A Chat with the Theater Chair

Professor J.Ed Araiza is the new head of TFT's Department of Theater

After nearly three decades as a guest lecturer at educational institutions around the world, J.Ed Araiza joined the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in 2013 as the head of the graduate acting program and a full-time professor in the Department of Theater. In July 2021, he assumed the position of department chair, taking over from Theater Professor Dominic Taylor, who had served in a temporary capacity since early 2020.

Araiza is also a longtime member of the New York-based theater cooperative SITI Company, renown practioners of the Viewpoints and Suzuki training methods for actors. He teaches this methodology — an intensive physical training that is part of a rigorous program intended to build a dynamic ensemble of self-producing, interdisciplinary content creators — to incoming MFA actors each Fall Quarter in the 420A and 425D Advanced Acting courses.

Just before the new academic year got underway, Araiza sat down with TFT’s Noela Hueso to talk about his plans for the department, his commitment to students and alumni, and the importance of giving back.

Summer is already becoming a distant memory. How was yours?

J.Ed Araiza: It was busy! As I have done every summer for the past 30 years, I taught the Viewpoints and Suzuki methods through my long-time association with the SITI Company. What was different this time was that it was all remote, instead of taking place at Skidmore College in upstate New York. It was only three weeks instead of a month, and while it didn't have the same ‘oomph,’ because people were separated from one another, what it did have was accessibility for students who normally wouldn't be able to come because of resources, finance and time. There were more than 50 students participating not only from the U.S., but also from Israel, Nepal, India, Latin America, Australia and Europe.

I was also a dramaturge on a Zoom production that was created by and performed with people around the world. There were two directors, Alvin Tan in Singapore and Sim Yan Ying in New York. Just last week, I did my first in-person Los Angeles workshop in more than a year and a half, for approximately 40 people, the majority of whom were BIPOC artists, which was very exciting. Six of the participants were UCLA TFT MFA acting alumni.

Do you stay in touch much with your acting alumni?

Yes. A large part of my job as head of MFA acting has been to continue to support our graduates after they finish our program. I'm always telling them about jobs, giving them suggestions about their work, writing letters of recommendations, that sort of thing. Three of them have teaching jobs right now, so I meet with them once a week and give them notes on their lesson plans. I try really hard to continue to support our alumni as well as our students.

Did that desire to help students play a factor in your becoming chair of the Theater department?

Yes. Becoming chair was not one of my goals when I joined UCLA TFT but there was a position that needed to be filled and I felt the need to step up. I wanted to be helpful to the students who are coming back after a very difficult couple of years.

Now that you’ve got the job, what are your plans for the department?

The pandemic forced us to make budget adjustments. My number one goal in my two-year plan is to try to get the department on sound financial footing so that our staff, faculty and students have the resources they need. Not only would I like us to return to pre-pandemic budgets but I am looking into ways that will strengthen the department and perhaps allow us to move forward even more bravely.

How so?

Our summer programs, which provide revenue to the school, had to be scaled back and went remote, twice, because of the pandemic. I’d like us to go back to in-person summer programs next year but I also want to find a way to keep some of them remote because that will enable more people to be a part of them. As I discovered with the summer program I taught with SITI Company, there are some benefits to remote programs in terms of accessibility for those who live far away or those who cannot afford to live on campus during the summer.

I would also like for us to continue to look for ways to have more curricular collaboration with the film department so that we can work together even more effectively than we already are.

Since the pandemic hasn’t gone away yet, what precautions are being put in place for current theater students?

In addition to doing everything that the university requires — masks indoors, the daily Symptom Monitoring Survey and the required vaccination — we are looking into the possibility of putting up a tent outside TFT for students in singing, voice and speech classes, as well as some advanced acting classes, so that, with social distancing, they might be able to unmask and see each other. We are being extremely careful but at the same time we want to figure out an artful way to allow students to continue their development both as scholars and artists.

How do you feel about returning to campus?

I am very excited. I have great students in the MFA program and I have missed them. It’s also always a pleasure to be in the studio and lecture hall with our talented and articulate undergraduates.

What will you be teaching this year in addition to the Suzuki/Viewpoints Fall Intensive?

In Winter Quarter, I will be teaching contemporary Chicano theater from the 1980s to 2000, which is the second course in a three-part series. Last year, I taught the beginnings of Chicano theater, from El Teatro Campesino, which began in 1965 as the cultural branch of the United Farm Workers movement, to Zoot Suit, the first big commercial production in Chicano theater, written and directed by Luis Valdez. When I have a chance in the future, I will probably teach Chicano theater from 2000 to the present.

How is the Theater Season shaping up?

It’s looking good! One of our Mainstage productions is A Most Favored Nation, which is based on the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle. It was workshopped two years ago and was supposed to be a production last year but the pandemic delayed it, of course. It’s going to incorporate live action, film and virtual reality, so it has the makings of something really interesting on a lot of levels. We’ve also got productions of She Kills Monsters, the musicals Sweet Charity and Pippin, and Shakespeare’s Pericles, directed by Professor Michael Hackett. We’ve also got original productions written and directed by our very talented students. I can’t wait to see them all!

What, besides an excellent education, do you want Theater students to leave UCLA TFT with?

A sense of responsibility to give back. I want them to have great jobs, careers and security, but my job as an educator is to challenge our students, so I ask them, ‘What are you going to for your community? What are you going to do for the California state-funded university that supported you?’ If you go to a theater program, one of the things that you should leave thinking is, as an artist, ‘How can I be a good citizen to my community?’

What are some examples of ways they can giving back?

Being an active part of their community. They should be part of important conversations, perhaps proposing questions in their art, and also helping the next generation of students who deserve to be Bruins.

Finally, in the absence of live theater these past 18 months, have there been any film or television productions that have stood out to you?

Amazon’s The Underground Railroad was incredibly difficult and painful to watch but it was very important and the acting was amazing. It’s a really brave production that challenges the audience. I love art that does that.

Top: Theater Chair J.Ed Araiza (center) teaching the Suzuki Method of Actor Training to students in China in 2019.

Posted: October 1, 2021