Orlando Pabotoy was a physics major at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., when a chance decision to blow off steam changed his life. “I was having a problem with calculus and I didn’t want to go home pissed off,” the Juilliard drama alum told The Journal, so he decided on a whim to audition for Euripides’ The Bacchae. “I thought it would be a good way to relieve stress.” He got the part, and that gave him the confidence to apply to a summer Shakespeare program through what’s now called the Shakespeare Theater Company. The artistic director was—and still is—Michael Kahn, who was also the director of the Juilliard Drama Division at the time. Kahn recommended that Pabotoy to apply to Juilliard, which he did, transferring from George Mason and graduating with Group 27 in 1998. He has been hooked on theater ever since.
This fall, Pabotoy, who also started the Artigiani Troupe with Alan Tudyk (Group 26) has returned to Juilliard to direct the third-year actors in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (December 11-15). It’s his fourth time returning to Juilliard to direct since graduating. “Understanding the students’ training, having gone through it myself and knowing when to push [is] great,” Pabotoy told The Journal in an interview between rehearsals recently. While the dynamics of the groups change from year to year, Pabotoy says the experience level is always about the same, so he can really understand where they’re coming from.
In working with students (in addition to his guest work at Juilliard, he is also on the faculty at N.Y.U.), Pabotoy’s goal is not just to direct them, but also to instill more confidence in them for whatever happens after graduation. “Oftentimes when artists come out of a program, there’s this sense of thinking defensively about the industry or the world. It’s like, ‘How do I fit in the world? How do I make my mark? Can I survive?’” He’s looking to change that mentality and expose the students to more potential opportunities.
Pabotoy runs with the idea of the artist as craftsman in both his teachings and in practice. Defining what he does takes a list: actor, director, developer, teacher. He’s also into martial arts and Argentine tango. He chooses and creates his projects simply based on how they move him and how he connects with them, and he clearly enjoys that freedom.
In one project he’s developing now, Pabotoy is both the performer and director: it’s a one-man reduction of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He’s set the entire piece in a bathroom during the Philippine Revolution, which began in 1896, and the setting is based on his past.
Born to a Philippine father and American mother, Pabotoy grew up in the province of Bohol. When he was 15, he saw Christopher Plummer do a speech from Julius Caesar. “I didn’t totally understand the language but it conjured up a lot of emotions, and I wondered why it hit me in such a strong way” he said. “So I picked up Julius Caesar and I went to the bathroom and recited the same speech.” Years later, he won a Fox Resident Actor Fellowship for Extraordinary Potential to develop the project with New York City’s Ma Yi Theater Company. He’ll meld Visayan (a Philippine language) words and songs into Shakespeare’s text and work with faculty member Richard Feldman to incorporate classical theatrical conventions, commedia dell’arte, and masks into the piece. (In 2007, Pabotoy co-founded the Clown School in Los Angeles, which is still running today, after becoming interesting in clowning at Juilliard. And, no, he doesn’t mean circus clown. The definition of a clown goes deeper than that, he said. “It means getting to a place where you are most vulnerable.”)
Just weeks after the announcement that he had won the fellowship, Pabotoy started working on the project—and then Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines and put his plans on hold. “It’s an interesting time because I’m investigating the relationship with theater to situations like this,” he said. “Does theater really matter in situations like this?”
He’s now spending a lot of time thinking about how to make it matter. After Caucasian Chalk Circle closes, Pabotoy plans to travel to his hometown, which was hard-hit by the typhoon, to aid in installing solar generators. He’ll also teach some classes, and is putting the problem-solving skills he uses as an actor to figure out the best ways to use his theater background to be of service.