Brenda (Arrieta) Killian (1977-2009): Actor, Director and Playwright Leaves Legacy of Community
Theatre arts alumna Brenda (Arrieta) Killian (Class of ‘01, B.A., theatre arts/history) lost a nearly year-long battle with breast cancer on March 6 near her home in Portland, Ore. The 31-year-old Southern California native was pregnant with her second child last year when she learned she had breast cancer. While undergoing four rounds of chemotherapy, she gave birth to a healthy daughter last September. She died one week after learning that the cancer, which seemed to have been successfully treated, had returned, spreading to her liver and spine.
“I just can’t accept that Brenda’s life is over,” says Bill Deluca, professor of theatre arts at California State University, Dominguez Hills. “There was too much creativity and dedication to her family, friends and theatre to be accomplished in 31 years. [After] dealing with being pregnant and going through chemotherapy last year, she really wanted to write about the community of people who were helping her. We were talking about doing a one-woman show that would allow her to perform and travel. It was amazing how the community up there responded to her situation. They were all cheering her on, it was heartening.”
“It’s so upsetting to us because she was totally family,” says Sydell Weiner, professor of theatre arts, who directed Killian in numerous productions on campus. “What she experienced in her 31 years- she got to go to college, she got to do what she loved, she got to be in [so many] plays. She got to study abroad. She got to have two children.”
Weiner recalls giving the department’s Playbox Award to Killian, who was less than a model student when she first began her studies in theatre arts at CSU Dominguez Hills - but ended up graduating cum laude with a double major.
“She was with us for five years, and did we see her grow in that time,” says Weiner. “By the time she was a senior, she was the leader. That’s what the pleasure of teaching here is about - when you see that kind of growth, when you see the kids mature and make a commitment [to their craft]. When we get the chance to bring them back [to campus]... we feel such pride. You give and your reward is to see them successful.”
In 2006, Killian returned to her alma mater to work with Deluca and multicultural playwright José Cruz González of Los Angeles’ Cornerstone Theater Company, in establishing community-based theatre that told the stories of the campus and the city of Carson. The first production of the Dominguez Bridge Theatre Company (DBTC), was titled, “A House Called Eden,” and was written by González. Based on interviews conducted by Killian and DBTC members with representatives of every ethnicity, age and circumstance in the city, the script chronicled the founding of the city of Carson and the opportunities that the new community provided to people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. Killian played Engracia Cota Dominguez, the wife of Californio statesman and rancher Manuel Dominguez, after whom CSU Dominguez Hills is named. Until moving to Portland last year, she served as the company’s artistic director.
“This was a whole new away of doing theater I owe to Brenda,” says Deluca. “The birth of Dominguez Bridge was very much inspired by her - looking at your own community and seeing that there was a story to be told there. Brenda helped me see it was worth making into larger projects.”
The following year, Killian co-wrote “The Little College on the Hill” with fellow alumna Naomi Buckley (Class of ’00, B.A., theatre arts), based on the history of CSU Dominguez Hills and the climate of social change that pervaded the university’s early years. The playwrights interviewed alumni from the last 40-plus years for their script, which was played by a cast of current and former students, faculty, staff and alumni.
“This play is inspired by many different voices from the past through to the present,” wrote Killian in the play’s program. “It is also a snapshot of different moments that helped make this university what it is today: What we found during our inquest were many instances of love, new families that were created and many friendships beginning. Dreams were fulfilled and new destinies realized. This university has a lot to be proud of... a diverse, small, welcoming, quirky, urban university that gives those an opportunity for a college education that may not have had the chance if this university did not exist. A university that I am very proud to say I graduated from.”
Killian worked as education coordinator for Cornerstone Theater Company after graduation. She often returned to CSU Dominguez Hills to direct productions including “The Vagina Monologues” and “What About Me?” Among the numerous plays she appeared in on campus, her favorite roles were in “The Crucible,” “Rumors,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Nunsense,” and “The House of Bernarda Alba.” She earned her master’s degree with merit in history from the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.
DBTC’s next production will open on April 17, a musical contemporary version interpretation of the 15th century morality play, “Everyman.” Deluca points out the poignancy and timeliness of the production.
“[The play] is very sad, because it’s all about death,” he notes. “You have to look back on your life to see if you have done good deeds. It’s a musical, but there is depth in what we’re here to do.”
Rex Heuschkel, professor of theatre arts, says that Killian was “one of those who wanted to learn everything,” bringing her caring spirit to her profession.
“She was one of those really upbeat people, uplifting as well as upbeat,” he recalls. “You always knew that she was sincere in what she was trying to do. It saddens me that she is no longer with us... and will not have her mark made any more than she already has. By the same token, I think her mark is on us, her mark on this program, her mark on the community.”
Killian is survived by her husband Larry; son Jack and daughter Abigail; her mother, Guadalupe Arrieta; sisters Maria Aragon and Sonia, Lillian and Laura Arrieta; and brothers Armando and Alex Arrieta. A memorial service was held at St. Mary's Cathedral in Portland.
The CSU Dominguez Hills Theatre Arts department will hold a memorial for Killian at 3 p.m. on April 25, in the Edison Studio Theatre on campus. A scholarship for theatre arts students is being established in her name. To make a contribution, contact Dr. Weiner at (310) 243-3534 or on email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Joanie Harmon
Photo above: Playwrights Brenda Killian (Class of '01) and Naomi Buckley (Class of '00) take rehearsal notes with Bill DeLuca,
professor of theatre arts and director of "The Little College on the Hill," for the Dominguez Bridge Theatre Company's 2007 production.
Photo by Roberto Vazquez