Graduation Profile: An accidental Jayhawk learns to shine behind the scenes

Four years ago Gabe Alaniz never would have agreed that a liberal arts degree at a large, research university would be the best place to study theatre. Now? This accidental Jayhawk wouldn’t change a thing.

First-generation college students face numerous challenges when arriving on a college campus. Alaniz, a senior from Overland Park, faced the usual challenges and more when he decided to go against everyone’s advice and major in the arts – a choice he has never once regretted.

Alaniz became a Jayhawk “by accident.” His plan was to attend a conservatory-style school somewhere other than Kansas to study theatre. In crept doubt, and Alaniz applied to KU to study broadcast journalism – which didn’t last long. He spent his first year at KU following his advisors’ guidance and taking classes across many disciplines to find his niche. A lot of self-discovery happened that year, but in the end he knew he belonged in theatre.

Studying theatre has been a journey, both intellectually and literally. Alaniz has explored his interests in theatre and has shifted from performance to production to administration. He also had the opportunity to travel with fellow students to perform in Greece, an experience he says validated his decision to pursue theatre. His next journey will take him to Colorado, where he’ll be a development intern for a repertory theatre that’s long been a creative pipeline for KU theatre students.

Gabriel Alaniz headshot
“I always wanted to be a performer, and weirdly enough I’ve shied away from that in my more recent years. But I always remember my roots in performance. They keep me grounded, and I can appreciate the artistry it takes to develop a character onstage and to commit to telling a story authentically too.”

Tell me about your major.

I am a theatre – culture and society major. The really cool thing about my degree is its malleability. I’ve been able to tailor it to my specific needs as an aspiring arts administrator and stage manager. I’ve been able to take courses that really look at the interdisciplinary work of theater, to actually branch out and look at some performance courses, as well as some technical aspects of the department and the field in general. I get a larger scope of the theatrical experience, which I have found really valuable.

How did you decide on your major? 

I came into KU undecided. There was a lot of uncertainty about whether or not pursuing a degree in the arts was a wise decision – not only for me, but for anyone really. So I came in undecided, wholeheartedly knowing that my passion lied in the arts, more specifically in theater. I’d been trying for years to talk myself out of that and really just push aside all of the peer pressure and familial pressure I was receiving to pursue a more lucrative passion. To be honest, you can’t turn a passion into money. You just can’t. You just have to roll with it and hope the money follows. It took quite a bit of time my freshman year to realize that.

When I did, I was initially pursuing stage management, which I still like to dabble in. But my trajectory has changed in the sense that I have gone from theater production to arts administration. I found two of the more “stable” fields within theater that I’m really passionate about that happen to lie on the managerial side. What’s really cool about it is there is an artistry to both sides which I’m really zoning in on in my undergraduate career. I come from a performance background, so it’s interesting to have been a performer and then transition to stage management where I had the reins on the show. I know that a lot of arts administrators have business backgrounds – I’m actually a business minor myself, so I totally value that – but because we’re in the creative sector I feel like I bring something to the table in that way because I do have this more holistic arts experience from my own production experience and from my own coursework as well.

Gabriel Alaniz in Greece
Gabriel Alaniz and 13 other students traveled to Katohi, Greece, with theatre professor Dennis Christilles. The group produced a bilingual production, in English and modern Greek, of Euripides’ “Electra.”

One of the most memorable and influential elements of your KU experience was studying abroad in Greece. Tell us more about it.

Oh man, that’s hard. We stayed in a little village, Katohi, which is part of the Oiniades province. There were 14 of us in total including our director, Dennis Christilles. While we were there, we took morning courses – Greek language, a mythology or literature course on Greek tragedy plays that sort of surrounded the story we were telling while we were there. We also took a Greek dance course which was more fun than I can explain. It was a phenomenal time. The real purpose for us going was to produce a bilingual production – English and modern Greek. And that particular year’s production was Euripides’ “Electra.” We all really struggled to put in words how much that experience meant to us. We actually had the opportunity to perform that production in an ancient Greek amphitheater while there. I can’t tell you how chilling it was to stand in the same space where our predecessors stood, where the people who originated the acts of theatrical storytelling stood themselves. It’s one of those moments where you really have the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, and you really try to live in the moment for all that it’s worth because you know there’s never going to be anything like it.

How did your studies in Greece affect or influence your studies once you returned?

The largest effect it’s had on me is it really validated my experience as a scholar in theatre. Before, I had everything in the world telling me that my decision to be a student within the School of the Arts, within the arts sector at all, was a mistake. I’ve always had people in my life telling me – even family members – that the arts are not a dependable source of income. You can make that argument all day, and I’m going to counter that argument with grounded research. Beyond that the School of the Arts students are some of the happiest students on campus, and I see that each and every day because we love our craft – we own our craft. I didn’t have that experience though until I went to Greece. The trip really validated my trajectory in theater, and that’s when I became really passionate about arts advocacy as well as research in the arts.

What are you plans after graduation?

Literally a week after I graduate, I’m heading out to Creede, Colorado, which is up in the mountains and will be a complete change for me. I will be serving as the development intern (with the Creede Repertory Theatre). Theatre is a very expensive art form, but what you’ll find is that theatre brings people together from all walks of life and people are very passionate about storytelling. It will be my job this summer to connect with various donors and potential donors within the Creede area.

“I’m most proud of…”

At this point in my life, I’m most proud to be the first person from my family to graduate college. I know that can be a cliché response from a first-generation student, but if you could live the life of a first-generation student, it is so hard to navigate this campus. For anyone it is, but being a first-generation student I cannot tell you how many struggles there are trying to understand how college works. There are just so many things in learning how to plant your feet on this campus and really make an impact that is larger than yourself … it is really hard to do when you have no source of knowledge or information. I’m not saying this to guilt anyone. Privilege is obviously unearned, unwanted and undeserved, but I’m saying this as a senior and reflecting on my experience. Here I am about to walk the stage, and I’m going to be the first in my family to do so. It’s going to be hard for me to be up there on that stage and give my speech knowing that my younger siblings are going to be in the audience. I want to inspire them to not take the same path as me, but inspire them to pursue higher education, and if not that, then to at least hold on to my resilience and pursue whatever it is that makes them happy. There has not been a single moment in my educational journey that I’ve ever said I’m unhappy doing what I’m doing. And that, for me, makes me so proud of my experience. I define my own success and in my own eyes, so long as I am happy doing whatever it is I do, I’m going to be okay.

The best advice I ever got:

My mentor in the Department of Theatre, Nicole Hodges Persley, taught me to never make excuses for myself. I don’t mean that in terms of trying to get out of something so you make excuses for yourself. I mean in terms of barring yourself from taking advantage of opportunities, talking yourself out of opportunities because you don’t believe that you’re worthy of whatever opportunity is in front of your face. I’ve made that mistake several times and regretted it. I’ve learned because of that advice that you really can never know the results of any application, any opportunity unless you apply – and more importantly believe in yourself.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I wanted to be a number of things, but as you can imagine they all fell into the performing arts. When I was younger, I thought I was the next Britney Spears. I was always singing and dancing while my mom was trying to cook, which was never welcome. I always wanted to be a performer, and weirdly enough I’ve shied away from that in my more recent years. But I always remember my roots in performance. They keep me grounded, and I can appreciate the artistry it takes to develop a character onstage and to commit to telling a story authentically too. When I was younger, I wanted to be a performer, and honestly I didn’t really care how. I was going to be a dancer, a singer, an actor – I wanted to do it all. I would be a triple threat if you wanted.