Stars of Today and Tomorrow
College theatre festival draws large audience to Reno and to campus
Television actor Kunal Nayyar, who plays Raj on the CBS hit comedy “The Big Bang Theory,” addressed aspiring actors, directors and technicians on the last day of the Region 7 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival hosted by the University of Nevada, Reno, on Feb. 15-19.
Nayyar participated in the Region 7 Festival as a student of the University of Portland in 2003, where he was nominated for his role in the play, “The Rose Tattoo,” and invited to compete at the national festival in Washington, D.C., the same year. He won the Mark Twain Award for comic brilliance and a fellowship to the Sundance Theater Lab. He then earned his master’s degree in fine arts at Temple University in Philadelphia, and in 2007, he joined the cast of “The Big Bang Theory.”
“I owe so much of what has happened to me to the Kennedy Center Festival,” Nayyar said. “It propelled me to the position I’m in.”
Nayyar said his address was meant to add to the fun of spending five full days at a theatre festival in Reno.
“It was so much fun just being myself,” he said. “I just answered (students) questions honestly. The room was raucous and alive with the spirit and energy that is needed to be an actor.”
Nayyar urged students not to be afraid of their dreams, and told them with hard work and a positive attitude, anything can happen. He is living proof, he said.
“If you want to work in New York or Los Angeles, you have to be there,” he said. “What’s the worst that can happen? You always have home.”
In the future, Nayyar said he would like to produce or direct, and eventually open an acting school. But for now, he hopes to continue with “The Big Bang Theory,” one of the biggest comedies on television today.
“People say television comedy isn’t serious acting,” he said. “I sometimes wonder, ‘How the hell did I end up in this company of talent?’ These are real actors doing incredible work, and I am blessed to be in their presence.”
Patrick Laffoon, University of Nevada fine arts major and competitor in the regional Irene Ryan Scholarship auditions, said that Nayyar’s address really hit home for him.
“He’s got this experience where you can say, 'Hey, this is possible,’” he said. “What I learned from him is never stop working hard. There is no point where you hit easy street. Network and be nice to people, because you never know who you’ll meet.”
Laffoon said participating at the festival brought him the feeling of comfort knowing he was on the right track.
“Getting to watch the other actors, perform alongside them and see other shows, is an elevation of everything we’re doing,” he said. “In our department, we’ve been concerned because we have a small budget. But, what we saw is that we’re ahead of the curve on a lot of things.”
Rob Gander, faculty chair of the University’s Department of Speech Communication and Theatre, said the festival provided opportunities for networking, along with developing and honing skills.
“Students from our University are connecting to students from other schools, faculty got to know and understand each other,” he said. “It is so rare to have such an intersection between student, academia and professionals.”
Gander said the festival also elevated the University beyond local visibility to regional and national attention.
“We had national representatives from the highly prestigious John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,” he said. “We had students from a 10- to 12-state region coming to us, many from community colleges who now have the University of Nevada, Reno on their map.”
Another payoff to hosting the festival, Gander said, was the economic impact.
“We had more than 1,000 people for five and six days staying in hotels, eating meals and spending time and money here,” he said. “The festival was a financial reward for the City of Reno.”
University students and faculty from the School of the Arts provided technical expertise for lighting, audio and visual equipment for all festival performances and workshops. The festival included four full-stage play productions; a full day of 10-minute plays that were cast, rehearsed and performed during the festival; and nearly 60 workshops in design, lighting, acting, directing and many other aspects of theatre.
“We had nearly 100 percent participation from theatre students and faculty,” Gander said. “We were really pleased with the way our students took to everything – performances, workshops and events.”
Mike Fernbach, technical theatre design specialist in the School of the Arts, participated as a student in 1980, the last year the University hosted the festival. Fernbach said participating in the festival as a student gave him direction towards graduate school and a career in theatre. Back then, the festival was much smaller, he said.
“We have more to offer,” he said. “The campus has grown; we have more faculty and better facilities.”
Fernbach said that Reno’s destination status drew a large festival crowd, and that the ease of transportation from the airport to the host hotel and from there to campus, in addition to Reno’s many attractions such as skiing and gaming, made this year’s festival memorable to attendees.
"Kunal Nayyar said it best in his address," Fernbach said. He said, "You guys are lucky you get to come to Reno."