We had the good fortune of connecting with Ricky Abilez and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Ricky, what role has risk played in your life or career?
It can be terrifying to take risks, but I think pursuing a career in the arts demands it. There seems to be a common misconception that taking risks is the equivalent of making bold, earth-shattering choices that invite recognition. However, I feel that risks can be both big and small. It’s a major risk to step outside of your comfort zone at all. I was constantly hopping between jobs for 3 years while trying to pursue a career in acting. I worked as a maid, barista, personal assistant, tutor, educator, and party-performer before I was offered my first “big” gig. Every time I quit a job to attend an audition or perform in a 99-seat theatre contract, I was taking a risk. I recently released my first single on all music streaming platforms, which was a major personal risk, because I wasn’t sure how people would respond. I am enrolled as a full-time graduate student in the MPA program at CU Denver. That is also a big risk, because it’s a career shift and will pull focus away from my artistic endeavors. I think what helps guide me through it all is staying true to my purpose. I’ve always known that making a difference is my singular goal. Being true to that purpose has given me comfort when taking risks. I don’t believe risk-taking should function as a process for upward movement in an imaginary hierarchy. Risk-taking should be embraced as a self-identified discipline to make changes that will lead towards personal dreams and aspirations. We take risks to find joy in success, not to impress others. Taking a risk of any magnitude is impressive all on its own.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’ve always been guided by my desire to make a difference. I was the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree and the first undergraduate student to be hired as the coordinating producer of the annual actor’s showcase. I have my BFA in Theatre Arts with a concentration in acting from California State University, Fullerton. I’m extremely proud of my work as a student. It was not an easy program to undertake, but I learned to be diligent, fearless, and confident. When I graduated, I moved back home and worked as a barista. I wasn’t sure where to move, but I knew I needed to save money. I spent a year commuting to Los Angeles for auditions, crashing on friends’ couches when necessary. Eventually, I made the move myself. I struggled to make ends meet for a year and a half, but I made a ton of friends in the community and immersed myself in the arts. In 2017, I was cast in my first regional theatre production. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to find work fairly consistently. I’ve performed at South Coast Repertory, The Second City Hollywood, Rogue Artists Ensemble, MainStreet Theatre Company, and Coeurage Theatre Company; I’ve also been involved with several short films and pilots. I joined Actor’s Equity Association the following year and became SAG-eligible. More than half of my work has been in theatre for young audiences. It is one of the most fulfilling experiences to perform for and interact with children. My love for educational theatre is what moved me towards a teaching position. In 2018, I was hired as an elective advisor and inclusion assistant at Aveson Global Leadership Academy. I was an aide to students with an IEP (individualized education program), which included tutoring in argumentative, informative, and narrative writing. I worked closely with the high school English teacher to diversify the curriculum and I helped coordinate field trips. I also developed curriculum in using art for social justice, which led to additional teaching opportunities. Unfortunately, I was laid off as a result of budget cuts, but those kids changed my life, ultimately revealing to me a new path. I continued to work in regional theatre for the next two years, supplementing my income with work as a personal assistant to a wonderful interior designer named Fred Iberri. I worked with him on several projects, assisting with research, data entry, and design, but our most rewarding project was the annual Canine Companions for Independence auction. It was extremely challenging, but working for Fred helped me strengthen my organization and communication skills. While working as a PA, I also hopped around as a maid to several families. I didn’t have a lot of time on my hands, and I began to realize that I was straying from my purpose. 2020 arrived, the pandemic turned the world upside down, and racial justice demanded the attention of communities across the nation. I was numb, helpless, and broken. Old wounds were torn open and I was scrambling to find some way to make a difference. Volunteering, donating, and posting on social media felt minuscule in the midst of a problem so vastly systemic. I started doing extensive research on the role of education in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Unsurprisingly, there seemed to be few efforts on the topic in American schools. I reflected on my experience as a student and teacher, and arrived at a conclusion: the education system is perpetuating problematic, racist tendencies by erasing the trauma and accomplishments of marginalized communities from American history, specifically Black communities. That wasn’t easy to admit, but I knew it was true. As a queer person of color, I’d experienced it first hand. However, it’s not only the education system, it’s American society as a whole. I knew the only way to fix it was to get more involved, so I did what I do best: I overcommitted myself. I started volunteering as a public speaking/advocacy coach at CSH (Corporation for Supportive Housing). Our goal is to empower the formerly unhoused, so that they may use their stories to influence policy and public opinion. I volunteered for letter campaigns, phone/text banks, transcribing, etc. during the 2020 election and I started writing to local school boards about DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) in high school curriculum. I donated and volunteered as frequently as possible for racial justice organizations, buying every book I could afford. In my quest for knowledge, I discovered a magnificent book called The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual v. The United States of America written by Dr. Eric Cervini, an LGBTQ+ historian. I was astonished by the number of historical events I was oblivious to as a gay man. I reached out to offer aid, and he hired me as an executive assistant. I handle his scheduling, help him conduct research, draft correspondence, assist with social media management, and audio/video editing. Working for Eric has been one of the most illuminating and enthralling experiences of my life. While working/volunteering, I taught remote master classes in using art for social justice at Brooklyn High School for the Arts and Grissom High School in Huntsville, Alabama. The students were magnificent, eager to engage with sensitive topics, while remaining respectful towards varying opinions. I’m 100% confident that I learned more from them than they learned from me. At the tail end of my teaching, I released my first single. I’ve been singing for 13 years, so it was a major step for me as an artist. It’s called “Purpose,” and you can find it on all music streaming platforms. I wrote it as a call to action, incorporating every thought and discovery from the previous year. Yet, even in the midst of ALL THAT, it still didn’t feel like enough. I started to look into graduate school, which was never on my radar prior to 2020, but, somehow, it felt right. I started applying to MPA programs, hoping for the best and expecting the worst. I’m currently enrolled as a full-time graduate student at The University of Colorado, Denver – pursuing an MPA in Education Policy and Public Policy Analysis. I couldn’t be happier with my decision. I feel like I’m making a difference every day. I’m the student co-lead of curriculum on our university’s equity task force, I’m working on two certifications in leadership and sustainability, and I’m currently discussing research opportunities with university staff. I do miss the arts (every day), but it feels good to have a variety of passions that align with my purpose: making a difference. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that ups and downs are inevitable, but if you try to see your pursuit of the arts as a professional hobby, opportunities will arise when you least expect it. The goal should never be to revolve your life around acting. I like to say “we spend so much time revolving our lives around acting, we forget that acting revolves around life.” Go and LIVE. It’s okay to take breaks and then come back to it. It’s okay to question whether you want it or not. I resent the idea that an artist must suffer to find success. I resent the idea that struggling to afford rent is acceptable. I resent the idea that an artist should use their savings for a class, rather than an emergency. The industry convinces young artists that they have to jump through hoops of fire to get a one-line role in a Snapchat project. Most of the artists I know pave their own way. They juggle 1,000 different tasks, wear a wide variety of hats, and still find ways to be creative even when doors are being slammed in their face. They see those hoops, and they bring a bucket of water to put out the fire, then they walk around the hoops to find a different way in. That’s what I strive for, because it’s okay to challenge the status quo. It’s okay to walk your own path. In fact, it’s the only way I think we can truly find happiness. Embrace all the ups and downs, because they’re yours! No one else can be you, and that’s empowering.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I’d definitely take a visiting friend to Home in Los Feliz. It’s one of my favorite restaurants, especially for brunch. I love a good Bloody Mary. Then, I’d probably take them for a walk in Descanso Gardens. It’s peaceful and never over-crowded. I love a trip to The Getty, a drink at Tramp Stamp Granny’s, and a show at The Second City Hollywood, too. I’d have to include trips to the Old LA Zoo, Vroman’s, Illiad Bookstore, The Last Bookstore, Olvera Street, Grand Central Station, and The California African American Museum.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are so many people who have contributed to my success. Mark Ramont, Terron Brooks, and Madonna Young-Magee have been incredible mentors and friends. They’ve trained me in acting and singing, but I find their wisdom and guidance to be far more invaluable. They’ve each had a massive impact on my brand and they continue to be an essential part of my life. Everyone at South Coast Repertory. Joanne DeNaut and Stephanie Marick are angels on earth. Without their love, faith, and support, I would quite literally be without a healthcare plan. I was able to join Actor’s Equity Association, because of their trust in me as an artist. David Ivers, Paula Tomei, David Emmes, and Martin Benson also helped make my dreams a reality. SCR has become a home away from home, so I sincerely mean it when I say that EVERYONE there has helped me along the way. My family and friends. I have the strength to keep going, because of my zany family and friends. My mom is my hero. She reminds me on a daily basis that dreams are attainable and hard work pays off. My dad reminds me that a sense of humor and accountability are vital to a successful and joyous life. Both her and my dad are the embodiment of strength, honesty, and integrity. My sister has always inspired me to speak up in the face of adversity. She is a powerful leader with exceptional empathy, which I learned from her. My younger sibling, Soft, is the most bold, artistic, and fearless person I know. Not to mention, my step-parents and step-siblings have shown me that love can heal deep wounds and my grandparents (on both sides) consistently go out of their way to share pearls of wisdom and make sure we’re supported. My friends are no exception. They continuously lift me up when I grow weak. I dedicate this shoutout to each and every one of these people. I am nothing without them.
Presley Cobble, Cookie Walukas, Debora Robinson, Tania Thompson, South Coast Repertory, Avinas Images