Diné theater student to pursue acting in New York: 'I can’t imagine myself doing anything else'


Actor stands in a white shirt with a black shirt over, hands clasped

Ian King in "the living'life of the daughter mira." Photo by Tim Trumble

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Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

From a young age, Ian King found friendship and community in theater. This spring, he is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in theatre with a concentration in acting from the School of Music, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University.

This fall, King will be living in New York City to pursue an MFA in acting at Pace University. 

“That’s going to give me more full-time training and more industry experience in the theater center of the United States,” King said. “It’s going to give me opportunities to grow as an artist and to grow and mature. There is so much I need to learn and so many experiences I need to have to feel like I’m making a difference.”

A Diné student, King comes from a small Navajo Nation community in New Mexico. King grew up in Mesa, Arizona, where he worked with and was mentored by theater director Matthew Erickson at Red Mountain High School. King said Erickson helped him realize he wanted to pursue a career in theatre. 

“I decided that not a lot of my family or my people have that kind of opportunity,” King said. “Now I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”

King participated in several shows at ASU, including “the living’life of the daughter mira” and “Anthropocene.” He has also contributed to theater labs and appeared in films produced by First Nation students at The Sidney Poitier New American Film School. Additionally, King has taken part in the development of new Indigenous works, including "The Neverland" by Madeline Sayet and "Olivia" by Claude Jackson Jr.

“Ian's journey as a Diné artist is a testament to his unwavering passion, talent and resilience,” said Micha Espinosa, professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre and affiliate faculty in The Sidney Poitier New American Film School. “His involvement in numerous ASU main stage productions demonstrates his versatility and skill as an actor. Moreover, Ian's collaboration with emerging First Nation creatives in theater and with First Nation students in film highlight his commitment to advancing cultural representation and social justice within the arts.”

King said it was meaningful to be asked for his perspective as a Native student while rehearsing for “Anthropocene.”

“That was the only time a show really asked about my background for something that could contribute to a bigger production,” King said. “That production was amazing. It really impacted people.”

During his time at ASU, King was a recipient of several scholarships, including the ASU Labriola scholarship, a scholarship through the Office of Navajo Nations, a Dean’s award, theater student awards and merit scholarships for GPA. Each semester, the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts recognizes students at convocation. King will be recognized for Excellence and Innovation in Creative Practice.

King said he’s grateful for the experiences he has had during his time at ASU. 

“It is my first step in my journey to be the artist I want to be,” he said. “I'd like to be the voice for those who don't have one — the voice that can bring change for the better for communities back on the reservation so that the youth can see me and say to themselves, ‘If that guy can do it, then so can I.’ It's a privilege to go to college with the opportunities that I have, so I want to make the most of it and give back when I can.”

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Question: Why did you choose ASU for your undergraduate degree?

Answer: My family is an ASU family. We grew up a Sun Devil family, watching football games. We had relatives stay with us who had gone to ASU. I thought, ‘If they were Native and going to ASU, how could I go anywhere else?’ My parents wanted me to stay close to home, so that helped. I don’t know if I could have gone too far away. I had opportunities to go to ASU’s Inspire. I got to see the campus, the theaters and the training. Last year I became a peer mentor. Now I’m trying to inspire other kids to go to ASU for that same reason.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: Seeing that I was the only Native American student in the theatre program was a teaching moment for sure. It was difficult to find a voice for myself. Things might seem tough to overcome. I had to learn to be a good representative, to be a good citizen, to work hard. Hard work was something I had to get used to. Speaking up for people who can’t and being a representative of my people is a huge responsibility. I had to learn how to advocate for myself as an artist. I wrote a play for my senior capstone based on how to navigate these two different worlds: the urban and the reservation. There were a lot of hardships being Native, finding your voice and finding a sense of belonging. I learned how to be independent as an artist and as a student, in and out of the classroom. 

Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lessons while at ASU?

A: First, Micha Espinosa. I had a class with her, then I worked with her on dialects for a show. Speech was something I had always struggled with. She took me under her wing, and she let me know that my identity as a Native student and as a First Nations actor is an asset. She took the responsibility of taking this gift and passion that I have and helping me apply it to real world industry. I flew to NYC and attended an audition but was rejected. I thought the world was going to end. But this is your life as an actor. You’re going to go through rejections over and over. I went to Chicago for another audition with the University Resident Theatre Association, looking at graduate programs, and I made a good impression. It gave me that sense of confidence that I have something to offer. I’m experiencing the reality of the industry. Professor Espinosa gave me the confidence to actively take risks and to put myself out there. I would have been too scared on my own. She taught me to be myself and to be proud of who I am.

Professor David Barker taught the Meisner course. It was the first in-depth acting class I had. He worked all semester to get me out of my head. Now I’m able to do this work at a higher level, to have confidence in this work and to trust the process. Give me a script and I’m going to go all the way to be authentic with it. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: You have to take risks. You have to do stuff that scares you. It may seem like people are against you. There’s no one that can keep you from it but yourself. If I hadn’t taken the risk to go outside Arizona, I wouldn’t have gotten into graduate school in NYC. The world isn’t against you; you’re in your own head. You’re the only one holding yourself back. A lot of people tried to tell me that I’m dreaming too big or that it’s unattainable. This industry is not easy at all. A lot of people go for it, and a lot of people have failed. But that's what makes it worthwhile. 

Q: If you could solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Besides the obvious climate change, world wars and politician strife — specific to my community and my dream, I would like to give back to my people. Give back my land to my people. Give programs for recovery. I would give all the resources they need to be comfortable: access to housing and healthcare to overcome the systematic limitations they’ve put on my people. It’s not easy how they live. Reservations have no running water. There’s not a lot of funding. Alcoholism. There’s a lot of damage to my community. Though I didn’t grow up in hardship, my mom came to the city to work every day for me to have food and shelter. I would like to give back what was lost to my people. That’s something I don’t know if I can ever get over. I’ll never see what the land was like before.

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