All About Connections

Robert Encila's Da Vinci Players produce compelling theater featuring young actors

In a recent lunchtime chat about his work, the only word Robert Encila used more than "community" was some variant of "connection." It's even in the name of his arts-education organization: Studio Connections.

Consider his choice of namesake for Studio Connections' acting troupe, the Da Vinci Players: "Leonardo was the inspiration, because he worked in almost every artistic and scientific discipline in the Renaissance," he said. "The Da Vinci Players and Studio Connections are about integrating disciplines. We're making connections with artists in a lot of different fields."

Born and raised in the Philippines, Encila got an early start on stage, acting and singing in lead roles in Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, playing guitar in clubs, even touring with a dance troupe. He came to the United States in 1980, entered the UA in 1982 on a full scholarship, graduated four years later, and spent the 1990s teaching acting at the secondary and college levels, writing and recording songs and serving as lead singer for the Afro-Cuban dance band Ache Pa' Ti. More recently, he has acted in several Borderlands Theater productions and appeared in Arizona Theatre Company's The Pajama Game last season.

So he does just about everything except visual art; that, he leaves to his wife, Ginny, who runs Studio Connections with him.

Yet Studio Connections and the Da Vinci Players aren't about Robert Encila; they're about plunging kids and young adults into all the cool arts activities at which he and his wife are so adept.

"I think I'm creating a niche for younger people," he said. "As a teacher, I've always connected with teens and young adults. I love the work of the young actor. There's a lot of creative energy there that's untapped. I like the inquisitive nature of the young actor, and in some ways, I even love the clumsiness of the young actor. It's the sense of freshness and discovery that's so strong, if you can just tap into their resources."

Studio Connections began as a series of summer arts camps for teens in 2002. In 2004, the Encilas quit their full-time day jobs and turned it into a full-fledged fine-arts center, leasing space from a church way out on Old Spanish Trail.

The Da Vinci Players initially served as just an in-house theatrical class, but, said Encila, "These people were very committed and earnest, so we turned it into an acting company this year." This past spring, the group mounted an exceptionally strong production of the three-actor musical tick, tick ... Boom! by Jonathan Larson, who would go on to write the tremendously popular Rent. It was no kiddie show; the cast consisted of professional-caliber college-age performers and a script about adult issues. "I wanted to do something challenging that was by and for young people," Encila said. "They really bought into the material, and they were involved in everything from a technical and artistic aspect. That's the kind of community I'm trying to inspire, where everyone thinks like an artist, whether they're acting or running lights or building sets, and everyone has a say.

"It's an atmosphere where young artists can challenge each other, and challenge me. It makes a strong company."

This weekend, the group will open its run of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, a 1960s comedy about a young married couple. It's certainly not as hip as Larson's work, yet it's something that Encila insists "remains relevant enough in terms of themes and production elements for young people to deal with, and it also appeals to generations other than theirs. Right now, we need to do a show that reaches a broader audience."

That's partly because the outfit is new and has yet to develop much of a reputation, and partly because its home is on the far eastside, in a suburban neighborhood where the saguaros outnumber the desperate housewives. "It's a challenge to get the audiences that are used to downtown and central theaters," Encila admitted. "But it's a big plus to be here to serve the eastside."

On the first Friday of every month (when there's no theatrical production in progress), Studio Connections turns into a coffeehouse with either an open jam or featured professional artists donating their time to raise money for the program. "It's a safe, drug-free environment for my students and me to celebrate music," Encila said. It's also a chance for Encila himself to tune up in preparation for gigs he has this fall in New York City.

Encila has other responsibilities, including serving as a church choir director, but his main focus is Studio Connections.

"The challenge for me is maintaining the quality and the intensity," he said. "I want to empower these young people to take on leadership roles, and create a community where we can achieve excellence without sacrificing humanity."

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