Zilia C. Balkansky-Sellés has been an important part of our theater for years. She’s written, acted in, and composed music for several MCCT productions. She’s also co-directed a play. This time around, she is stepping into the shoes of Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest In a Pandemic; an online adaptation of the Oscar Wilde classic.
For more details about ‘Earnest’ and to get tickets, please visit – https://mcct.org/get-tickets-for-the-importance-of-being-earnest-in-a-pandemic/
Read on to discover a little more about Zilia’s journey to the local stage…
How did you get into theater?
Zilia: I’ve been drawn to the theatre most of my life. I was in a scene from “The Wizard of Oz” in the fourth grade. I really loved doing that. While I did take some dance classes and competed in gymnastics, the next time I did anything with theatre was an acting class as an undergraduate student. After graduating with my English BA (with a lot of courses in environmental studies), I took acting workshops at the New School in New York City. Later, again, when I was in graduate school at Indiana University, I took several acting courses through the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
- Watch Zilia’s dance choreography as a witch in MCCT’s 2015 production of Macbeth – CLICK HERE!
When did you first want to be an actor or involved in theater?
Zilia: As I mentioned above, my experience in the fourth grade started a slow burn that has only grown throughout my life.
Was there a first acting experience that really made you love it and can you tell us about that?
Zilia: See above. I also started going to see a fair number of plays in New York City, where I went to high school and did my undergraduate studies. The more theatre I saw, the more I was drawn to the whole experience.
How long have you been acting/involved in theater?
Zilia: I started getting involved in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about twenty years ago, both co-writing a play with a children’s theatre company and beginning to read plays and act.
How did you get involved with MCCT?
Zilia: While I was going through my graduate program at Indiana University, and taking acting courses in the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance, I auditioned for a play with MCCT. My first role was as Katherine in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.
Why did you want to be involved in this production?
Zilia: I was invited to take the role of Miss Laetitia Prism after the person who initially was in the role was no longer available. I thought it would be fun.
Tell us a little about your character. How would you describe them?
Zilia: Miss Laetitia Prism is, in some ways, a deceptive character. She appears to be a little daft, self-important, and narrowly focused on societal niceties, but she has her own secret hopes, dreams, and passions.
How have you been preparing for your role?
Zilia: Some of my preparation has been in thinking about who someone like Miss Prism would have been in the early 20th Century in her time and place and thinking about the options available to her, as well as the restrictions on her due to her social class and standing. I’ve also worked to think about what we learn about the character in the arc of the story of the play. There’s more to Miss Prism than meets the eye or casual observer.
Do you see yourself in your character at all? How do you go about understanding their point of view?
Zilia: We all play our roles in society, in our daily jobs, in our lives, and in our own social setting. It would be easy to make a caricature of Miss Prism, but that would be a lost opportunity for the character, the story, and for myself. No matter how constrained someone else, no matter how structured the society in which they live, the possibility of freedom of expression exists in each moment. That is part of how I am thinking about Miss Prism. In that way, of course, I can see the connections between her and her world and me in my much “bigger” world. All of this has to do with the point of view. From her point of view, I see Miss Prism as doing what she has to do to survive.
In the age of covid and social distancing, what has been the hardest part of this production and doing theater, in general?
Zilia: Being part of this production, and doing theatre in general, during these interesting times have been a gift, a solace, and a space for possibility, creativity, and expression. This experience has made things easier for me, opening up creative breathing room.
What new things have you learned as a result?
Zilia: It has been good to think about Miss Prism and the world of the play, both the world that was in the original by Oscar Wilde and in this contemporary adaptation. No matter how ridiculous society’s rules and confines may be, we can look for ways to find a sense of ourselves in the world.
What has been the most rewarding?
Zilia: All of it has been rewarding. I do love working in collaboration with a group of motivated people to find our way to a creative expression that provides some sense of cohesiveness, truth, and fun.
Why do you think this story is relevant for today’s audiences? What do you hope the audience takes away from the show?
Zilia: The relevance of this story comes through some of my earlier answers. Even though the story of the play takes place in a very particular societal moment, with particular strictures and rules, we still live in a society with a lot of unspoken, as well as acknowledged, confines and guidelines. Making the creative connection between the apparently stilted confines of the past to the less apparent confines of the present can help us to see that we live by conditions that we may, or may not, be conscious of. Even with society’s conditioning and the roles we play in our daily lives, we can find ways to break free, to breathe a little more deeply, to find ways to connect with our own sense of core and authenticity.
Why should audiences come to this show?
Zilia: It’s a fun ride.
What are your top three dream roles?
Zilia: I’ve got a few dream roles: one of them is Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” After seeing Julie Taymor’s production on film, with Helen Mirren in the role of Prospero, it set a new hope and goal. There is another role which I am not suited to play vocally or in other ways, but I do love the role of the Pirate King in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” I may have to write a funny, athletic, crazy character for myself to match the Pirate King’s antics. I would love to play some kind of period piece adventurer, a woman surviving in a wilderness space.
What do you do when you’re not rehearsing and memorizing plays?
Zilia: As far as regards theatre, when I can afford it, I like to take acting classes, voice lessons, and dance lessons. I’ve only just gotten books out of the library about acting technique and approaches to creating roles. Aside from that I have a day job, am working on a few writing projects, and have other creative projects I would like to develop. In regards to my personal life, I work as an organizer of speaker events (Extracurricular Coordinator) and an academic advisor for students in the Hutton Honors College at Indiana University, Bloomington. I like my job quite a lot. It is only one part of my creativity and expression. I do other things as well, such as writing, acting, gardening, advocating for animals and the Earth. I love all sorts of animals everywhere. I appreciate the immediacy and presence of animals. They live, as far as we can tell, in the present moment. Currently, I share my home with one dog, a pitbull and beagle mix, seven cats, and one foster cat.
- Watch Zilia play and sing ‘O Mistress Mine’ in MCCT’s 2019 production of 12th Night – CLICK HERE!
What advice would you like to give for anyone looking to get involved in community theater, or for someone who wants to study acting professionally? Any words of wisdom?
Zilia: If you are drawn to it, just start. Don’t wait. Don’t make excuses to yourself. Why would you deprive yourself, or others, or your family, your community, your society, this world, of your aliveness, your creativity, the light turned on inside you. Every day provides another opportunity to be more awake, to connect with the world, to see ourselves and others more clearly, and to try to do something that moves our human and social experiment in a positive direction.
Here are a few more links to Zilia’s performances with MCCT…
- Zilia recently played King Henry V in MCCT’s 2020 production of Henry V. To watch her performance – CLICK HERE!
- Zilia also regularly lends her vocal talents to The MCCT Podcast. She recently performed Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas for our 5th Episode. Her reading starts at the 17:21 mark- To listen – CLICK HERE!
- She can also be heard in Volume Four of MCCT’s Oc-POE-ber Fest reading Hop-Frog. Her reading starts at the 6:35 mark – to listen – CLICK HERE!