Rubén Polendo is chair of Tisch’s Under-Graduate Drama at NYU, which means he oversees what every student at the University is learning—while teaching—and is responsible for the future of the department. As well as doing this, Polendo runs his own theatre company, the adventurous and dynamic Theatre Mitu, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In between tech rehearsals for Death of Salesman, now playing at BAM through July 23, Polendo got candid with Playbill about the next generation of theatre artists, and the misconceptions, habits, and excuses that might be standing in their way.
Here’s what he’d like you to know:
Indirect paths can be good
We’re not all born wanting to work on the stage, and that’s OK. That doesn’t make you any less worthy, or dampen your chances of success, than the person who’s been collecting Playbills since forever. Case in point: Polendo started his career as a biochemist. Then one day, while working in the lab, he had a realization: that maybe science wasn’t his medium. “It sent me on an exploration,” says Polendo. “My exploration was that I went to study abroad in the U.K and through a series of happenstances, I made this turn into the arts and discovered that in fact, that was the kind of laboratory I wanted to be in.”
Develop your discipline muscle—talent is variable
For Polendo, “talent” isn’t necessarily attributed to certain students and not to others. He encourages every student to explore their own potential by engaging in a rigorous and disciplined approach to work. One thing that he learned from studying science is that a methodical approach to work is key, even in theatre, and that it should be treated just like a muscle: trained and looked after. “Talent is a variable—both in what it means and how it manifests,” says Polendo. “It's up to you as an artist… There has to be a training, an approach, a rigor.”
Be more accountable.
Ever prefaced a presentation, a project, or a idea with the words: “It’s not my best work”? Polendo says this is often rooted in fear—the fear of not being great. “It undercuts your own profit because what happens is when you reach the end result, you can say, ‘Oh well, I procrastinated or didn’t prepare enough and that’s why this isn’t good work.’ And that lets you off the hook.” Polendo encourages students to be accountable for their work, and, rather than fear criticism, put their best work forward to be criticized, as that will allow for the most growth as an artist.
Treat your classmates (and teachers) as your future colleagues
Think college is four years of doing whatever you like and then real life begins? Think again. “I joke with my students by saying that the least interesting thing about them is that they are students, because that lasts just four years,” says Polendo. “The coolest thing about them is that they're my future colleagues! We better get it right!” Polendo hires several of his students as interns at Theatre Mitu, and has gone on to work with several of them professionally after they graduated. Remember, first impressions are important.
Know your strengths as millennials
Millennials tend to get a bad rap—as lazy, entitled, or uncommitted. Polendo says he is inspired constantly by his younger students, namely by the very thing that makes them millennials: their ease with new technologies and the ability to adapt and move quickly. “I feel like they don’t even know how great they are at it,” says Polendo. “They are just so nimble in moving from new thing to new thing, and I think that is such an awesome trait for an artist to just have innately. It means: sustainability, innovation, political engagement, social engagement. It's thrilling.”
Your teachers make mistakes, too
Your teachers are also learning in the classroom, and Polendo makes a point of always teaching from his mistakes. He sees education as a living, breathing thing verses a totem of information and wisdom, and invites students to discuss mistakes and failures with him. He’s also adamant about dispelling lies or misguided assumptions that might have been taught along the way. “I was told somewhere along the way that as I became an older, mid-career artist, I would be so self-assured that I would never doubt my worth as an artist,” says Polendo. “In fact, that’s a lie. Someone is spreading that lie. I tell my students that they will be asking themselves that question again and again, and that’s an exciting crisis to have.”
Find your own voice and agency
Polendo’s number one goal as a teacher is to help students find their voice. Rather than simply pass on information, he is driven to helping students discover how, why, and in which ways they want to use their robust education. That investigation of your own voice is more useful now than ever, says Polendo, where opportunities are increasingly boundless and there is a rich space for creating work. “In the year 2017, the key thing is agency. You can discover your own path,” he explains. “We have agency as artists, to make, to create, to communicate… Now the key question is: ‘What are you doing with all of this?’”
Theatre Mitu’ hyper-theatrical staging of Death of a Salesman, directed by Polendo, features the use of masks and inanimate objects to represent characters. The production is scheduled to play through July 23 in the BAM Fisher Fishman Space. For tickets and more information visit BAM.org.
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