It might be a stretch to say College of Fine Arts Alumna of the Year Giovanna Sardelli’s career in theater was preordained. But as a Las Vegas native and daughter of well-known Strip entertainer Nelson Sardelli, she certainly was predisposed to the industry. And since departing UNLV with her undergraduate degree in theatre arts in 1987, Sardelli has built quite a name for herself in acting and directing circles on both coasts.
Although she’s directed plays in regional theaters across the country, Sardelli has spent the majority of her career working extensively in New York and California. Her impressive résumé includes being named director of new works at TheatreWorks in Silicon Valley, which recently won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. Her honors also include a pair of prestigious awards for her directing skills: In 2008, she won the Joe A. Callaway Award for her direction of the play Animals Out of Paper with the Second Stage Theater in New York; and in 2016, she and her team won the LA Stage Alliance Ovation Award for Best Production of a Play for the Geffen Playhouse production of Guards at the Taj.
After finishing her studies at UNLV, Sardelli headed east to earn a master of fine arts from the prestigious graduate acting program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. A decade later, after an acting career that included a stint as Nurse Claire on the soap opera Another World, she returned to the grad acting program, graduating from its directors lab. That was followed by more than a decade spent as a guest artist faculty member at the Tisch School for the Arts in the dance department and in the graduate acting program.
On the way to earning a reputation as a powerhouse female director in what has traditionally been a male-dominated field, Sardelli frequently selects works that showcase our world’s diversity. She often produces and directs world premieres of new works that push the theater industry’s proverbial envelope. She’s also a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women.
What moment or experience during your time at UNLV had the most profound impact on your life and career?
In the early 1980s, several UNLV students who were Las Vegas natives started the student ambassador program. By the time I arrived as a first-generation college student, then-UNLV President Robert Maxson had embraced the student ambassador program, which had grown to include representatives from each individual college on campus. I became the Arts College representative, and we would meet regularly with Maxson and talk about what was happening in our schools, we’d do student-outreach drives, etc. Being involved in that program allowed me to get to know students from all the different colleges whom I otherwise never would’ve met.
What was also extraordinary about that program is that early in my junior year, I was having a very difficult time in school — so much so that I almost quit going to class. Well, to get selected as a student ambassador, applicants had to list their goals, both for college and beyond. My goals included pursuing a career in theater outside of Las Vegas, because at that time, there weren’t any realistic professional theater opportunities in Las Vegas. So when Maxson learned I was having academic issues, he called me into his office, sat me down, read my goals back to me, and said, “Whatever is happening right now is not more important than your dreams and your goals. So let’s talk about what’s happening, let’s talk about how I can help you, and then let’s get you back on track.”
To have anyone do that would be remarkable, but to have the president of a university notice you enough and care enough to do what he did, it was astounding and life-altering. Because I realized he was right: My dreams were bigger than this moment, and this moment would not undo me. That’s when I got highly motivated academically, made up all the work I’d missed, and became aware that I probably would need to extend my education beyond UNLV if I wanted to achieve my career objectives. And that’s what led me to NYU.
Without Maxson’s intervention during that lovely half-hour meeting — without him basically telling me to get my act together — I wonder if I would’ve become the first college graduate in my family. I also wonder how different my life would look today.