Douglas Wager, the associate dean of the theater department, sits in Tomlinson Theater on June 28. | HANNAH BURNS / THE TEMPLE NEWS
The first time Guillermo Alonso acted was during high school in El Paso, Texas. He and his then-girlfriend signed up for drama class to fill a gap in their schedules.
Alonso, a 2018 MFA Acting alumnus, signed with major Los Angeles-based talent agency Innovative Artists this spring with help from 2006 MFA alumnus Kunal Nayyar, who plays astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali on the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” The agency also represents Nayyar.
Nayyar and his wife Neha Kapur recently donated $300,000 to the university’s Department of Theater. The donation is one of the largest gifts to the department and one of many contributions Nayyar has made to Temple.
“I would not have been able to afford to go to grad school if it wasn’t for the generosity of others who had already given back to the school to enable me to have a scholarship,” Nayyar told the university in an interview. “If it wasn’t for that help I got, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
He added he hopes the donation helps students complete their degrees and pursue their dreams in the face of financial hardship.
The money will fund student travel to auditions, festivals and conferences. It will also support the student-run theater club Temple Theater’s Sidestage Season and scholarships for theater students.
The main scholarship will be an annual award of $10,000 to high-achieving theater students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Previously, Temple provided two of these scholarships each year, but will now award four because of Nayyar’s latest donation. Other scholarships include recruiting scholarships to incentivize prospective theater students to attend Temple and scholarships given out based on merit or financial need.
Nayyar’s donation also allocates $21,000 to support the MFA acting program’s professional industries showcase, which takes place at the end of each three-year cycle. A cohort of six students participate in each cycle.
The showcase allows students to demonstrate their skills to big-name casting agents and industry professionals in cities like New York and Los Angeles. Alonso’s showcase took place in March and led to him signing with Innovative Artists.
Alonso said he selected characters to play in his showcase that displayed his versatility while also challenging him.
“It was about finding characters I could connect to, but to me there’s always that level of risk,” he said. “Like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ Something that makes it feel exciting, that drives you.”
Alonso played Thomas Novachek, a misogynistic playwright from the play “Venus in Fur” by David Ives, and Angel Cruz, a man imprisoned for shooting a cult leader while defending his best friend from the play “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Nayyar also played Angel in his own Temple showcase in 2006, Alonso said.
This year’s showcase was the first since Nayyar’s. Douglas Wager, an associate dean of the theater department, said in the 12-year gap the department focused on recruiting mid-career professional actors and improving their abilities to teach at the college level.
The department switched back to the traditional post-undergraduate professional training model for Alonso’s cohort because the entertainment industry changed. The popularity of streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu created a burst of jobs in the industry.
“There’s just been such an explosion and an explosive demand for content that goes beyond the theater industry and beyond the feature film industry,” Wager said. “There’s this whole new industry of entertainment television that is providing thousands and thousands of opportunities for actors that weren’t there five or six years ago.”
The new platforms give even new professional actors ample opportunities for auditions. Alonso said he’s already auditioned for a Clint Eastwood movie and pilots for upcoming big-network shows that will run on Hulu and CBS.
“It’s really overwhelming to open Netflix and be like, ‘What am I going to watch now?’” he added. “[There are] dozens of options, but at the same time it’s more work, so that’s exciting.”
Wager said his favorite part of working with the acting cohort was seeing them grow through the program and helping them choose showcase material that made them shine.
“The fun of it is looking at them not as students anymore, but looking at them as talent prospects and sort of picturing them in the industry rather than responding to them critically as students,” he added.
In addition to giving a speech at the 2018 showcase in Los Angeles and bringing representatives from his casting agency, Nayyar hosted Alonso’s MFA acting cohort at his home.
Alonso said the experience demonstrated Nayyar’s generosity and made him realize Nayyar once was in the same spot as him.
“[Nayyar] kept saying, ‘I know I was lucky and that I was blessed, and I think about that every day,’” Alonso said. “To know he’s in a good place and able to give back is exciting. That’s exactly where I want to be someday hopefully.”