Theater major junior Joshua Shabshis has led a life surrounded by fascinating live performance. Born and raised in Forest Hills, New York, Shabshis first started studying theater at City Lights Theater School when he was five years old.
Shabshis is currently directing a main stage production for the theater and dance department entitled “The Forced Marriage,” written by 17th century French playwright and actor Molière. Shabshis also directed Noah Haidle’s “Mr. Marmalade” as part of the department’s staged reading series and starred as Cal in Tina Howe’s “The Art of Dining,” directed by professor of theater and dance Randy Kapplan. Shabshis has a concentration in acting in his major.
Despite his immersion in the theatrical arts, Shabshis noted that he came out of his high school—Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts—fairly disillusioned by the teachers’ cynicism.
“Even though I’ve done theater my whole life, [LaGuardia High School] kind of turned me off due to the way the school was run,” Shabshis said. “They would basically tell you that you were going to fail and there was nothing that you could do.”
Instead of taking this discouraging attitude to heart, Shabshis used it as motivation to succeed in his passions and look at theater in a much more open and optimistic way.
“I think it’s so important to be on the same level as your actors. I believe theater is an ‘us’—a ‘we’ art form. Painting is an ‘I’ art form,” Shabshis said. “Theater is collaborative, from the designers to the dramaturges to the actors to the directors. Everyone involved is equally as important and I don’t think there is any hierarchy. I think it’s a communal experience.”
Apart from his formal education, Shabshis draws much of his influence in his directing and acting from his Russian heritage. Shabshis is a first generation American with his parents hailing from the Soviet Union and his first language being Russian.
“I was brought up in a traditional Soviet household—growing up with all my parents’ Russian friends hanging around the house, drinking a lot of vodka with clouds of cigarette smoke in the air,” Shabshis said. “I started learning English around the age of three.”
In addition to his uniquely Russian upbringing, Shabshis comes from a long line of relatives that were intimately involved in the Soviet world. Shabshis noted that his great grandmother was a ballerina for the Bolshoi Ballet and his great grandfather was part of the Soviet Writer’s Union, where former Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin censored much of his work for being too “cosmopolitan.” Shabshis’ great-great uncle was a successful Soviet theater set maker and costume designer and his great aunt was also involved with Soviet costume design. For Shabshis, theater is in his blood.
Shabshis’ Russian heritage not only plays a huge part in his life, but in his directing and acting. For “The Forced Marriage,” Shabshis explained that he is using an experimental and collaborative technique in his directing—something that comes from studying the world of Soviet directing.
Shabshis’ passion for theater can be seen in almost every aspect of his life. He currently works for the Genesee Sun, where he writes press releases focusing on art events in Livingston County. Shabshis will also be working as an intern this summer for the Bohemian National Hall, working with Czech and Slovak artists and studying their creative process.
When asked about his post college plans, Shabshis maintained the same kind of determination and humor that is so evident in his creative works. “I’ve half-joked to my friends about this: I really want to start my own theater company when I graduate and I’m making my friends sign five-year contracts to my theater company,” he said.