Learning with intention

Erik Robles '22 on set at the Game Theatre

Erik Robles ’22, a philosophy major, on set at the Gamm Theatre

Photo credit: Nora Lewis

An entrepreneur since middle school—he ran a pop-up candy store out of his backpack—Erik Robles ’22 wasn’t looking for URI to provide him with a career path. He wanted to tackle life’s big questions.

“I know how to make money,” says the philosophy major and co-founder of Complex Ambition, a company that creates content about urban music. “I went to school to gain knowledge. Philosophy foregrounds the big questions. It’s asking the why; it’s asking the how. Without that, we are nothing.”

In his final semester Robles will do an independent study of ancient western philosophy with Douglass Reed, assistant professor of philosophy, as well as complete a 10-month fellowship for emerging artists of color at The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre in Warwick, Rhode Island. Robles, who is working on a theatre minor, is one of three fellows in the inaugural year of the program. The Gamm’s goal is to provide a real-world immersive experience and mentorship to its fellows. Robles’ goal is to become a stage and screen actor. Should you wonder what philosophy has to do with theatre, Robles argues they’re inseparable.

“An actor I was working with, Jonathan Higginbotham—he’s actually on Broadway right now in ‘Slave Play’—he was recently at The Gamm and he’d come down from doing a scene and we would talk at length about the intention of one line. That’s philosophy right there.”

Robles has appeared in The Gamm’s production of “A Lie Agreed Upon” and is assisting director Joe Wilson, Jr. in its current production of “An Octoroon.” Robles will return to the stage for The Gamm’s final show of the season: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

‘A magnetic quality’

Anthony Estrella ’93, Gamm artistic director and Robles’ senior acting instructor at URI, says his student makes a lasting impression. “He challenges himself and is not afraid—even with more experienced collaborators—to engage deeply and risk. He’s passionate, which also means he recognizes passion in others. That’s a magnetic and necessary quality to success in any endeavor. I’m proud to collaborate with him in any way, the classroom, the rehearsal hall, the stage; he seems to recognize already that they really are all one. That’s rare.”

“An actor I was working with, Jonathan Higginbotham—he‘s actually on Broadway right now in ‘Slave Play'—he was recently at The Gamm and he‘d come down from doing a scene and we would talk at length about the intention of one line. That‘s philosophy right there.”
Erik Robles ’22

Rachel Walshe ’01, associate professor of theatre, Gamm teaching artist and production dramaturg on “Octoroon” calls Robles “the kind of student that renews a teacher’s commitment to the institution of higher learning. He was never, even for a moment, in a classroom to do what was required to get a grade and simply move on,” she says. “He sought to identify the intrinsic value of every iota of his coursework.”

The Gamm experience, and the chance to observe professional actors, has been invaluable, Robles says. “These people really care about what they do. They do it with a sense of intentionality and such passion, such love. You just wanna work harder because they inspire you.”

‘A passion for inquiry’

One of the challenges for the inquisitive mind is paring down the interests. It’s a topic he and Cheryl Foster, a professor in the political science department, have spoken about at length.

“Erik has the kind of mind that springs fully into action at the interface of books and speech, literature and performance, ideas and feelings, silence and gesture,” Foster says. “Even in the most ordinary of moments, Erik grasps the sheer power of embodied communication where people and cultures collide.”

Douglass Reed ’04 recalls the moment Robles announced his intention to pursue a degree in philosophy. It was the fall of 2018 and Robles was taking Reed’s course PHL 110G: Love & Sex. Robles and Reed had a one-on-one meeting a few weeks into the semester. “Erik told me that he was planning on majoring in philosophy. I was overjoyed when he explained what it is he likes about philosophy. He expressed a genuine curiosity about the world and a passion for inquiry.

“I was even more impressed when I found out that he was an entrepreneur and had been running his own business for the past few years,” Reed continues. “Erik did not need a college degree for financial reasons; he was in school because he loves to learn.”

Robles has a message for students like himself. “Learning is gonna open you up. There are things you’ll come to learn and people you’ll meet who will change your perspective on the world.

“And that broadening of perspective is gonna make you realize that you can do so much more than you believed you could.”

—Marybeth Reilly-McGreen