Video by Bailey Gerson ’25
TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW
This interview was conducted and transcribed by Reyn Ricafort ’25
Reyn: So, hello Dr. Diego Villada. Before we start the interview, I just want to introduce Dr. Diego Villada. Dr. Diego is a theater educator and practitioner whose work centers on movement for the stage in the areas of directing, intimacy, direction, and fight choreography. He is currently visiting as the fight and movement director for Skidmore’s Mainstage Show The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrongs by Ana Caro de Mallen, directed by faculty Dr. Lisa Jackson-Schebetta. Dr. Diego’s residency is supported in part by the Miranda Family Fellowship program here at Skidmore. In addition to working directly with the actors of the show, for the past week, Dr. Diego has been visiting classes, holding workshops, and working with students throughout the department to lend his expertise. So, welcome to Skidmore Dr. Diego.
Diego: Thank you very much.
Reyn: It is an honor to have you on campus and to be interviewing you today. My name is Reyn, for those of you who don’t know, but also for you Dr. Diego.
First question: Being on campus, how are you liking Skidmore so far?
Diego: So far, I have been extraordinarily welcomed. The faculty, the staff, and the students that I’ve interacted with here at the JKB theater as well as in the department as a whole have been very inviting. Of course, I was invited by your chair, Dr. Lisa Jackson-Schebetta, with whom I’ve had a great relationship for over a decade. The projects are exciting, and the classes I’m visiting are interesting, fun, informative, and educational. As a whole, on top of being extraordinarily picturesque-
Diego: The people here have been very nice to me, and I love that.
Reyn: That’s good to hear. I feel like as a department, we really do emphasize, or at least try to work on, our sense of community, and our sense of welcoming new artists in when we can and fostering creativity when we can.
So, where are you originally from, and where are you currently based?
Diego: I was born in New York City. I am from Queens, was born in Flushing, and spent the first years of my life in Jackson Heights, which is in the boroughs of Queens in New York City. When I was about eight years old, my father’s job had us move to South Florida, meaning that I spent the last decade of my adolescence in South Florida. So, although I was born in New York—I’m very much a New Yorker and lived there during what I call my “requisite artist time” where I built my resume—the formative years of my adolescence were in Miami, so I’m very Miami, 305, that’s me. In terms of my background and my family, my parents immigrated here in the late 70’s and early 80’s. They are Colombian and both from the same city. I am Paisa, which means that I am from the coffee-growing region of Colombia, which is a mountainous region, specifically from the city of Pereira. I’m very Colombian, I speak Spanish, I identify with that culture very much, and I would explain myself as a first-generation Colombian American who was born here.
Reyn: I’m originally from the Philippines, born and raised there for seven years and then moved here. So, there’s also that sense of–I was born in a completely different space, a completely different culture, and yet my formative years were spent here in America–so I understand that subject of identity as well.
As I mentioned, you are visiting as the fight and movement director for our Mainstage Show. Do you mind clarifying what you specialize in as a theater practitioner, artist, and educator?
Diego: When I’m in a rehearsal room, I’m a trained actor, but I rarely do that now. I am a member of Equity so in my training or professional life I can jump on stage if need be, but usually, I’m either directing, doing fight choreography, or intimacy movement work when I’m in a rehearsal room. In educational spaces, I teach both theory and practice. Because of my graduate training as both a practitioner with an MFA and a scholar with a Ph.D., I teach subjects such as theater history, special topics, introduction to performance studies, cultural studies, Latin American studies, and global studies. I made sure to train myself in those areas so that I could be of service to whatever theater department I work at. For example, if someone takes maternity leave, or parental leave, or if someone gets sick or takes a research lead, I could probably take over their class. So, that was one of my goals in terms of not only being of service but also staying employed. Then, from the practitioner side, I trained to be a movement specialist which means that I consult on shows for non-fight “things” but have movement.
Most of the time, however, I direct and choreograph violence, which are moments in live theatrical events when words have become insufficient to express the character’s emotions, so they’ve come to blows. More importantly, it’s a moment of violence where to remain safe (the actors), it cannot just be improvised. It has to be very specifically choreographed using the techniques of stage combat to make it exciting, but more importantly. reproducible and safe. So, I would describe that work as emphasizing three things: safety, story, and spectacle. The safety is in the technique, the story is in the acting as opposed to the moves, and for spectacle, I can make the choreography look really cool as long as I have the time and the actors have the skill and training.
Reyn: Just going back to what you were talking about, making yourself an artist and an educator who knows a lot of things, I think just beyond that industrial viewpoint that you provided, from an artist’s perspective–particularly a developing one—it’s nice to be able to integrate a lot of aspects from multiple disciplines into your art as opposed to just one. It does make the art well-informed, grounded in intellectual rigor, and in a lot of cases, relevant to our contemporary audiences in that it addresses contemporary issues.
So, as the fight director and somebody who specializes in violence and physical storytelling, tell me a little bit more about how you came to this particular discipline. What made you choose this as something you wanted to undertake and possibly teach other students?
Diego: Well, it’s important to remember that there’s no singular way to come into this discipline—I know of various fight directors who came into it in their ways—and neither is there a singular way to train for it, mainly because it’s an apprenticeship model. So, I can say that my journey began in undergrad. I went to the University of Evansville and the teachers there saw I had an aptitude for both teaching and movement so they coached me and asked if I’d ever heard of stage combat, to which I said I have no idea what that is. In true undergrad and liberal arts fashion, the teachers and faculty are always finding ways to personalize (at a good school) and individualize the education of students to get them to where they want to be or where they can be the type of professional they want to grow into. So, they introduce you to topics, some landing and some not landing. But this—stage combat—landed. My undergraduate created two instances that changed my life: They paid for me to train at my first stage combat workshop to obtain my certification, and they created opportunities within the department for me to be a teaching assistant (TA) in a movement class. They told me, if you go learn this and bring it back, then we will give you a chance to teach it, in turn helping us which is why we’ll pay for your training. What I didn’t realize at the time was that there were no teaching assistant positions- they created it for me. They saw an aptitude in me, saw potential, and gave me four semesters of being a TA. That granted me the experience to move forward in becoming a choreographer and an educator of movement and stage combat.
Reyn: That’s really beautiful, and I think that resonates a lot with what Skidmore does for its students in emphasizing the interdisciplinary aspects of theater as well as its inherently collaborative nature. Skidmore really pushes its students to take on multiple things so that, like you said, if something resonates with you that you didn’t think of initially before, then that could potentially increase your chances of finding something within the industry that satisfies you. It also just allows you as an artist to make a greater impact.
Diego: It also matches in many ways with the liberal arts ethos of small liberal arts colleges, which I think is important. The greater college experience of a small liberal arts college is the introduction to many different fields to make your major not the only thing that you study. Plus, even within your major, being exposed to different aspects of it allows you to land on something that you can later become a subject matter expert in.
Reyn: Right, right.
As the fight choreographer for the Mainstage show, give us a rundown of what you’ve been working on with the actors and with the production at large.
Dr. Diego: As the fight director for a show, and in particular this show, the first thing I start with is: what does the director want? It is not just about me coming in with an already set choreography that is independent of the director. A fight choreographer or director, similar to a designer, collaborates and brings the vision of the playwright in conjunction with the leadership of the director, onto the stage. I don’t just come in with choreography that is independent of costume, lights, or the director’s vision because it has to fit in with all of those aspects. The only way for me to achieve this goal is to have a conversation with the director and ask them what is your vision. It can be as simple as what do you want or what do you want to see, but typically I need to have probing questions that will allow the director to explain it. From that conversation, I get initial ideas that I then take with me as I read and reread the script. I read the script before and after that vital conversation with the director. First to gain a sense of the script as a piece of literature, then taking the director’s ideas, concepts, and provocations, I read the script again from the lens of the fight director. I begin to look at it from the point of view of violence, asking what physical story are we telling, which sometimes the playwright helps us answer in the language that comes before the fight, during the fight, or after the fight. For example, if before the fight or during the fight, someone mentions an act that they’re going to do, then that act needs to be included. So if a character asks, why did you punch that guy, then I know that the choreography has to include a punch to make it dramaturgically make sense.
Yet, my art form is not just about a generic punch; it takes into account the character work that the actor is doing and the character that the author built into the text in the first place. I take into account where I can put the characters on the stage that will have interesting sight lines, what stage pictures I can build with their bodies, both in a moment of a hit and a transition to the next hit, and how I can stage the fight to not counter–without knowing usually–what the director has set up in the scene before and after. So it’s important to see their work- what pages lead into a fight are very important because you want it to make sense. So you don’t want the audience to sit there, watch a scene, and then say oh the fight scene happened, and then another scene started. It should be a seamless story that matches what the playwright has written, and I don’t want people to think about the choreography. If I do my job well and the actors are able to execute that choreography, they should worry about the characters instead. It’s a moment of both excitement and conflict. I want them to think about the conflict and not ponder on the actors or my choreography; I prefer they don’t think about my choreography at all.
Reyn: Absolutely. So, this greater sense of emphasizing that everything is connected to the story, even the movement. Even though it is a choreographed fight, it’s still part of telling that story. That story at the end of the day is what we’re trying to honor. It also makes the work more complex; it invests it with this profound intention to stick true to the objectives but also makes it complex because you can’t just punch. The punch has to be evocative of where the character is, what their mood is at that moment, and what their relationship is with the other character.
Diego: I would also add that one of the many things I find exciting about fight choreography is that you can mess it up. As one element of physical storytelling, there’s good fight choreo and bad fight choreo, and when I’m brought in, I want to make sure it’s more on the good side. If it’s good fight choreography, the actors don’t get hurt, which is already part of my job. So, the most important thing as they’re executing their punches and kicks, or in the case of this show with the rapier–a sword from this particular moment in Golden Age Spain and really all of Europe–is that no one gets hit, or bonked on the head, or skewered. Additionally, the actors should be able to reproduce the choreography in the physical story that I set. However, it’s live theater and anything can happen. so if they go up on a line, which changes what they do next fight-wise, can they get back on track without hurting each other and without changing the arc of the physicality? The ability to get back on track from little mistakes is part of the reason why we go to live theater. If the characters forget a line, can they cover it up and can they keep the story going? So, I question myself if I prepared the actors enough so that if they miss a move, they can keep the story going.
Reyn: And that’s very much the challenge of live theater is that things can happen.
Diego: Correct, and I’m excited by that possibility because my work can be seen as either good fight choreo or bad fight choreo, and that gives me a goal. I’m given an aspiration and a teaching moment to instruct the actors what to do if they mess up or forget a move. Moreover, teaching how to recover safely is a large part of understanding the techniques of my field.
Reyn: Right, and in general, the actors too are learning a lot. Especially again, with what you were talking about, how, what it means to use your body to physicalize certain movements, and also to fight safely or to move in safe ways with other actors on the stage.
And so, at large, what do you think theater artists, or theater students in general gain from a rigorous education of movement and fight, whether it be theoretically or more practically from an industry standpoint?
Diego: First, I want to identify that in my field there are different types of fight directors. There are fight directors who focus on the historical accuracy of the fight moves or weapon work and there are fight directors who focus on the exactness of every single targeting and execution of their choreography; I am neither of those. I allow those approaches to inform my work, but I don’t care so much about either one. I come from a place where stage combat is a sub-discipline of movement, and movement is an area of acting. I don’t really train fighters, I train actors, and by having movement and/or stage combat in their training, an actor that can tell a fight story is an actor that is using their whole body to tell the story. I also teach actors how to use their voices to create sounds, in addition to language, to vocalize what are called soundscapes during a fight.
An actor who understands that the shapes they make with their body are connected to character, that the shapes of their bodies in relation to other bodies on stage tell a story and show relationship and status, and that the very sounds they make accentuate the story even more, is an actor who has been trained to have a full use of their body and instrument. Training with that instrument and keeping that instrument healthy, is all part of a wonderful preparation for performance. Moreover, It’s nice to see a school like Skidmore championing that way of working.
So, the goal isn’t to just train actors who are only well-versed in text, it’s about instilling in them the understanding that to perform the text completely and to the best of their ability, they must have an awareness of their bodies on the stage and possess the tools to manipulate their bodies and tell those stories. However, it’s important to remember that in order to tell those stories, you must have experience -there is no movement training without doing. One can’t only read about movement in acting, they must practice by doing it. The doing of it (movement) is what activates certain bodily processes like muscle memory and body awareness that are all integral to the actor.
Reyn: And I think a lot of the times, younger artists and younger actors in general who come into the craft, come with this perception that acting is just about the facial expressions or the words that come out of the mouth. But, as you delve deeper into the craft itself, you understand that acting is about storytelling through the physical apparatus for which you are given. The physical apparatus is the entire body, it’s your voice, it’s one’s muscles, it’s the energy that one cultivates within the space, and so as a fellow actor myself, I find the discovery of these truths fascinating as I gain more knowledge in the art of acting.
So, I understand that as part of your theater pedagogy, you teach students about theater that centers around BIPOC experiences and stories. Can you talk more about the importance of showcasing theater that uplifts historically marginalized and underrepresented voices, particularly in our current moment?
Diego: I think every artist should be conscious of the choices they’re making, and one of the most fundamental choices that an artist, especially a theater artist has to make, is what plays to put on and who to put those on with. This is important to me because I am the son of immigrants, and so as a Colombian-American, as a first-generation American, because I grew up in New York and Miami, and because of who my parents are, I have a specific sensibility. I care about marginalized voices, underrepresented voices, and not just Latinx, but anyone. Any underrepresented community- I want them to have a voice. So, I want to bring my technical ability and my academic credentials, or my hard-won communication skills to be able to elevate their stories, and as I mentioned there are many ways to do that.
The first would be the text. As American artists at the turn of the century, when we’re storytelling, we start with a script. It’s important to recognize that that is not the only way to make theater, but if you choose to make theater where the script is the primary source, the thing from which all artistic choices emulate to put on a piece of live performance, then maybe we could try some that are different than the classical choices; we could elevate one BIPOC or underrepresented group’s voice, independent of what their show’s about. Another way is to look at the characters, focusing not so much on who wrote it, but on who the writer writes about. This leads into the importance of actors and the very very difficult task of inviting people in to act and audition. Finding actors who are talented, available, and of a particular ethnic group or underrepresented group is very difficult. What usually happens in communities is that those with experience in the theater and arts are the ones who know how to find auditions. Well, those with experience in the theater and arts have had access to theater and the arts in their educational spaces, usually college and high school. That usually indicates that their college or high school was of a certain material resource or socioeconomic level, which underrepresented groups typically don’t have access to. Because there’s not a pipeline of it, you gotta go out and find it, and you gotta invite people that are maybe not as trained with the usual institutional recognizability, but maybe took a class at the community center. You want to tell them to get in here.
Reyn: GET IN HERE.
Diego: And then part of it is teaching it, right? Part of it is saying, hey you know what, you didn’t go to college for this, but I can show you. I happen to have the expert-level skills that help people learn how to do this craft, which I can teach you. But also, people with less training tend to be less available. They don’t have the availability because they may not be a professional actor all the time or their day job may prohibit them from participating, so you gotta be really flexible with your rehearsal schedule. Another way to think about uplifting marginalized voices is through the institutions that you partner with. Independent of who wrote the play, who you are putting on stage, or who the characters are, you might work with an institution that cosponsors or coproduces the show. This institution might focus on a particular demographic, so you might diversify your audience as well.
In my explanation just now, I’ve identified that in order to make theater, you have your theater artists who are making, you have your authors who are writing, and you have your actors who are acting; it’s a collaborative art form and none of that is worth anything in a live theater event if you don’t have at least one or more people to watch the show. Now, if you are able to, diversifying all of those is the ultimate goal. Right, like making theater, with a very diverse group of people, that are behind the scenes, who also are putting on a story about characters that are extraordinarily diverse, played by actors who are extraordinarily diverse, and put on in diverse instances, for diverse audiences, that’s like the most-
Reyn: That’s the dream ballet.
Diego: That’s the dream ballet. But, it never happens. If you can get one of those, what I might call, multivalent ways to think about underrepresented groups getting a chance to be on the table, you’re winning. Then, if you can get two or three of those, then that would be even better. But, these are usually the questions I ask myself, and sometimes, it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes I look back and go, ugh I could have done more, but you can’t let that stop you. You just gotta make and make with what you have at that moment, and if that means you’re rehearsing in a hallway, then you’re rehearsing in a hallway. If that means you’re making theater with five hundred or a thousand dollars because that’s all you got or going on tour not because you want to but because you literally don’t have a space, then that’s just what it means. That’s where the artistry comes in. You need to take what you’re given, what you have, and then go. Right, like make the best of it, make the most with what you have; that is what the true artists that I roll with, do.
Reyn: And there is that strong sense of accessibility in finding ways to make the theater accessible to groups and communities who might not have had the same kind of roads to access as other people. Such are questions that Skidmore is grappling with as well, and they are very very hard questions. I think particularly, in our present moment in time, we’ve begun to see that the narratives that we tell and the stories that we tell are important, particularly, the intentions behind the stories and the impacts of those stories, even more so sometimes.
From your perspective as a theater artist and as an educator who focuses on underrepresented voices, what role does theater play today? Or storytelling in general, particularly with what’s going on in the world, with what’s going in in the discourse of society, and just in general where the industry is in terms of diversity, social progress, theater, and the arts?
Diego: I feel more and more that the liberal arts model of theater training is the future of our field. The idea that you have to train only in a conservatory to be a professional actor or professional anything in the theater I think is becoming less and less the approach, because of the recognition that in this country and in many countries in the world, a theater artist has to diversify if they wish to have longevity in the field. They need to diversify their income source, they need to be able to take skills that they’ve learned in these educational scenarios–and I’m talking about high school, college, graduate school, studio work, and/or private instruction–and they need to turn those into transferable skills that they can articulate to interdisciplinary audiences. At various moments in your career, there are moments when emails are coming in, when shows are coming in, and it is awesome. Then, there are moments when things dry up, so what are you gonna do? That is a question that every theater artist has to ask themselves- what are you gonna do? So, at that moment, if you have a diverse skill set, a set of transferable skills, and the ability to articulate what they are to an interdisciplinary audience, then you might be able to access a day job for a while that allows you to keep the rest of your career going.
If you’ve taken it upon yourself to learn about fiscal responsibility, budgeting, and understanding how to make and move your money around for your personal finances–your personal financial education and acumen–then you get to keep making art. But, if you are someone who has no other skills and/or can’t articulate the skills that you do have, then in a moment of artistic drought, like opportunity drought, then there won’t be anything else for you, no other way for you to survive. During those moments, what usually happens is people jump ship. They leave the industry, which happens all the time, but there are ways to mitigate against that, and the future of theater education is to not train toward a job but to train toward a field; that will educate artists on how to stay in the industry. If you’re an actor and you’ve worked in a scene shop then when things dry maybe you gotta go be a carpenter for a while, you gotta go cut some wood. If you are a lighting designer but nothing’s coming your way, maybe you need to know how to sew, so that you can work in a costume shop, stay within the same field, and be happy doing so. So, I think that having an education or training that sort of has a more generalist ethos, is the direction that the field is going.
In terms of theater, theater will be around forever. Theater will be around FOREVER. Just from the times that I taught either theater appreciation, theater studies I, or public speaking I, the presentation of stories is as old as time. It goes way beyond the beginning of a textbook– usually Greek theater in theater history –to cultures that didn’t write things down, but that we know and understand through anthropological studies. The presenting and holding of stories through the repositories that are passed down, that is part of theater, and that will never go away.
However, it is important to remember that the way people make theater changes over time. For example, during and after the pandemic, we were forced to wonder about the “liveness” of theater if it’s through a screen. Is it theater if it’s through theater that’s recorded, or is it only theater if both the audience and actors or production team are live, and the only difference is that the liveness happens through a mediated internet space? Those are the questions of our day, right now, and some people are very limited in their scope of understanding and definition of theater. I am not, I am very expansive and I believe that theater is essential for life and that theater is more than just what we traditionally go to a theater space for. I think about it much more expansively where, all you need is at least one or more human actors, at least one or more “human” audience members, a designated space–digital or real–and a message to be conveyed. That will not go away, and in my humble opinion, it is necessary for life. So, if man cannot live by bread alone, then the arts are more than just subsisting, they are how communities and cultures thrive, and because of that, theater will not go away. It just changes, and we as artists can change with it, or resist it. I highly recommend not resisting it, you gotta go with it.
Reyn: I mean as a fellow student, again, who’s developing my artistry, that is a question that I find myself and other fellow students asking- beyond just the status of entertainment and art, how does theater serve at a greater societal level? Also, to your point about the presentation and holding of stories, keeping them alive, and finding ways to store them for future audiences, that is something I think about.
If you had any lasting advice for a student in my position or for students here at Skidmore, what would it be?
Diego: It would be that, as a theater artist, my experience has shown me that the arc of your career is longer than you think and that while at one moment of your life, you might think of yourself as one type of artist, it’s important to listen to yourself as you grow and change as a human being. You also need to listen to the universe as opportunities come your way, and you become the artist you’re meant to become. So, all you can do is think about the types of shows you would work on and the types of shows you would NOT work on, and then those that you will work on, work on them; that may lead you to an entirely different genre, entirely different geographical space, entirely different people, and you need to go with it. You need to go with it. Sometimes you need to have a vision to stick to because it’s what you really want. Still, sometimes you need to just listen to the universe and allow for the artistic opportunities to come and not dismiss these opportunities simply because they don’t look like what you thought they were gonna look like when you were 21 years old. If an opportunity comes and that’s the opportunity that there is and you can do it, go and do it. You may hate it, never do it again, you may love it, but you continue and see what other opportunities come your way. So, don’t limit yourself. If it’s cool, fun, interesting, and within your ethics, do it. Understand your finances so you can keep making work, and as you make work, you will see that you gravitate towards certain types of shows or ways of making. Just keep doing that and you will lead a full artistic life.
Reyn Ricafort ’25 is the Editor-in-Chief of the Skidmore Theater Living Newsletter