Gabriel Marcelo Peña is my dear friend, an actor of great talent, and we studied the Meisner method together under Richard Robichaux. I met him when I was stage manager on his first big show in Austin “The 21 Would Be Lives of Phineas Hamm”
written, directed and produced, by Rachel McGinnis Meissner and we became fast friends.
Recently he took some time out of his very busy schedule to talk with me about all things art, theatre and life!
To see more about Gab and his many talents- Check out his website- gabrielmpena.com
Without further ado, Let’s get to the interview!
Professor Haston-Who are you named for?
Professor Peña – My full name is Gabriel Marcelo Peña- My mother was going back and forth between two names.- “Damian” (like “The Omen”) and “Gabriel” and Pops said they should hedge their bets and go with the angel- so Gabriel it was. I love words and the origin of things so I looked it up and the name has Hebrew origins – Gabriel the Angel appears in Islam, Christianity and Judaism which appeals to my sense of a mixed and multicultural heritage. Additionally, in all those stories- Gabriel is a communicator– I am a communicator and even my nickname (Gab) means to talk. Marcelo- comes from the Italian actor, Marcelo Mastrioanni –my pops was a big fan of him, so they went with that for the middle name. Also, my father was very close to, and really loved his grandfather who was an Italian immigrant to Mexico so the name is perhaps a bit of an homage to him, Rodolfo DiCapelo. I’m guessing at the spelling of his name, family legend is that he changed the spelling and/or pronunciation of his name when he entered the US and then AGAIN when he migrated to Mexico. I come from nomads.
Professor Haston- How did you come to be an actor?
Professor Peña- The origins of it – I was in middle school and I felt very isolated and very “other”, in large part due to being a Latino in a Black and White Southern town, and due to a lottery system program I got thrown into a different school. I thought, great I already don’t have friends, now I go to another school where I will have still have NO friends. I got a chance to do the morning announcements, which I thought were boring and stale, and so when I got picked to do them I presented them with a point of view and some enthusiasm and people started to acknowledge me. This was a cool new experience at the time. Then after that, I copied my sister, Paula (thanks P!) and followed her to an acting camp and loved it. From then on, it developed into, “Oh, now I get to do things that I don’t get to do in my real life” Like my first kiss, was a stage kiss – Or on stage, you get to yell at someone or beat someone up- you get to do this because it’s written down and it’s the job. I really fell in love with it then, I realized it was a license to do and experience things fully or freely in a way that I don’t always get to in my daily life.
Professor Haston- Can you talk about the hard parts of being an actor or times that it hasn’t been so great?
Professor Peña- I remember intentionally distancing myself from it once. I was studying theatre in college when I went abroad for a semester in Argentina. I was not fully dedicated to the idea of performance as a profession. In fact, at the time, I was very deliberate about not doing any theatre, not seeing any plays. Yet, while abroad, a guy at school reached out about doing “True West” I kept finding myself jotting down ideas and thinking about the role. So even when I wasn’t trying to do theatre, it followed me anyway. Fast forwarding to now, I moved to New York a year ago, and it’s been an adventure. New York is no joke, although I have found a slice of it that I absolutely love. I have a B.A. in Theatre and I have an MFA in Acting and I will say it’s been a big adjustment going from acting and artistry EVERY day at school to not having a guarantee of when the next role will be. To give you an idea of the importance of the drive required out here, last year, on one of the casting sites I use for auditions, I self-submitted 141 times and heard back less than 3% of the time. But, overall, I find it is best to forget about each door knock and move on to the next one.
Professor Haston- In addition to being a writer, singer, actor and musician and you are a producer of multilingual plays- How do you choose just one to focus on when you are talented in so many things?
Professor Peña – My identity as an artist is ever-changing and evolving. For a long time, I thought of myself as a music person, then as an actor. Then as an actor who played the rebel, or outcast. Also, my Latinidad, or relationship to being Latino, is something that has developed a lot and that’s a big influence as well on my art. I once heard that an actor is always working, though not always employed. It’s the idea, the notion, that you are not always getting paid to do it, but you can work on your craft no matter what. To measure that “work” I started using an app called “Toggl” (because it’s what we do in the 21st century) to track how much time I was putting into my part-time job (because I have to eat) and track how much time I was devoting to my acting career. I decided to challenge myself and see if I could spend as much time on my acting as I was spending on my part time job. I think “Toggl” is meant to keep track of business projects, however, I use the free version of the app for what I need and I love it. I have it on my computer, iPad, and phone and I’m able to retroactively add events if I don’t use/have one of those devices to record my time and/or if I forget to. I’ve divided my time into 5 categories (I had “commuting” as a 6th separate category but now I include any commute time in with the activities I’m recording). This is, again, a way to see if I’m balancing my time well. If I’m investing too heavily in one area or not enough in another. While the goal is to at least have 50/50 between my part time and the other categories I find it important to remind myself that the ENTIRE amount of time I’m recording is an investment in my acting career. It’s a great way to motivate myself when I feel somewhat powerless or stuck and it also validates that I am putting my energies into my dreams. A big part of this is not beating myself up for the results, it’s a barometer and allows me to be aware. In the show “Slings and Arrows” a Canadian show about a Shakespeare company, they say, “Acting is an act of faith” – and I think that’s true but it doesn’t hurt to plan and prep.
The following are the categories I use to track my time and I’ll list examples of what I mean next to them:
Action – Acting Gigs, Rehearsals, Classes, Workshops, Working/Memorizing material, anything that would fall under “Acting”, “Performance”, etc.
Administration – Going through breakdowns, Sending submissions, Updating my Website/Resume/Headshot, etc. The “Paper Work” part of being an actor – which is a SUPER important part of it.
Associative – Meeting other professionals (actors, directors, so on), Creative Projects (music involving my experiences as a Latino actor in New York City), Research (which theaters are equity houses, info on casting offices, etc). The moves that are important for “playing the long game” of an acting career.
Well-being – Meditations, Workouts, Physical Therapy, seeing plays and movies and “good” tv, taking in museums and art, day trips.
The events/practices/things that “fill me up”.
Job – Thing that helps me make money to keeping doing what I want to do. It’s important that I title it “job” rather than “career” because it helps me keep perspective on the ultimate goal and/or what I want to prioritize.
Professor Haston- What is your reaction as a Latino actor when you see that Latino parts are not being played by Latinos?
Professor Peña- I have a strong personal reaction, professional reaction, and an intellectual reaction. My journey is complicated in that, I am not what popular media says is a Latino and I play with that dynamic in my music and my writing. Someone, i.e. popular culture, trying to tell me what my identity is, or should be, feels like a quintessential experience of a minority or person of color in the United States. It’s extremely complicated and very personal and also something that I think that hopefully is becoming more and more of a discussion, and little by little is getting more complicated, in a good way, problematized in a good way, and righted in a just way.
Professor Haston- What do you think makes you a successful artist?
Professor Peña – I think I feel successful when I can think to myself, I made “this” – I made that role. That isn’t to say there were not other people who contributed, the writers, the director, the crew, they all contribute but I like to feel like, “I put my name on that”. When I finish a song, I get the same feeling, that’s when I feel successful. It also validates me as an artist to talk about my art. Doing things like this interview helps me stay present to the idea and feeling that I want to do this acting thing, out of the wonderful irrationality that is love.
Professor Haston- What advice would you give to your younger self?
Professor Peña- (chortles) Oh man, so many things…… Okay, well two things:
- “In the best way possible, if you can, let yourself take it less seriously.”
- “As patient as you are, sometimes you aren’t, and that’s okay, but believe me, believe me, believe me, the more you embrace the idea of not having a clock on things the better, better, better you will feel.”
Professor Haston- What is some of the best advice you have ever received?
Professor Peña- Ooh, there is a long list from my folks that just lives in my skin. However, one of the conscious responses that comes to mind is from Richard Robichaux- (Professor at University of California at San Diego), “Trust that you are enough.”
The Meisner technique, as taught by him, helped me be as dangerous as I wanted to be, in the context of a stage, without anyone getting hurt or going too far. His teaching and his classes really helped me evolve back to being a kid and finding that sense of play. His technique helped me boil it down to the basics and really get back to myself.
Professor Haston- How do you respond to criticism because we all have haters!
Professor Peña- I love the framing of that question. I actually like critiques. I think there are so many ways to take it. Like, Oh cool, I see how I can take that and make it better because of what you are offering me. I can always “leave it” instead of taking it if I disagree. I have been fortunate enough to not have people just be mean for the sake of being mean. I don’t do or like social media so I’m sure that helps. I prefer face to face with people. Also, grad school is an excellent opportunity to learn the value of critique.
Professor Haston- Who is your favourite artist and why?
Professor Peña- Bruce Springsteen- He is my favourite because I have always felt an authenticity from the guy. I first listened to a “greatest hits album” because my pops had mentioned Bruce, and I remember hearing “Born to Run” and immediately loved the song. I was so in it, and then I didn’t like any of the other songs on the album. But because I was in middle school and only bought one cd every other month, (which was my favourite event as a kid cause I LOVED music, still do) I had to listen to the record over and over again and it grew on me. Bruce, in addition to having great music, is a great lyricist and storyteller and the poetry and lyricism in music was a new element for me to focus on. Before I was about instrumental or sonic experience of music with bands like Led Zeppelin. With Bruce’s music AND lyrics, though, there’s the sense that every song is about somebody that is fighting to stay alive, fighting for something better. The fact that he tells stories about people who are not pretty and up there and rich. He tells stories of teenage kids trying to get out of a dead end town, he tells stories about people working all day in a factory. He tells stories of immigrants who die crossing the Rio Grande. He seems like a real, kind, human being. A very wise, very empathetic guy. When he performs, he steps on stage and unzips his skin and ribcage and is just out there.
Professor Haston- What inspires you?
Professor Peña- What inspires me are the souls around me that unlock a part of my soul. My family, my partner, my friends. What inspires me are artists that are telling “people people” stories. I get inspired by any environment I am in. I was going to say the city, but the truth is, I am inspired where I am all the time. When I was in California, it was California. When I was in North Carolina, It was North Carolina. I am in New York, it’s New York. I’m very fortunate in that sense, to be constantly surrounded by inspiration.
It seems a good thing for us all to take away, “Be inspired, right where you are,” and a good place to end so you can head to Arkansas to start rehearsal in Native Gardens
It would be impossible to encapsulate the entirety of awesomeness that is “Gab” in just one interview and that’s actually a good thing. How boring would life be if one interview covered the whole of the human experience of one person?
Think About It.