An Interview with Director Robert Encila
Author Germaine Shames first met Robert Encila at Studio Connections’ production of A Man of No Importance and knew, instantly and beyond doubt, that he was the ideal director for her first musical. The gripping performances and spellbinding illusions Robert brings to the stage can be attributed to one core quality: heart.
Robert, a member of the Actor’s Equity Association, having directed one hundred productions over the course of twenty-four years, calls himself “a life-long student of the performing arts.” Anyone fortunate enough to have worked with him would say he is a master.
In kindergarten, I was the kid who learned all the children’s songs before everyone else, and the first to volunteer for anything in front of class. At home in the Philippines, my favorite pastime was playing the radio and singing to every pop song of the era. I collected records through elementary school. I loved learning the piano and the guitar. I practiced for hours. I’d grab a hairbrush as my microphone and perform in front of the mirror. My mother had a beautiful singing voice and I found her resonance very soothing. She inspired me more than anyone in my early childhood.
To what do you attribute your special love of Musical Theatre?
Stephen Schwartz’s early material really turned me on. I saw a production of Pippin and I was so amazed by it that it set me on a specific career path. In my late teens I played Jesus in community productions of Godspell and Jesus Christ, Superstar. Not long after that I moved to the United States and obtained a full ride to the University of Arizona, majored in music and theater, and later got certified as a theater educator. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Of your many achievements, is there one, or several, of which you feel particularly proud?
Three years ago, I directed a production of America Hurrah by Jean-Claude van Itallie. His writing has always intrigued me because of his seminal work with Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theatre. I thought it was a long shot, but while I was in New York for a gig, I sought him out to see if he might offer some dramaturgical guidance on my production. He actually responded and even invited me to his apartment. Overlooking the East River, over cups of green tea, we re-wrote some scenes together and examined how current local issues might be addressed through re-writes. It was surreal. It was such a creative high!
A couple of years before that, I had an opportunity to work with Jude Law in a weeklong psychodrama workshop. We were roommates and became close friends in the process. Psychodrama isn’t about performance, but I can see the gut process as a very useful tool for serious actors. During late-night conversations, I learned a great deal from him about show business, specifically about live theatre versus film work. His insights and experience continue to be a source of inspiration for me.
Another highlight of my career is performing at the Birdland and BB King’s in New York City with perhaps the greatest musicians you could ever assemble anywhere: the late Benny Powell, Steve Turre, Paquito d’Rivera, Hank Jones, Chico O’Farrill, Candido… the list goes on. Two years ago, I shared the stage with Jon Hendricks, arguably the greatest jazz vocalist/arranger of all time. Best part of the gig was singing a solo in front of Tony Bennett, who was sitting no more than fifteen feet away. Met a lot of fine talents in my life, but performing and being in the same room with my music idols makes me humble to this day.
My first criterion has to do with heart. Does it move me in a meaningful way? And the play must disturb me somehow: does it touch a political or social nerve I care about? Is it well written? Is it challenging? That is, is there an opportunity for me to push certain limits so I might grow as an artist? With all due respect, if the material is easy and it doesn’t cause me to sweat a little, what’s the point? I’d rather pull weeds in my backyard.
What was it about You, Fascinating You, the musical, that won you over? What are your hopes for this debut production?
The musical is well written and I like the historical premise of the book. I also love the idea of working with singing ballerinas. This time last year, I had the opportunity to work with dancers from Ballet Tucson in a multimedia production about the life and music of Argentine tango legend, Astor Piazzolla. Working with dancers is a unique experience. So is working with the playwright and the composer on a brand new musical. It’s a rare luxury. This show is ambitious—huge cast, jazz musicians, epic romance. I hope to find the ideal company to deliver the texture I’m envisioning.
How would you describe the current state of Musical Theatre in the U.S. and elsewhere? Are you hopeful about its future?
Standard musicals are fading. There’s a growing trend of hybrid-type musicals, which is good because it reflects the diversity of today’s audiences. Lots of young people are turned-on to musical theater, more so than our generation and before that. As an optimist, I like seeing the variety. In fact, I want more. I want to see more quirky themes and alternative musical genres. There’s room for everyone.
Having said that, I really like the vintage, big-band flavor of You, Fascinating You. That’s the sentimental part of me. It’s like watching a classic piece of noir, except it’s all fresh and new.
What dreams remain to be realized? What is next for Robert Encila?
This seems to be the year for planning travel and for collaborations. I’m also reading more original scripts than I have in recent past, so I’m excited about helping people give birth to their dream projects. What’s next is really about me being open to new challenges and working with other directors, playwrights, and theater companies. I do my best work as a collaborator.
Oh, lest I forget, I’m a dad who enjoys watching his 14 year-old daughter grow up as a performing artist. She seems to be absorbing all this energy. My biggest dream is to see her happy and fulfilled in her passion.
Robert’s Theatre Company, Studio Connections
Robert’s Interview in Broadway World