If you’re pondering that idea, you’re engaged in philosophy, says actor and philosophy major Erik Robles ’22.
By Marybeth Reilly-McGreen
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 completed an independent study of ancient Western philosophy with Douglass Reed ’04, assistant professor of philosophy, and finished a 10-month fellowship for emerging artists of color at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre in Warwick, R.I. Robles, who earned a minor in theater, was 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 theater, Robles argues they’re inseparable.
“An actor I was working with, Jonathan Higginbotham, was actually on Broadway 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 appeared in the Gamm’s production of A Lie Agreed Upon and assisted director Joe Wilson Jr. in its production of An Octoroon. He returned to the stage for the Gamm’s final show of the 2021–2022 season, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A spirit of resilience
“The classroom, the rehearsal hall, the stage; he seems to recognize already that they really are all one. That’s rare.”
—Anthony Estrella ’93, URI acting instructor and artistic director, the Gamm Theatre
A Providence, R.I., native, Robles attended Classical High School where he played baseball. His dream of an athletic scholarship ended when he injured his pitching arm. It also put college further out of reach. Robles grew up in a working-class home, and asking his parents to help pay for college struck him as “exorbitantly expensive and indulgent,” he says. But mentors at Classical encouraged Robles’ ambitions and his talents in music, acting, philosophy, and writing.
Their faith in Robles paid off. “I was eventually accepted into the Talent Development program, and I knew I had to take advantage of it. I was essentially able to attend school for free,” Robles says.
Once at URI, Robles added to his network mentors who recognized his depth and drive. 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.”
Rachel Walshe ’01, associate professor of theater, 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 want to work harder because they inspire you.”
A passion for inquiry
One of the challenges for the inquisitive mind is paring down interests. It’s a topic he and Cheryl Foster, a philosophy professor based in URI’s 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.”
Reed 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, Philosophy 110G: Love and 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.”
Since graduating, Robles has acted with the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, playing Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing in Boston and the role of Mario in the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s production of Burning Patience. This fall, he returns to the Gamm, where he’ll appear in a production of Sweat, directed by Walshe.
Robles has a message for students like himself. “Learning will 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 going to make you realize that you can do so much more than you believed you could.” •