Aldo Billinglsea: Acting, Love and Self-Image
Theater professor Aldo Billingslea has taught classes at Santa Clara on topics including American theater from the black perspective, acting for the camera, Shakespeare and acting for non-majors.
In this conversation, we cover how he fell in love with theater, a difficult struggle with depression in college, his favorite shows he has performed in, and how acting skills transfer to other areas of life. Aldo has performed in dozens and dozens of productions across the United States throughout his career, including 24 of the 37 Shakespeare plays.
Selected Interview Highlights
Gavin Cosgrave: When was the moment when you fell in love with theater?
Aldo Billlingslea: In seventh grade, I went to see the high school musical, Oklahoma. It was fabulous and well directed, but the important thing was that there was a woman name Linda Peterson who was singing a song called “I’m just a girl who can’t say no.” She was actually kissing this guy on stage, and when they were kissing they were going down to the count. The high schoolers who were ginormous and frightening would screech and whistle which made it even more thrilling.
I decided that since I had yet to be kissed, that would be a great way to do it. If I was in a play, and the girl couldn’t say no, then I would get a kiss. I immediately auditioned for the next play, and the next one. I continued doing plays throughout high school and college while playing football, and by the time I finally got my stage kiss, I was a sophomore in college, and it was on the cheek. But I was already completely and totally hooked on the work.
GC: What was one of the most impactful decisions you made in college?
AB: When my girlfriend in college broke up with me, I had a terrible inferiority complex and measured my self-worth off of the fact that she had found me worthy. When she broke up with me and started dating other guys on the football team who I thought were unworthy, it had a huge effect, and I didn’t want to live anymore. I had a suicide attempt, and that was a huge journey.
A faculty member who I had never had a class with and had only spoken to me for half an hour at most took me into his home, and I lived with him, his wife and his daughters for six weeks. They gave me a home to keep me around the school so that I could attend classes because I had been kicked out of the dorms until it was clear that I wasn’t a threat to myself or other students.
GC: What advice would you give to a student who is struggling with depression?
AB: As much as you are hurting, there is someone out there, or some resource, that you haven’t tapped that may be able to help. People are generally good. Given the opportunity, someone will try to help, and you just have to find the right help. I’m a big advocate for counseling and therapy. When it works well, not only do we have more whole individuals, we have better communities that can catch those people… more catchers in the rye.
GC: Are there any specific shows that stand out from your acting career?
AB: Being at Southern Methodist University helped me get to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which helped me learn more about Shakespeare. I’ve been extremely fortunate to do more than half the cannon… I’ve now done 24 of the 37 plays. Being able to play the role of Othello in five different productions has been a blast.
GC: What was a time when you failed and learned something as a result?
AB: My first marriage was a failure; it didn’t last as long as the divorce did. The day after I found out that the woman I had married didn’t want to be married to me anymore, I had an audition for “The Elephant Man, a play I had always wanted to do. I was a wreck, and I was trying to get ready for the final call-back audition.
I drove down from San Francisco to San Jose to audition, and I sat in the car a little weepy. It was an awful audition. They had basically told me that I would have the role, but this other guy who was prepared and focused who they were giving a courtesy call-back got the role.
Fourteen years later in 2007, when I’m serving as the department chair (at Santa Clara) Theater Works called and told me they were doing “The Elephant Man.” Not only did I have a different wife, but I had a support base because of choosing the right individual, so I could just focus on the part. That was probably one of my wife’s favorite shows that I ever did; it was a huge success.
GC: One of the classes you teach is the acting for non-majors class. Let’s imagine we have a student is unsure about the value of acting and afraid of getting up on stage. What would you tell that student?
AB: By the time they get out of that course, they will maybe have more confidence in their acting ability, but what they will definitely be is a more aware human being and a better citizen of the planet. That class is not just about how we prepare actors, it’s superhero training school.
As corny as it sounds, teaching that class fits perfectly with Jesuit education. It’s about standing in solidarity with those who don’t have a voice. When I stand on stage and go through the story of Othello, and have this person tell lies about me and destroy my happiness, there’s somebody out there who has had aspects of that happen to them. They might not have the heart to stand up in front of hundreds of people and tell that story, so I’m going to be their organ donor. I’m going to give my heart to them.
GC: If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be?
AB: W.E.B. Dubois. He lived several lifetimes in his time on the planet.
GC: What does an ideal Saturday look like for you?
AB: Sleeping in late, getting up to pancakes, going for a massage then going to a great play with my wife.