BY CARY GINELL
Siena Avila is like many other 16-year-old high schoolers you know. Cheerful, friendly, enthusiastic, and just a little bit shy. But Siena has one thing that most kids her age don’t have, an amazing singing ability and a natural instinct for performing everything from light opera to musical theater. We first saw her perform in the Ventura County Gilbert and Sullivan Repertoire Company’s recent production of The Sorcerer this past summer. Shepherded to VCGSRC producers Rebecca and John Pillsbury, Avila has made an immediate impact on the Ventura County theater scene, most recently being double-cast with Mary Zastrow in the Thousand Oaks Repertory Company production of A Christmas Carol. We sat down with Siena last week to get to know her and find out where she’s been and where she’s going.
VCOS: First of all, where are you from?
SIENA: Here, actually. I was born at Kaiser in Woodland Hills.
VCOS: And do you live in the Valley now?
SIENA: Yes, but I just came out and started doing theater here this year.
VCOS: What or who brought you out here?
SIENA: Well, I left my theater department at school and found The Wizard of Oz at Conejo Players. So my mom told me I should audition. So I did and I was placed in the ensemble in the Ballet. I had a lot of fun and met a lot of great people who pointed me in different directions and introduced me to directors and dangled me in front of peoples’ faces until they noticed me. So I’m kind of jumping around right now.
VCOS: So The Wizard of Oz was your first show here. And Sorcerer was second?
SIENA: Yes. And Christmas Carol is my third.
VCOS: How did the Pillsburys find you and were you aware of who Gilbert and Sullivan were?
SIENA: I didn’t. I had no idea what Gilbert and Sullivan was, but then I met a friend of mine who played the Lion in The Wizard of Oz, David Colville – I love David Colville, by the way.
VCOS: Everybody loves David Colville.
SIENA: I KNOW! He’s wonderful! I always call him my stage mom. He tells me, “I’m your agent, I’m your manager, I’m your stage mom,” and I just go, “OK, David, I love you.” So anyway, he has done a lot of productions with Rebecca, who is the director there, and he lent me one of his DVDs from Gilbert and Sullivan, The Grand Duke. So I watched it and I really, really liked it, so we started talking about it and he posted on Facebook a video of me singing “Vanilla Ice Cream” from the musical She Loves Me. And Rebecca saw it and said, “Oh, you need to audition for us.” Well, that was this past summer. So I auditioned and I got into their concert series – I was in Boston when I got an email with the cast list, and it said, “You’ve been cast!” So I thought, “OK, cool!” So that’s how I got involved in that.
VCOS: Do you consider yourself knowledgeable about musical theater?
SIENA: I think so, but I have a lot to learn.
VCOS: I’m really curious about what your first impressions were of Gilbert and Sullivan when you first heard their works. These are shows that are well over 100 years old, so what did you think about them when you heard them?
SIENA: I think their music is really beautiful. I like that it’s not overly dramatic, because people usually think opera is very dramatic and serious but operettas are lighter and funnier. The Sorcerer is one of their lesser-known plays and I think that when they wrote it, they didn’t think that people would be performing it for years and years and years afterward. I found a lot of plot holes in it and I’d point these out and ask, “Why is it like this?” and I just think they didn’t think it would be as well known as things like Pirates of Penzance or Iolanthe so they didn’t bother.
VCOS: Well, one of the things about Gilbert, who wrote the librettos for those shows, was that he put holes in those scripts deliberately – things that don’t make sense and are often just plain silly. And when you get to know their shows better, you’ll find methods to their madness, such as nearly every storyline ending with a profoundly preposterous premise that ties everything up neatly, despite being totally off-the-wall and outrageous. But those shows were the direct antecedents to modern American musical theater.
SIENA: I was so happy to do that show. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.
VCOS: Where do you go to school now?
SIENA: El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills. Next year I’ll be a senior, but I’m not going back. I’m taking the CHSPE [California High School Proficiency Examination] on March 18 which is kind of a “Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free” card for me (laughs) – Sorry, but I’m a little bitter about high school – and I’ll get to go to college early. It’s really, really expensive to go to New York, but that’s my plan – to go to college in New York. For four years, it comes out to roughly $300,000, which is way too expensive, so instead, I’m going to do two years here at community college and then transfer so I can get all the obligatory credits out of the way and then go and study in New York.
VCOS: Which community college are you going to go to?
SIENA: I think Pierce College. That’s the plan. My top choice afterward is Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and also NYU or Michigan.
VCOS: Has theater always been your primary goal?
SIENA: Yeah. I’ve never really thought about life without it.
VCOS: When did you start singing?
SIENA: I’ve been singing forever, since I was two. But I didn’t start studying until I was ten and continued until now. I stopped because my vocal coach moved to Texas. It started when my dad took me to see Phantom of the Opera. I must have been seven or eight at the time. It was at the Pantages and I remember just sitting there when the overture started, and to this day, I just start bawling when I hear the overture to Phantom. It’s so emotional for me because that was when I realized that I wanted to do this with my life. I want to be up there. I want to sing these songs. So that lit the flame.
VCOS: I know you’ve only done a couple of shows, but can you tell me the most memorable thing a member of the audience has said to you so far?
SIENA: OK, let me think about this…OK. I was double-cast with another girl for The Sorcerer. But the comment made to me wasn’t said when I was playing Constance; it was when I was in the ensemble. And somebody came up to me after the show and said, “You are SO watchable! You are hilarious!” And he just started going on and on about all these different little bits of business and motions that I was doing, like cleaning the windows or whatever. As it turned out, he was working with a friend of mine, Vivian Gibson, and he told her, “Vivian, you need to cast Siena in the next show that you’re doing,” so that was really cool. And I think that was one of the top comments I’ve ever gotten, even though I wasn’t playing the lead at the time. But to be recognized in the ensemble is really something.
VCOS: Are you a singer who acts or an actor who sings?
SIENA: I’m a singer who acts.
VCOS: OK, so how and where did the acting part start?
SIENA: I haven’t really trained. For the past six years, I’ve studied strictly voice, but I did children’s theater for four years with Golden Performing Arts Center in West Hills and kind of moved up through the ranks there and worked with a wonderful director who shaped my acting skills, and from there, I’ve learned more from people who I met here.
VCOS: You have two years between now and the time when you leave community college and get into a real acting school, hopefully at one of your dream schools. How are you going to make use of your time?
SIENA: Well, I want to keep auditioning but when I turn eighteen, I want to start auditioning for national tours and other things, but I definitely want to stay around here because Ventura County has been a real eye-opening experience for me and I’ve made a ton of connections. But I want to finish school, that’s my top priority. I don’t want to not have a college degree, so I do want to keep going to school. I want to keep auditioning and meeting different people and keep training. Plus, I need to find a new vocal coach because my old coach – I swear, she was my mentor and my best friend – there’s a special place in my heart for her, and when she moved, it was really, really hard for me. So ever since then, I haven’t studied with anybody, and I want to get back into that and also look for an acting school. So those are my next couple of steps.
VCOS: What is your ultimate “role goal” for musical theater?
SIENA: Christine in Phantom of the Opera. I would “Daaé” to play her!! Ha-ha!