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Billings: The Explorer

Published: June 15, 2015

When Theatre Arts assistant professor Alexandra Billings walked to the podium to present the commencement address for CSULB’s College of the Arts graduation ceremony in late May, she was ready. She had written out her speech and printed it in large font, so she wouldn’t have to wear her glasses. She had rehearsed and tried to memorize as much of it as possible. This was an incredible opportunity, a “happy accident” she might say, and she wanted to be prepared. But things didn’t go quite as planned.

“I got up to the podium and I saw everyone and I began and something else happened,” said Billings, who is an award-winning theatre, film and television actor. “I can’t define it for you. But I can tell you that it was visceral and immediate and I knew that whatever it was I was going to retain from my written speech would be there, but I needed to let go and talk directly to the students. So I improvised.”

What resulted was emotional and inspiring, something more reminiscent of a gospel revival than a commencement address. Billings exhorted graduates to remember the family, friends and teachers who have filled their lives. To recall their stories and continue and add to them. She told them that it is great to have a plan for the future. To prepare it and study it. Then throw that plan away. It is time for students to tumble into their own voices, their own divine gifts, “to fall head first and heart open.”

Discovery and exploration are themes running through Billings’ life. Of her teaching, she stated, “More than anything I love to invent and create new ways into what art is, what it means and how we tell stories. I love artists and how we explore the re-invention of our artistic voice.”

She uses The Viewpoints to guide this love. Billings was trained in the practice by its creators Anne Bogart and Tina Landau. She has gone on to teach it at the famed Steppenwolf School in Chicago and the Steppenwolf School West in Los Angeles, as well as many other theatre schools and universities.

“It’s basically nine labels for things we do every day, gesture, shape … our topography. The way we move around the planet,” said Billings. “Everything I teach can be layered on top of the foundation of The Viewpoints.”

But she considers it less an acting methodology than a philosophical and practical way of moving through the world.

“Aside from re-invention, I love to explore ourselves, as artists, as people who aren’t just painters and actors and singers and dancers. How do we express our own artistic freedom? Where is the artistic center for construction workers and policemen and doctors and housewives and Mister Moms? The Viewpoints unlocks that in a really profound way.”

Discovery and exploration permeate other aspects of Billings’ life, as well. She began her transition from male to female when she was 20 years old. And at CSULB and elsewhere, she is an LGBTQ youth activist.

Alexandra Billings

“I like to fight with open hands and open arms, and I am diligent, I am thorough and I work from a place, hopefully, of great compassion. But I also carry around a lot of rage and fear.”

Her fear stems from the generation that was lost to the tragedy of AIDS and from the many LGBTQ kids who are now being introduced to the disease. And her rage comes from living through a time when so many of her friends died and from she, herself, being infected with the virus. Billings is clear that she is here to make sure that AIDS never again becomes the pervasive, devastating plague it once was.

But it is her compassion and, once again, her openness that shine through.

“[It] comes from a place of learning and wanting to be an eternal student of this generation and what they have concocted and birthed through these new gay and queer voices. It’s extraordinary the way they are changing the world. We laid the groundwork for them, this foundation they stand on. But this particular generation is fearless and extraordinary in their journeys.”

The question for Billings now is, “What’s next?” In a few weeks, she begins shooting her second season of the award-winning TV show “Transparent”, playing Davina, a trans mentor and confidant to the main character. And she will be back in the classroom at CSULB in the fall, welcoming a new group of “angels.” But beyond that, what does her future hold? Billings responds in characteristic fashion.

“Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? I really don’t know. I am fascinated to find that out myself. My life has been one happy accident after another. I am just standing here with my arms wide open, waiting for stuff. And in the waiting I find myself moving toward things that frighten me And when I do that, then I find my brand new teachers in that experience. So, I have no idea. I just keep going.”