Pitt student takes the stage in professional production of ‘The Tempest’


Courtesy of Matt Polk | Pittsburgh Public Theater

Julia De Avilez Rocha (middle, far right), a senior English literature and theatre arts student, plays Ceres in a modern adaptation of “The Tempest.” She acts alongside Tamara Tunie (center) as Prospero, a woman in a contemporary Pittsburgh hospital fighting late-stage breast cancer.

By Victoria Pfefferle-Gillot, Senior Staff Writer

Not many students get the chance to follow their dreams while they are still in school, especially if it’s in the performing arts. However, Julia De Avilez Rocha, senior English literature and theatre arts student, got a start in pursuing this dream at Pittsburgh Public Theater with her role as Ceres in “The Tempest.”

I’ve always been involved [with acting] in some way since I was a kid,” Rocha said. “My brother did acting in high school and he was the president of the high school troupe at the time. I was around 6 or 7 years old and I would go to their Saturday workshops and hang out with everyone. I thought it was the coolest thing.”

Rocha enjoyed just playing and having fun as a kid, which she feels is important to keep in touch with.

“I think actually part of the journey is going back to the playful pretending and the fun of it,” she said. “I hope not a lot has changed.”

This adaptation of “The Tempest” — directed by Marya Sea Kaminski — is unique, as it features an all-female cast along with a recontextualized story. The play opens with Prospero (Tamara Tunie) as a woman in a contemporary Pittsburgh hospital fighting late-stage breast cancer. In Kaminski’s version of the play, Prospero suffers betrayal from her family abandoning her during her illness. In her feverish dreams, Prospero and the audience are transported from Pittsburgh to a magical island where the classic Shakespeare story unfolds.

Rocha described the audition process that got her in the show as random and extremely unlikely, where actors both in and outside of the Actor’s Equity Association, a labor union for theatrical performers, could audition.

“Marya Sea Kaminski, who’s the new artistic director at The Public, came in last April to get a scope of the actors in the area,” Rocha said. “So she had this master two- or three-day audition where equity actors could sign up, and non-equity actors such as myself could also sign up for a slot on the last day.”

Rocha went in at the last minute and performed two monologues for Kaminski, and that earned her a general workshop callback.

“From there, she kept calling me back for shows they were doing for the season and I booked ‘The Tempest.’ But she thought that I had graduated,” Rocha said with a laugh. “So I’ve been having to juggle things oddly.”

Against all odds, Rocha managed to work out rehearsing and being a student.

“I’m doing independent studies. The theatre department at Pitt is helping me out and I’m doing this show for credit,” Rocha said.

In addition, she is doing an advised research paper and working for the Pitt shows as a costume coordinator.

“But I’m only really a part-time student right now, otherwise that would be impossible since rehearsals are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. — basically the whole day,” Rocha said.

This schedule is tough, but the theatre arts department at Pitt — headed by department chair Annmarie Duggan — does attempt to be flexible with students with opportunities outside the classroom and help them with aligning the opportunities to their education.

“If you’re a theatre major, we are definitely gonna make sure you know how the industry works and how you can get involved and go toward making a living in the industry,” Duggan said.

Professional theater experience, like Rocha’s, whether it be during the year or through a summer program, is a great opportunity to get a foothold in the industry, Duggan explained.

“It is invaluable, really,” Duggan said. “When you think about it, Julia’s there working every day with experienced actresses, so of course we want to support that. And if there’s a way to make that happen without hurting her time toward her degree we will look at that.”

Rehearsals for “The Tempest” started on New Year’s Day — still winter break for students — but Rocha was not deterred.  

“It was literally so magical because it was the first thing that all of us were doing for that year, for 2019,” Rocha said. “It was such a pleasant start to the year. And everything Marya was talking about in terms of theater and having a whole cast that’s all female and the premise for the show was just so in line with everything I’m in line with, so it felt like this is where I’m supposed to be.”

Rocha’s castmate Janelle Velasquez, who plays the sprite Ariel, also enjoyed the all-female cast and the new take on the show.

“It’s a reimagining that is focused on something that I think all women have been hugely impacted by — breast cancer — whether it be firsthand or someone they might know,” Velasquez said.

She also admired Rocha’s youth and dedicated playfulness in her acting.

“Julia is such a bright light and a ball of energy. It is so fun to watch her play on stage, and you know, being in this industry for a while you forget how to play,” she said. “And [Julia] just goes for it and it’s so much fun to watch. She has so much energy and it’s very infectious.”

Velasquez said Rocha’s dedication to her craft as an actress can be seen on the daily, in rehearsals and during performances alike.

“I catch myself glancing at her throughout the play and she just has this face that is grinning,” Velasquez said. “You know that she is constantly thinking or listening to the play and having these responses, these very genuine real responses to the play, but as her character. She’s done all of her work. It’s so much fun to watch.”

Rocha and Velasquez will play in “The Tempest” at Pittsburgh Public Theater (O’Reilly Theater) through Feb. 24.