BWW Interviews: Robert Encila - Theatrical Alchemist

BWW Interviews: Robert Encila - Theatrical Alchemist
Robert Encila

JS: Robert Encila's company, Studio Connections, has become a respected force in the theatre landscape in southern Arizona. I asked him how theatre came to be his career.

RE: As a kid growing up in the Philippines, I was always performing around the house, singing for my supper, literally. I also loved dancing, playing the piano and the guitar. In school I participated in our version of Poetry Out Loud and won a couple of those. The theatre bug didn't really hit me until my sophomore year in high school when I saw my very first live musical, which was a community production of Pippin. It was incredible and had a profound impact on me. Not long after that I auditioned and got cast in a production of Godspell. I never looked back. I knew I was in it for life. You could say Stephen Scwhartz was my very first muse. I got my degree in music and theatre at the University of Arizona in the 80's, then went on to teach theatre for the next two decades, managing to perform locally and around the country whenever I can.

How often do you get to go home?

I don't go home to the Phillipines as often as I'd like, maybe once every five years. But that's changing because of some recent re-connections. I do get homesick a lot. I miss the tropics, the food, the people and their hospitality. There's nothing like it. I also love speaking my native tongue, which I really get to practice when I go home. Visayan and Tagalog, both Filipino dialects. We were under Spanish rule for [well over] 300 years, so lots of Spanish influence in our language and culture. It's very exciting to go back and share my work with my native country.

When and why did you join the Union (Actors' Equity Association)? How do those restrictions inform your work in Tucson?

I got my Equity card in 2007 performing in a production of The Pajama Game with Arizona Theatre Company. Equity is a source of pride, but I don't find it particularly useful in Tucson - and especially when my main focus the past ten years was running my own non-profit theatre company.

Are you proud because it is associated with professional theatre? Do you ever hire Equity actors? How would it affect your work differently, if you did so? Beyond the money factor, I mean.

Robert Encila in an ATC production.
Robert Encila in Conjunto by Oliver Mayer,
produced by Borderlands Theater
at the Leo Rich in Tucson.

Equity gives me a sense of pride because I'm aware of the quality of performers and performances associated with an Equity production. It's also a good feeling to have a union that protects you and looks out for you and the environment you're working in. Having said that, I'll admit not all Equity performers are gifted with overwhelming talent, and there are non-union performers who are as good as they come but don't have the membership, either by choice or due to a lack of opportunity. I've worked with local actors who are good enough to work anywhere.

I have hired Equity actors, but very rarely. I don't have that kind of a budget in Tucson. Plus, my work has been mostly about training young adults. It's a big part of my mission as an educator. Periodically, an Equity actor will help elevate the standard and expectations of a production, especially when the rest of the cast doesn't have as much experience.

When I work with Borderlands Theater on a new play, or with Arizona Theatre Company for a staged reading, I'm hired through Equity. Sure the pay is better, but it's really about the union and the integrity of my relationship with them.

How does being an Equity actor and knowing about safe and sanitary working conditions impact your working environment at Studio Connections?

Equity gives me the working standards to live up to. But Equity or not, I believe in creating a safe and sanitary working environment. The genesis of Studio Connections 12 years ago was a fine arts summer camp for youth, so you better believe I know about safe and sanitary. More important, I believe in creating an emotionally safe environment for people. I've seen all kinds of leadership in my lifetime, and what works for me is treating people the way I want to be treated. You can create excellence without all that crazy power trip.

Why is treating people respectfully important? Show business is notorious for fostering competitiveness, insisting that people be "troopers," despite poor conditions, etc.. Is a friendly working environment setting up kids to be unprepared for the "real world?"

On the contrary, creating a safe and friendly environment only breeds success. You have to build confidence to prepare kids for the "real world" and you don't do that through intimidation and power play. And by the way, it's a myth to assume you're creating wimps by having an emotionally supportive environment for them to learn. Competition is a given, but you have to instill early on that going for the gold, as it were, is not about being better than other people. It's about being the best you can possibly be. It's competing with yourself, hackneyed as that sounds. It's about attitude and perception and confronting every perceived limitation you might have about yourself.

When you audition people, don't you always choose the "best" one for each role? If not, how can you justify charging an audience money to view the work?

Of course, I choose the people best suited for the roles. Sometimes I get the roles I try out for, sometimes I don't. It's not personal and I feel confident that people get that and move on.

Right. So when you say people aren't competing against each other, what do you mean? If I want to play Lady M in Verdi's opera and Beverly Sills also wants the role, all the self esteem in the world isn't going to win me the role. If I'm a child, and I want to play the princess, but I always get cast in the chorus, how does that develop me as an artist? If the "best" always get the leads, how are they preparing for disappointment in the "real world?"

Therein lies the problem with early childhood education, at least where theatre is concerned. Children are taught, perhaps indirectly, that somehow there is no real value in the experience unless they get a "lead role." My background informs me that ensemble work is far more important in the early stages than any competitive endeavor they're subjected to. Ironically, the more group and cooperative learning they start out with, the better prepared they are for lead roles.

Feedback is the breakfast of champions, as my old administrator used to quip. When a young performer doesn't get the role he or she has tried out for, you want to give that person specific notes for improvement. No, not everybody gets to be the princess. My focus isn't about roles. It's about relationships and how each character tells the story. Ultimately it's about commitment. Commit to the action and hope for the best. If you don't get the part, you will have learned a significant life lesson. And if nothing less than a lead role satisfies an actor, perhaps the problem isn't of a theatrical nature.

I thoroughly enjoyed your production of Terrence McNally's A Man of No Importance. The show has so many roles in it, and solos for most of them. Was that a major consideration when you chose the piece?

Of course, and it wasn't easy to cast. But the beauty of the show had a lot to with the ensemble nature of the piece. Most cast members played multiple roles. They had to work together as a cohesive group to create the illusion of a city crowd, bus passengers, church members, nightclub patrons, etc. it takes a grounded actor that's willing to "disappear" into a unified whole for the sake of the story. I won't speak for the cast, but I believe they had the time of their lives doing it.

I was impressed by the uneven cast - I know this sounds odd - with some people who clearly had much more experience than others, and some of the voices were spectacular. But something about the piece itself and your company that was a mixture of talent and experience levels - it took on a spiritual level that transcends mere performance. Something along the lines of what Pirandello and Wilder tried to achieve. A blurring of the line between reality and performance. I found myself completely immersed in the experience, and it has stayed with me. I wonder if you felt like an alchemist or maybe even a priest, at times.

It feels very much like priesthood, although I don't know exactly what a real priest feels like. I hesitate to use the word, but in this case I'll say it: ministry. The spiritual aspect of shaping a story - and a company of actors/storytellers - feels very sacred.

What drives your process of selecting what you produce?

It depends on whether I'm doing a musical or a straight play. I love any existential type material that digs deep and pokes the unconscious. Edward Albee, Thornton Wilder, even the seemingly nonsensical genius of Ionesco. I produced A Man of No Importance because of the beautiful combination of Ahrens and Flaherty's music and McNally's book. The whole thing was sheer poetry.

What is next for you?

I'm working out the schedule right now, starting with a solo Valentine's concert at St. Francis in the Foothills, with me on guitar and piano and vocal. I'll be playing my eclectic blend of Latin jazz, standards, vintage pop, and musical theater. I'll toss in a few originals. This summer I'm going back to the Philippines to work with some theatre and film artists there and maybe tour some schools to work with various fine arts programs. Then I hope to come back and work on a couple of original scripts for the fall.

I look forward to being in the house!

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