to get bogged down in one mode of thinking. It was great to have different perspectives and different “ways in,” and I think that is something I carried on through my graduate school experience. Also just meeting and being around other artists was a great experience!
Did you come into the program knowing you wanted to be a director?
Kind of. When I auditioned I was at the American College Theatre Festival in Cedar City, Utah, and I auditioned as an actor. Tom Bradac was there and he offed me a scholarship to come to Chapman University. So I came in as an actor but I had already begun the transition at junior college and other places as a director. I was in this kind of “no man’s land” middle ground. The program didn’t expect me, because I wanted to create different opportunities for myself focused around directing, but they were very accommodating. Even if the program was not prepared for somebody who was looking to get the things out of the program that I wanted, they certainly made room for me and they certainly encouraged me and gave me every opportunity to succeed and do what I wanted to do. I was very grateful for that.
What led you to choose graduate school?
It’s a long story. I knew at a really young age that I wanted to go to the Yale School of Drama. It was something that a colleague of mine said when we were turning 18, that the best of the best go there, and I had just decided that I was going to go there. I encounter a lot of students and a lot of them don’t have a long-term goal for what they want to accomplish. When I was in school, a lot of my friends and classmates who were close to graduating didn’t know what they wanted to do. I feel very fortunate that I knew from a very early age exactly what I wanted to do and most of the decisions I tried to make were geared toward achieving that goal of going to graduate school and going to that particular school. Although it took me three tries, I got in and it was the best time. I think now I’m in a position where I have the opportunity to do what I love for the rest of my life and I could not be more grateful for that.
What is it like working in the real world? And what advice do you have?
When I’m working, it’s all I want it to be and more; like when you have the opportunity to be in a room with professional actors or you’re at a theatre company where all the support systems are there and that is their daily job, or you walk into these huge offices and there are people employed to create art. I get to fly over the country, meet with new people, new writers, and work with new things so I feel very, very, blessed. But you know the truth is that there is also a component of struggle. There are months between gigs and in those months what do you do? Especially when you have student loans and car payments?
What did you do?
Well I did what everybody else does: you teach some or you tend bar. I was a bartender for a long time, waited tables, and did all those things with a degree from Yale — a Master’s degree from Yale and I’m bar tending in a restaurant. I think what kept me alive was the idea of knowing that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
I look forward to the moments where I get to go out and [work in theatre], and I do it in the spirit of not regretting anything or taking anything for granted and making it a part of my life. I think that [working in bars and restaurants] helped me to not ever forget the blessing I have to do what I do. In those types of jobs you have to put up with customers and have a conversation with them and do all of those things because you have huge student loan payments and huge bills. And then you turn 30 and want a life and want to not be all over the place. There are sacrifice components and there are struggle components, but ultimately there is nothing else I would rather do.
There is nothing else I could do because of how much I love what it is that I’m a part of. When I work with my class I tell them “this is something you have to love beyond everything else,” and what I mean is that you can’t image yourself doing something else. If you are a double major and you think that you could be happy in engineering then go do that because this is too hard — it is! It’s a hard thing to pursue. I always ask people “What is your definition of success?” I tell them that every decision they make should lead them towards that goal because it is so easy to get distracted with other things — you get distracted living comfortably, you get distracted tending bar, you get distracted because there is cash in your pocket and nothing is going on and then you forget what it is you are supposed to be doing. It’s just a hard balance.
But I think if you have put in the work and if you have done the things that you need to do, and you are good enough to do it, then I think that there is nothing better in the world.
Do you have a favorite project that you have worked on?
I’m somebody who has fallen in love with what I am doing. Coming back to direct at Chapman University is a very special thing for me because I get the opportunity to be back at the place I left. I get to be back with the students in the program that’s a part of my bringing-up. There are other things: being in graduate school, being among those people; being at the Denver Center Theatre Company, which is run by an amazing man, Kent Thompson, whose vision, wants, and need for his theatre and for his community is something that inspires me. Similarly, James Bundy, the dean of the theatre department at Yale. Having the chance to work with those men for me is my favorite thing to do.
What advice would you give to a student perusing the performing arts on how they could better prepare themselves for the future?
One has to be very specific about defining success for one’s self, especially in a business like this where so much is subjective. If you are an engineer or a mathematician or something else definitive, it’s a field where there are markers to show your success. But in this field one person could think you are amazing and one person could not — it’s subjective. Since there is not a definite path to anything I tell people to make a clear definition of what their success is. Don’t fall into the traps of comparing somebody else’s success to yours because you can’t do that, and quite frankly you will lose your mind.
I think that the decision that you make along the way is figuring out “How can I get there from here?” and understanding where you are and where you want to go. I think that there is a time where there is a real “gut check” phase where you have to figure out everything like “Am I good enough to do this? Have I hit enough of the markers?”
Some people want to go to graduate school and some people don’t. I just say “Look, if you go out into the world and you start working, then keep working. But if not, then why wouldn’t you give yourself every opportunity to be the very best you can be at what you do and succeed at it?” At Yale I learned in three years what would have taken me 20 years to learn on my own. Define your success, understand where you are and how every decision you make will get you where you want to go, and set yourself up the best you can. Be the best you can be at your craft because there is no shortcut to it.
If you could change one thing what would it be?
For the sake of my sanity, I have learned to embrace the path I have been on and the idea that I can’t regret how I have gotten here because I like where I am at. When I was in school I got very myopic about what I was doing and I find that you have to be able to have your eye on the next thing. While you are firmly planted in where you are you have to consider that “I am about to graduate in a year, my professional contacts need to be a little tighter, I need to make sure that I put myself out there more and do the things that I am doing now earlier.”
The way that I arrived there was from a break in my career, when I was not doing anything for a while even though I was still hoping to and pursuing it. When I figured out the obstacle, things got rolling again. It forces me to not regret the time I took off because I appreciate my work more now than I ever did. Being away from it was terrible, it was very terrible. I find that a lot of my colleagues don’t embrace the chaos of the career. Or they become too concerned with some of the small things that we should not concern ourselves with.
I have just learned to accept my path because I like the artist I am even if I am not working at the level I want to yet. For example, even if there are breaks between shows and I’m not constantly working between one show to the next, I still like the art and I appreciate all the ups and downs. As a younger version of myself I wanted things to happen and I wanted to force fate, and you just can’t.
Where did your passion for directing come from? How has your background in acting helped you with that?
I think my passion came first from my mentor who has now passed on, Jim Kirkwood. He was a man who changed my life as I watched the way he cared about art and about the craft, about what we do. When I worked as an actor I liked it, I like it a lot. I like the craft of it and I liked getting into the minutia of it all. But it was not satisfying me. I worked with directors who frankly weren’t that great and there was a part of me that thought “I could do this.” And when I did, I fell in love with the power of good storytelling. If you tell a story well it affects people where they sit in that audience. At our best, what we do as storytellers is create a bridge of empathy from the page to the audience. We might meet somebody where they sit and change the way they think about a subject or a person or their own lives in a way they have never done before. If we just raise questions and make them answer in a different way or make them walk in someone else’s shoes for just a moment, we have changed the world. My passion for creating empathy through storytelling is something that makes directing the paramount accomplishment I could ask for.
Are you excited about directing Anna in the Tropics?
I am! I am having a really fun time with this group of students. They are really wonderful actors and are very hungry for knowledge and the different things that they get exposed to, which I think can be credited to department chair Nina LeNoir. Dr. LeNoir wants to bring in working professional directors so the students get exposed to different forms of working. Partially because I am an alumni, and I know exactly what they are going through and what they are learning and what is asked of them, I can relate to them on that level and share with them.
Someone who knows my history here as a student would know that I was asked in my senior year to direct a Main Stage production. I had directed at Waltmar before and instead of hiring someone to direct they chose me to direct Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It was a bad production. It was heartbreaking to me because I was arrogant enough to believe that I would never direct something that was bad. It just fell short of the goals that I think we all had for it. It took me a while to recover, honestly. To come back to the same stage later [was intimidating]. The first few days when I walked in that theater I thought, “…Damn. Here she is. This is the place.”
I got over that and I am excited to be a more confident and secure version of myself; a more seasoned, polished, artist even though I am still a work in progress, and will be for the rest of my life. I can tell you what is satisfying about it is to see who I was then and where I am now and understanding that I have come a long way. Maybe I’ll come back in another few years and be further along still. If my career pulls me away from coming back here, I want to inspire something or touch the lives of the people who I work with. I know it sounds cheesy but it is true and that is one of the things I love most about directing.
Anna in the Tropics, Waltmar Theatre, November 6-8 & 13-15, 2014. Tickets $20 general admission; $15 senior citizens, alumni and non-Chapman students. (714) 997-6812 or visit http://chapman.universitytickets.com/