For Mirla Criste, the classroom is as comfortable to her as the stage. Growing up in a family of college professors, first in the Philippines where she was born and then New York and Massachusetts, Criste said she was singing before she could speak.
Even though she “was practically living at the theatre and dance building as an undergrad, I don’t think I really, truly knew I was going to go for it until the summer following graduation,” she said.
“I was working and performing at a summer job at a resort in Lake George, N.Y.,” she added. “I sat up in my bunk one morning, called my best friend and said, ‘Elaine, I’m moving to New York, wanna come?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ And so, we went.”
That theatre and dance building was at Oberlin College, where Criste earned a bachelor’s degree in theater before heading to New York where she landed lead and featured roles in more than 20 dramas, musicals, films and commercials before reaching what is considered the pinnacle by many actors—Broadway—with her 1991 debut in the original cast of Miss Saigon.
The experience was “the pinnacle of my professional musical theatre journey,” she said. “The 11-week rehearsal process was both daunting and inspiring. Between the political controversies and the number of celebrities who bought $100 seats and then showed up backstage, that first year was unreal.
“Broadway doesn’t define me however,” she also said. “I’m at least as much a dramatic actor who loves the small avant-garde theatre, among other genres, as I am a Broadway musical actor.”
After four-and-a-half years with Miss Saigon, Criste headed West for a master’s degree in drama from the University of California–Irvine. In 2004 after a number of visiting professorships, Criste received multiple offers including one from UGA, which she accepted.
“UGA offered the best combination of academic prestige, quality of life, nearby family, accessibility of professional opportunities and some of the best and brightest students I’ve had the pleasure to teach,” she said. “And the weather’s not bad, either!”
As the graduate stage movement professor for the drama and theatre department, Criste teaches physical skills for the stage, including contact improvisation, stage combat, mask, dance, animal essences and physical characterization.
“In layman’s terms, I teach actors how to move on stage, though of course the definition is a bit more complex than that,” Criste said.
She also teaches voice, speech and singing for the stage in addition to acting and movement on the undergraduate level.
Criste most recently starred as Ophelia in Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine at both UGA’s Cellar Theatre and at 7 Stages Theatre in Atlanta. Last year she directed Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories. She recently told a group of beginning acting students “that everyone should have one thing they know without a shadow of a doubt they can do without fail. For me that thing is acting.
“However, since beginning to direct on a larger scale professionally in the last several years, I’ve found myself really jazzed by the experience of directing—of being the one with the vision that guides a production from inception to realization,” she said. “Maybe I’m just a big control freak, but I almost always choose directing over acting these days.”