UIC head of theatre and actor Yasen Peyankov: ‘Teaching makes me a better actor and director’

Yasen Peyankov
Yasen Peyankov (Photo: Brian McConkey)

After spending the last six years focusing on directing plays for the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Theatre and Music, as well as for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Yasen Peyankov is making a return to the stage this year.

While audience members may have missed seeing Peyankov on stage, the UIC associate professor and head of theatre has been anything but absent. He is currently appearing in “Captive State,” a major film release that shot a few scenes on the UIC campus and has a recurring role on the CBS hit television show “Madam Secretary.”

Earlier this year, he had a major role in the Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a well-received sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s play, “A Doll House.” Peyankov now is set to return to the stage for the Chicago premiere of “The Children.” Previews will begin April 18 and the play will officially open April 29 and will run until June 9 at Steppenwolf.

The play, which features only three characters, is especially timely because it centers on climate change and energy issues and asks the question, “What kind of world will be left for future generations?” says Peyankov.

“It’s absolutely a good time for this play now, it’s totally about our responsibility to this earth and the future of humanity,” Peyankov said. “The choices we make now affect the people who come after us because politicians just think in election cycles so they don’t do what’s right, they do what’s politically convenient for them.”

Peyankov, who has been at UIC since 2000 and assumed the role of head of theatre in 2007, began his acting career nearly 30 years ago in his native Bulgaria, where he graduated from the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia. He arrived in the United States in 1990 and very quickly became a member of Chicago’s thriving small theater scene. In 1992, he co-founded the European Repertory Company, where for the next 10 years he produced, directed or acted in over 20 productions.

Yasen Peyankov
Left to Right, Janet Ulrich Brooks and Yasen Peyankov in rehearsal for Steppenwolf’s Chicago premier of “The Children.” (Photo: by Juli Del Prete)

Since 2002, he has been an
ensemble member at Steppenwolf, where he has appeared in 18 productions and directed six plays. He has received a Jeff Award for actor in a supporting role, and “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which he directed in 2016, was nominated for a Jeff Award for best production. He also translated and directed the Bulgarian premiere of “August: Osage County” at the National Theatre in Sofia in 2011.

Even with his experience, Peyankov wants to make sure that he is as prepared for his return to the stage as he can be.

“Fear is a very good motivator,” he said. “I haven’t been back on stage for at least six years because I’ve been directing a lot at Steppenwolf and going back on the stage was a bit terrifying with such a long layover.”

Preparation is something he stresses to his students at UIC. Because English is his third language, Peyankov said he must make sure he has his lines memorized quickly — it can be particularly stressful to improvise in a non-native language as he must ensure that what he is saying captures the proper nuance.

In the sci-fi thriller “Captive State,” which stars John Goodman and was shot entirely in Chicago, Peyankov plays a minor but “pivotal” role as a computer hacker. Since 2016, he has appeared as the Russian Foreign Minister on “Madam Secretary,” and in 2017 he appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and alongside the French actor Gerard Depardieu in “Ivan the Terrible.” This summer he will also be seen in a cameo appearance in the first episode of season three of the Netflix hit series, “Stranger Things.”

Yasen Peyankov
Yasen Peyankov and Ora Jones in rehearsal for Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere of “The Children.” (Photo: by Juli Del Prete)

This experience as a working actor and director is something he continually draws upon to teach his UIC students about the hard work needed to be successful in their chosen field. He said that he doesn’t sugarcoat how competitive and demanding being an actor is and how people have to develop an extraordinarily thick skin to be able to face constant rejection.

Peyankov also doesn’t take his position as a role model lightly and understands that he has the career that many can also aspire to have. He uses his connections in the film, television and theater worlds to enhance his classes. He invites artists and colleagues to his classes and even runs a yearly senior-level class that focuses on the audition process and invites the “who’s who” of the film, television and theater worlds to sit in. In addition, students are invited to rehearsals of his plays to observe the process.

Working at UIC as head of theatre has been a dream come true, he said, because it allows him to expose the students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, to things that may help them achieve their dreams. He said he “loves the energy” that the students bring and he loves the energy that the school derives from being “an urban institution right smack in the middle of Chicago.”

“Them seeing my work is also hopefully another learning moment for them of what they should aspire to be doing,” Peyankov said. “I always say that me being on the stage acting or directing makes me a better teacher, and vice-versa, me teaching the students makes me a better actor and director.”

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