Clarence Gilyard: Actor and Educator Gives Students a Key to the Classics
When Clarence Gilyard (Class of '89, B.A., theatre arts) began working on his undergraduate degree at California State University, Dominguez Hills, he already had several television and film credits to his name, including parts in the series “CHiPS” and the movie “Top Gun.” However, the veteran actor felt that he needed the polish of a college degree after observing fellow students at The Lost Studios in Hollywood.
“While I was there, I realized that a lot of the students had already gone to undergraduate school,” says Gilyard. “I listened to this vocabulary that came out of Shakespeare, Chekov, Ibsen, Tolstoy and Gogol, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Harold Pinter - all of these writers that I had no idea of. I realized that was the thing that was going to make me sit still in school and get through undergraduate work.”
Gilyard, who is currently an associate professor of theatre arts at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has returned to CSU Dominguez Hills this spring to direct the current production of Chekov’s “Three Sisters.” He says the play explores a timeless story of the worth of human existence and that the production has provided students “the opportunity to work on one of the great plays by one of the great writers.”
“When Chekov, a doctor and a brilliant man, was writing [Three Sisters], he was dying and he knew it,” says Gilyard. “He was constantly confronted with his own existence... his fellow man, their behavior and how they deal with day-to-day life. At any given moment, [the play] celebrates life, questions it, and poses solutions to conflicts among people. The way people relate in the play underneath the dialogue shows they are trying to survive.”
Although the CSU Dominguez Hills production of “Three Sisters” takes place in Chekov’s original setting of 1901 Russia, Gilyard has worked with a multicultural cast of students and alumni to present a unique interpretation of the text while honoring traditional theatre. He says that classic training is within the reach of any aspiring actor, no matter where they come from.
“[Those in] academics are challenged by actors of ethnicity coming into classic conservatory training and knowing how to shape that actor’s instrument so that they can tell the great stories,” says Gilyard. “The original movie ‘Fame’ is an excellent example of people coming right from the streets but [experiencing] a training cadre that sees talent for what it is, pure talent. They can learn the classics if educators are attuned to nurturing that person for [who] they are.”
Gilyard has a number of projects in the works, including directing and starring in an American play called “Permanent Collection” for the National Theater of Albania, and shopping a script he has written with his brother, who is a producer. He is also in the planning stages of a collaboration with the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Having returned to college to get his MFA at the age of 50 from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Gilyard says that he was attracted to academia in much the same way he was drawn to acting.
“It’s how I’m built,” he says. “I think an artist is appreciative of all art. My [form of] expression was theatre. Now it’s [acting] and training actors to be important members of society. It’s about community and responsibility. There’s a difference when you have actors who can take responsibility for what comes out of [their] mouths, are beholden to the text, and are collaborative with the author and the other creative people who are trying to say something about a culture, about the world, about survival, existence, and values.
“It’s an ever-growing challenge to try and evolve into that kind of acting,” says Gilyard. “Teaching that evolution is what I want to leave as a legacy. It relates to how important theatre is to society – and how important the telling of all people’s stories is. By learning how to tell the great stories, actors tell their own stories, historically and now.”
- Joanie Harmon