Meet Our World-Class Faculty: Gabriel Peña
A conversation with new Assistant Professor of Theatre Gabriel Peña.
December 13, 2022
December 13, 2022
Please introduce yourself and tell me a bit about your background in theater/acting.
I’m Gabriel Peña, I go by Gab, and I’m an assistant professor of theatre at Southwestern. My theatre background started like many middle school morning announcements, high school plays, and then in undergrad, I majored in theatre. Then I moved to Austin to see if I wanted to pursue performance professionally, so I did a lot of independent theatre around Austin, did some film and TV, and some voiceover. After that, I knew I had the bug, so I went to Penn State and got my MFA, then was in New York gigging, and then I came here to Southwestern.
How did you hear about Southwestern, and why did you want to work here?
I knew about Southwestern for years because I used to come to Austin in the summers to do theatre camps as a kid, and some of my friends ended up going to Southwestern. So I knew of this cool, small liberal arts school just north of the city. In the last few years, when I realized my place was wanting to find the intersection of performance and education, it came back on my radar. I was excited to come down here because I thought, It’s an amazing space that’s growing, changing, it’s dynamic, and it’s so centered on process more than just product, and for me, that’s the place to be.
What classes do you teach?
I’m teaching fundamentals of acting, which I love because I get to go, Hey everybody, this is the best thing in the world. Let me show you what it’s about. I’m teaching an advanced acting class that’s focused on realism. Next semester I’ll be teaching an introduction to play analysis, as well as an advanced acting class that deals with heightened language, poetic language, non-realistic language, and verse to see how do we take the epic and make it personal.
Do you have a favorite playwright, play, or scene that is your favorite to teach to students, and why?
There are so many, but one that comes to mind is Death in the Maiden. It’s amazing! It was written in the 90s by Ariel Dorfman, and it’s set in post-dictatorship Chile. It’s an amazing scenario and situation, and the students get a chance to research things they were unfamiliar with, like the political arena in Latin America in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Also, in the post-January 6th time period, the notion of democracy being under attack is something that’s very relevant. It’s a great play to introduce to students to look at these super human, relatable, tricky, and complicated things set up in this three-hander that maybe you haven’t heard of before. I love teaching that!
How have you enjoyed your time at Southwestern thus far?
A lot. I didn’t anticipate before I came here the genuine and the deep comradery that’s on campus. Whether it’s from my colleagues, or other faculty and staff, even students, there’s a really authentic sense of community of saying, Wow! You have some amazing curiosities that I would love to hear about or explore with you. And here are some cool things I’m happy to share. That legitimate dedication in theatre, we would call it ensemble, is something that has made this transition and this experience so far just wonderful.
Are you assisting with or putting on any productions here?
I assisted in the first production we did, which was called How I Became a Pirate for young audiences, based on a children’s book. What was great about that was it started day one of the first semester, and I got a chance to really see how The University makes productions and how you materialize something on a big scale. I got to see how students approached the work. The director was an alumn, Cliff Miller. He was kind enough to go; why don’t you take the wheel for a couple of days? I got to begin my entrance on larger-scale productions with The University. I also borrowed the wheel for a rehearsal in Witch, which was the second production. At that point, I had already worked with some of the students for weeks, and I got to experience, Hey, remember that thing we tried in class a week or two weeks ago? Let’s do that here in this rehearsal for a play that’s going to be done in front of an audience. In the spring, I’m going to be lending my voice to some degree to the musical that they’re putting on, Ride the Cyclone.
Do you have a dream production that you would like to put on?
If I had a choice, my dream production for the school would be Metamorphoses. It’s a play that has this beautiful and difficult technical aspect to it and is telling these ancient Greek stories and myths. There’s this big pool of water in the middle of the stage, and it’s so cool and so elemental! Seeing people go into the water and emerge from the water it’s tricky; you have to make sure the water is clean and at the right temperature. It’s not an easy production at all to put on, but it’s something that’s so impactful to see. It plays to this ancient idea of spectacle.
What are you looking forward to in the coming semesters?
In the coming semesters, I’m really looking forward to developing and rethinking the courses that I’m going to be teaching every semester. The nature and the character of the students here are such that I get feedback all the time. Not just formally in evaluations, but I can see in their behavior which assignment really took off or that one might have an opportunity for something better, so I feel like every semester, I’m going to get the chance to play with new things and see how the students respond. That’s something I’m super excited about, as well as the chance to see what a student looks like after one year, two years, three years, and four years to see that metamorphosis.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
One thing I love doing outside of work is listening to music. Not just in the background while I’m cooking or driving, I do that, but I’m an old-school music listener. In that my phone is in another room, I’m putting on my headphones over my ears, closing my eyes, and I’m going to listen to the album. Not a playlist I made, not someone else’s, no, the whole album with nothing else going on. Walks. I also love those. There are so many great places to walk around here and explore. And then travel, travel is the big one.
What’s the best album you’ve listened to recently?
The best album I’ve listened to recently is an album called Jueves, which means Thursday, by a band called El Cuarteto de Nos from Uraguay. They do this thing that’s really hard to pull off, which is their music is funny, but it’s good, and it’s super smart. They blend things like hip hop and tango, so that’s an album; when I need to go somewhere else for a second, I throw that one on.
Do you have an all-time favorite album?
Yeah. Bruce Springsteen Born to Run. That album will bring me back to life. If I’m on the floor and the doctors are like, I don’t know, put that album on, and I will be right back.
Do you have any upcoming trips that you’re looking forward to?
There is a trip I get to take this summer where my fiancée and I are going to sign our marriage certificate, and it will be in the desert of New Mexico. I really look forward to going out there.
What’s your favorite country you’ve visited outside of the U.S.?
I spent a bit of time there, but I had the best time in Argentina. I was in Buenos Aries for a semester, and I ate like a king. Very unhealthy, but I was in undergrad, so I was like, eh, I’ll walk it off, and you could walk everywhere, so you do walk it off. I had classes that were all about music, so I was studying things I loved, the language was beautiful to be surrounded by, and the city itself was such a wonder.
What’s something students would be surprised to learn about you?
I think that students might be surprised to find that I’m, at heart, an introvert. The nature of acting is Nice to meet you. Here’s my heart. But I sort of regenerate and recalibrate being alone. Again, oftentimes with headphones. Oh! And this is random, but they could maybe look this up and find it; I once got interviewed by Will Farrell and Kevin Hart. I was running through the streets of Austin, and it was South by Southwest, and they were in town promoting a movie called Get Hard. They stopped me in the street because they thought I was dressed weirdly because, at the time, when I ran, I wore a beanie, sweat pants, and climbing gloves. I don’t remember why I used the gloves, but then no shirt, so it was a weird outfit. Anyway, they interviewed me for a few minutes, and I made them laugh.
If you could meet a playwright, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
So I know that there are a lot of people that are going to go; This is the playwright you’d want to meet? But Shakespeare. If I really think about how holy moly, this person made art centuries ago, and we’re still putting it on because it’s still relevant because it’s still genius. This person was writing during the Elizabethan era, and just this year, a film version was made with Denzel Washington and is streaming. Shakespeare could have had no conception of cameras, film, the internet, or streaming, yet, this story that this author wrote centuries ago is something we continue to be drawn to. So to be able to speak to someone that had the capacity to connect with humanity would be an honor. If I could answer that, living playwrights would be Lin Manuel Miranda and Lynn Nottage. She’s a fantastic playwright. She wrote Sweat and Ruined. Either one of them are living examples of people who can connect with and express humanity in ways that nothing else can.
Do you have a favorite Shakespearean play?
I’ll say it, I know we’re in a theater, but my favorite play is Macbeth! The Scottish play, I love it.
Is there anything you want people to know that I haven’t asked?
Yeah! One thing that I think Southwestern does that drew me here and is a huge plus of being involved here is this idea of Paideia of interdisciplinary work and exploration. That’s something I believe wholeheartedly in. I was very much a Southwestern student in that I wanted to be a history major, but also a Spanish major, maybe English, but also possibly philosophy. So in the work that I do here, I get to explore things like movement for the actor and whether or not it can contextualize that in a neuroscientific lens. I can talk to a philosophy professor and see if we can look at scenes using Shakespeare and Hamlet, at scene preparation from the philosopher’s point of view, of why this character is suffering and why this character wants something. The cutting edgeness of that approach of those explorations is something that’s in my DNA. And something that Southwestern promotes really heavily. I hope the students I get are also in bio, or they’re not in theatre at all or in business or whatever, know that they’ll still find a home and connections in the theatre and acting classes I teach.
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