James Nelson takes a dance class


Hahaha! I’ve had some pretty clever blog post titles, but that one just takes the cake! Me? In a dance class? Hahaha!

Look, I’m a bad dancer. I don’t say this in a shy, self-conscious way. No, no. What I mean is that I’m horrendously unskilled at moving my body elegantly, or coordinating what my hands and feet are doing in relation to one another. Especially when music is involved. Also, I find it about as much fun as juggling rabid starving badgers tied to sticks of dynamite (which now that I’ve typed it, sounds much more fun). I’ve had this scene play out many times in my life:

FRIEND: Hi, James. You should dance right now for some reason!

ME: Uh, no, you don’t want that to happen.

FRIEND: Whaaaaat!? C’mon, dance! Dance!

ME: No, please no. I’m a really bad dancer, and I don’t like dancing.

FRIEND: You can’t be that bad. C’mon, dance!

ME: I’m so unhappy. (dances for a second)

FORMER FRIEND: Oh god. Please, stop. That’s…. I have to go now. (leaves forever)

ME: (starts juggling rabid starving badgers tied to sticks of dynamite) Yup, this is indeed more fun than dancing.

Which is why when it was recommended that I take Styles Acting this semester because the course would heavily focus on period dance, I had to take a real hard look at my life and decide how much I was willing to put myself through for the sake of my education.

IU had the fortune of bringing in the wonderful Nira Pullin, who specializes in period movement and dance, to choreograph Dancing at Lughnasa and teach the first eight weeks of the Styles Acting course. All nine MFA actors were enrolled in the course… and so was I.

On the first day of the semester, Nira asked us all what he hoped to get out of the class. “I just don’t want to hold anybody else up,” I said sheepishly.

“Do you know which foot is your left? Your right?” she asked lightly. “Then you’ll be fine.”


Nira Pullin in rehearsal for Dancing at Lughnasa 

Well, Nira was lying through her teeth. She knew the Charleston would haunt my dreams and destroy my life, but I’ve forgiven her for it.

The course was a whirlwind, and in the eight weeks Nira began with medieval circle dances and worked her way all the way up to the 1920s. She would periodically lecture for a bit about important context for the relevant period, including history, rulers, manners, and social customs, talking a mile a minute while we furiously scribbled notes in our journals. Then, we would learn versions of the appropriate dances, practice them briefly, and sometimes take exams over the choreography.

The course was a series of surprises for me. The first was, dancing isn’t always hard. A lot of the footwork for the early dances was manageable even for me, and the steps and moves build on each other in a logical way. When we reached later dances, it seemed like we had adequately built up the skills to piece them together, and we started moving much more quickly later in the semester.

The second surprise was that learning period dances is helpful for a lot of theatrical reasons – the posture and footwork required for these dances was informative for any stage movement in a period play, and the bows, manners, and physical contact in the dances is all very informative. After several centuries of dances with only hand contact, the first time we worked on a dance that required a hold at the waist felt almost scandalous. Also, Nira was very helpful in showing us how we could directly plug her choreography into a show from the respective period, so it should be a rich well of material to draw from in the future.

The third surprise was that it was… fun. A little. Bouncing around to music straight from a renaissance festival while trying to keep a straight face kept me looking forward to class each day, and the chance to break the ice with the nine MFA actors by sharing this class with them was a real joy.

At the end of the eight weeks, we had a showcase of what we had learned, and it was actually quite impressive to see the ground we had covered: a dozen dances spanning from the dark ages to the jazz age, along with some commedia work and a couple demonstrations of period movement with text. We also had dense journals packed with choreography, research, and resources to revisit the work.

If every class in grad school can challenge me, excite me, and make me work as much as Nira’s class did, I’ll be a much different director leaving here than I am starting out.

But don’t hold out any hopes for my dancing career. My preference still leans toward the badgers.


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H-T Preview: Tony Award-winning play up next for IU Theater

By Joel Pierson, H-T Theater columnist


Brianna Milan as the prophesy dealing, voodoo doll wielding Cassandra.

Christopher Durang is one strange dude. The American playwright has penned some really off-the-wall comedies over the years, filled with absurdist notions and sensibilities.

Back in college, I had the pleasure of acting in two of them, “Titanic” and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.” The former was a highly irreverent retelling of the maritime disaster, while the latter poked fun at Catholic school. Fast forward a few years to 2013, and we find Durang’s latest comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” winning a Tony Award on Broadway for best play. This time around, he’s skewering the dramatic works of Anton Chekhov, with a very funny and crowd-pleasing script that’s been one of the top 10 most produced plays in the country for the past four years.

It tells the story of an aging movie star named Masha (portrayed by Abby Lee), who comes back to her childhood home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to visit her middle-aged brother Vanya (Tino Brokaw) and sister Sonia (Tara Chiusano), whom she supports financially. As if these quarters weren’t tight enough, Masha brings home her new eye-candy boyfriend Spike (Robert Toms). He’s a bit young for her (OK, half her age), and his biggest problem is being able to find his zipper fast enough.

As in any good absurdist play, complications ensue. We meet an attractive neighbor named Nina (Talia Santia), who has her eye on Spike. The siblings’ housekeeper Cassandra (Brianna Milan) keeps sharing prophecies of doom, while Masha threatens to sell the family house and leave her brother and sister homeless.

Despite the character names and the frequent references to Chekhov’s plays, the playwright swears up and down that this isn’t a Chekhov parody. It’s more of a loving tribute to the Russian author’s themes and character studies, almost as if Durang had put them in a blender. (His own description of the story.) But don’t fret — you don’t have to be a theater scholar to appreciate the humor. Anyone who’s ever experienced sibling rivalry will appreciate the themes and personalities depicted in this often-dark comedy.

Director Jonathan Michaelsen observed, “It’s funny and touching at the same time. Durang is a great playwright, and he’s able to combine his humor with characters that have hearts. They have a journey; they go through a clear arc. It’s a farce, but we also need to build characters that are honest.”

Yes, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” allows us to have a good laugh at the misfortunes of its characters, but Durang created them with compassion, respect and intelligence. Come for yourself and see why this award-winning comedy is fast becoming one of the most popular tickets in the country.

If You Go

WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance

WHAT: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21–22, 25–29, 2 p.m. Oct. 29

WHERE: Wells-Metz Theater, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington

TICKETS: $15-$25. Call 812-855-1103 or visit www.theatre.indiana.edu.

Contact Joel by sending an email to features@heraldt.com with “Pierson” in the subject line.

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times.

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Can I See Your Face?


One of the reasons I was compelled to come to IU was that the graduate theatre programs are such small cohorts, which allows for a lot of individualized attention and resources. We have only nine MFA actors, three MFA directors, and two MFA playwrights in the entire program at any given time! Starting this year with me is MFA playwriting candidate Aaron Ricciardi, who came to IU from New York City.

Aaron and I will have the chance to collaborate a handful of times in the next few years, but we’re getting a head start this semester: join us this Tuesday night, October 18th at 7:30 pm in the Studio Theatre for a staged reading of Aaron’s play Can I See Your Face?, which happens to be the work which Aaron submitted with his IU application.

In the meantime, why not chat with Aaron himself?


1st Year MFA Playwright Aaron Ricciardi

What is it about playwriting that you gravitate to more than performing?

Well, it’s not really more than performing, I still perform and haven’t stopped. For me, writing and performing feel like the same thing. They feel generative and creative. I’m really interested in people and in stories that I see in the world, and I like spending my time understanding those stories, and those people, whether I’m pretending to be them on the stage or I’m pretending to be them on paper through writing.

What brought you to IU?

I applied to a lot of places, but ultimately I came here because it’s a resource-rich program. I can have my work done on the main stage in a full production without having to self-produce (which is what you have to do in a lot of grad programs). I also liked that I’d be able to teach, and I wanted to be able to do that. The thing that really sealed the deal is that I really liked Peter Gil-Sheridan, who runs the playwriting program.

Who are some of your playwright influences?

 Paula Vogel, one hundred percent. I would also say Brecht. Who else… You know what, I think I feel strongly about certain plays rather than certain writers. When I say Brecht, I don’t mean Brecht, I mean The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, and when I say Paula Vogel, I mean The Long Christmas Ride Home and How I Learned to Drive and Indecent. I don’t know that much of Dan LeFranc’s work, but The Big Meal is one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen. I love Annie Baker’s work, but the thing for me that really does it is The Flick. And I’m a big musical theatre queen — there are so many musicals that I feel passionate about. There are two plays I directed in college that are still my favorites – The Cradle Will Rock by Mark Blitzstein, and Bonjour, la, Bonjour by Michel Tremblay… I like a lot of things!

 So word on the street is that we’re doing a reading of your awesome play Can I See Your Face on Tuesday evening. Can you tell me something about the play?

I started writing in when I was in college. It started as a ten-minute play. I was spending a lot of time going on gay chat rooms, I had a very active life on them, and I accrued a large list of men I would talk to. I was so interested in how so many people in those chat rooms would spend so much time talking about how they were straight, or assuring me of their straightness… which is such an odd thing to do when you were having a conversation in a gay chat room. I would talk to a lot of them via Skype but they wouldn’t have a camera, I wouldn’t be able to see them, and I spent so much time thinking, I don’t even know who these people are… they have lives outside of this intense relationship we’re developing. They would have these actual identities in their life that I didn’t know about. I also thought about how homosexuality is related to politics, and how people who live in different parts of the country, and how the chat room world could be a way to connect people who live totally different lives, who could then form this bond over the thing that connects them, which is being gay, and then could start a really intense relationship without knowing anything about each other with the ability to completely lie about their identities and who they are.

Why did you choose this play to apply to IU? What about it represented you the best?

 It showed that I could be both bold and conventional, that I had some grasp over roles, writing, story structure, but also that I had a unique voice, vision, and perspective.


Come check out Aaron’s work at 7:30pm on Tuesday, Oct 18th in the Studio Theatre!


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Cast List for The Duchess of Malfi

DUCHESS seems like it’s a ways off, but time flies!
Duchess of Malfi runs February 3 – 11, 2017, and we can’t wait to see what Katie Horwitz, director of last year’s Antigone, has in store for us this time!


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What do you Propose?


It’s off my chest! I’ve just handed over three play proposals to the play selection committee for consideration in the 2017-2018 season. Now all I can do is cross my fingers, hope for the best, and start racking my brains for alternatives in case my proposals don’t make the cut.

There are so many layers to the thought process of proposing a play to a theatre, and a massive part of the professional director’s game is knowing what material to suggest to which people at what time.

Here’s something that’s tough, but let’s come to terms with it: just because you love a play doesn’t mean that somebody else will. Even in a vacuum, there exists no single work of theatre that is universally loved. Also, many people don’t know every play that you would expect them to. We all have blind spots, even artistic directors, faculties of universities, and selection committees. So when you’re proposing a play, you can’t ever assume that the work will speak for itself. That’s your job – you have to speak for the work, why you believe in it, and why you think it has a home at the theatre you’re proposing it to.

So where do we begin?

Let’s say I want to propose a play to a producer (and I’m going to use that word generally to refer to an artistic director, selection committee, board of directors, etc. The person/people who make the programming decisions).

First, I have to consider my own needs: to propose a play, I have to love it enough to direct a production. Already, that eliminates a vast majority of all plays. I also need to be confident that the play is within my ability to direct successfully, and I need to know that the producer will have the minimum amount of resources I need to be successful.

Then, it’s time to get into the producer’s head and try to guess what they’re looking for in a proposal. This adds some further criteria. I’m looking for:

1. A play that fits within the general aesthetic of the producer’s programming.

This is what we’re usually referring to when we say a play is “a good fit” for a theatre, and it covers a huge range of things. Does the theatre produce classics, established contemporary plays, new plays, or a mix? Does the theatre produce political or socially relevant subject matter, or do they steer clear of it? Does the theatre think in genres (“We need one comedy, one mystery, two musicals…”) or do they have space for more complex types of work? A good way to check yourself is: can you really imagine the theatre producing the play you’re proposing, or do you just wish they would?

2. A play that the producer thinks their audience will buy tickets to.

You better believe that the marketing prospects of a show are playing a key role in season selection. It doesn’t matter if you think the show will sell, you’re probably not the one marketing it.  If the producer doesn’t believe they can successfully market your show and fill their seats, that proposal is pretty much dead in the water.

3. A play that will fit in with the other productions that the producer wants to program.

You really can’t control this one very much, because you probably don’t know what else the producer is seriously considering or has already decided will be part of their season. If the play that you’re proposing is too similar to the rest of the work, or not adding anything significant to the season, it probably won’t make the cut. What you can do to try to give your proposal a shot here is make sure that the play brings some sort of inherent value with it. Imagine the role this particular play would fill in a potential season – is it bringing enough to the table?

4. A play that the producer will think can be done with their resources (this may not coincide with your own assessment.)

If it’s clear from the script that your show requires particular costumes, a set, special effects, a large cast, musicians, or anything else that may raise budgetary red flags, it may eliminate that proposal. Even if you think you have a creative workaround for every technical issue, you may not have the chance to make your case. If the gut reaction of the producer is “no, we can’t do that,” then they won’t, in fact, do that.


Not pictured: The play you should have proposed instead of all of these.

5. A play with casting requirements that are realistic for the producer to meet.

Producers are usually very set in their range of how many actors they want (or can afford) in their productions. Make sure your casting needs are appropriate for the producer, because very few issues will disqualify a proposal as quickly as this. Some theatres won’t put a play onstage if it has more than three actors, others want a minimum of six. Some theatres care about gender parity, and won’t produce a play that doesn’t have as many women as men. Many theatres will be worried about producing a play with ethnically specific characters if they don’t have the casting pool to support it. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your material is good enough to justify difficult casting needs. I’d bet that most producers won’t even read the first page of the script if they can’t get past the cast list.

6. A play that doesn’t take risks that the producer isn’t willing to take.

Certain theatres don’t do certain things, plain and simple. What is the producer comfortable with as far as language, sexuality, and provocative subject matter?  The material that you are personally comfortable with is largely irrelevant when assessing the appropriateness of a proposal for a theatre. Don’t try to push the envelope here – if they haven’t done it in the past, they aren’t likely to start with you.

7. A play that fits well spatially into the theatre where it will performed.

Not all plays were meant for all theatres. Certain material plays very well in intimate settings, and other material is better served by a large traditional staging. I’m sorry to say it, but your minimalist production of Miss Saigon staged in the round is going to be a tough sell for most, as will your new three-character play about jaded millennials staged in a 1,500 seat auditorium. What is the actual space that your production would be mounted in, and will the play work well in that space?

8. A play that doesn’t challenge any additional restrictions from the producer.

Look, it can be infuriating, but what seems like arbitrary limitation to you can be a sticking point for a producer evaluating your proposal. But that’s their prerogative: they’re producing the work, not you. They get to call the shots. If they give you any parameters for the material they’re looking for, take those seriously!

You probably breezed through that list fairly quickly, but each of those is a separate, critical issue to address. Any downside that your play has or criteria it fails to meet is a reason to take it off the table, and when you’re a producer swimming in dozens of proposals, any excuse to remove something from consideration is tempting.

It can certainly be overwhelming to try to find those few plays that may fit all the criteria you’re looking for, but I personally find it really satisfying to solve that puzzle for each theatre I propose a play to. Do your homework so that you don’t have to guess! You can easily research the production history of any given theatre to find out what has been programmed in the past, and it’s a great tool to inform you on what might be a successful proposal for them in the future. Looking at what IU Theatre is producing this season and what we’ve done in the past tells me a great deal about every single bullet point above, so you can bet that I used that information extensively when working on my proposals.

Check back with me next year and I’ll let you know if that worked out for me!

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Closing Time


It seems like we just embarked on our journey to 1930s Ireland, but Dancing at Lughnasa is already coming to an end, with the closing performance tonight.

The inevitable question: “Will you be sad when the show is over?”

I think it’s one of the most common questions I get from people outside the theatre world. It’s hard for them to imagine, considering the immense amount of time, effort, money, and passion poured into each theatrical production, that the entire thing is physically scrapped from existence within hours of the last performance.

If you ever work with a young child actor in a production, it’s both heartbreaking and adorable to see them emotionally deal with the end of a production: there are lots of tears, hugs, and insights such as “I’m really gonna miss you guys!”. And that’s very telling about human instinct: before we’re professionally and personally trained to let things go that matter to us, we want to cling to them, to keep them as long as we can, to not let them fall away.

But we have to, of course. We have to take apart the set, send the costumes and props back to the shop, clean the dressing rooms, give each other hugs, and head home. And soon, we’ll be back at it again – starting the next production from scratch, with nothing left of our previous show but a poster, program, some new Facebook friends and a nice gallery of photos.


Rose (Kathleen Cox) and Maggie (Meaghan Deiter) cheer as Chris (Tess Cunningham) dances on the kitchen table.

I remember a specific time somebody asked me the question, and it changed my life. Five years ago, I was at a bar after a rehearsal for a show I was absolutely in love with, talking with an actor in the production. He said to me, “Isn’t it sad that in just a few weeks, we’re going to be done with this?”

“It is sad,” I said instinctively. “But that’s why it matters so much.”

And that thought sunk in for a moment: that’s why it matters so much. I had just tapped into something that I had felt for a long time, but not been able to put into words: the sudden end of a meaningful experience is not a downside of theatre, it’s the reason for theatre.

Theatre is an art form which celebrates the immediate present, the now, the need for stories that are urgently told to people in the same room. A theatre performance is a collective moment that is shared intimately between performer and audience, and upon the curtain call, it ceases to exist. Many other artistic mediums are meant to create a result that can be appreciated long after its creation: film, painting, literature. The lasting impact of theatre is less tangible, but it’s very real: usually attached to a memory of a visceral, transformative moment.

When I had this realization, it helped me clarify to myself why I do theatre, and why it means so much to me: because it ends. Because like so many things in the human experience, it can’t be held on to when it’s time to let it go. I choose to spend my life investing the best part of myself into artistic experiences that are destined to flicker out and disappear, because it’s the most clear, meaningful way I can engage with the world.

So, sad? No. Perhaps fulfilled, satisfied, grateful, or sentimental, but never sad.

Happy closing to the cast and crew of Dancing at Lughnasa!

James Nelson is a first-year MFA directing candidate. He is assistant director for IU Theatre’s season opener Dancing at Lughnasa.
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H-T Review: IU Theatre’s ‘Lughnasa’ a rich, realistic, but lengthy family drama

By Matthew Waterman, H-T Reviewer


Ashley Dillard plays Kate Mundy in the Indiana University Theatre production of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa”.

The little Irish town of Ballybeg was something of an obsession for the playwright Brian Friel, who set a number of his dramas there. Ballybeg does not actually exist, but one wouldn’t know it from Friel’s work. Friel creates a rich sense of place, making Ballybeg seem as real as anywhere.

Friel died last October, but only after leaving behind well over a lifetime’s worth of writing. One of his Ballybeg plays, “Dancing at Lughnasa” (LOO-nuh-suh), is the first mainstage production of the year for the Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. Dale McFadden directed the show, which plays in the large Ruth N. Halls Theatre.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” takes place in 1936. The story is told through the memories of Michael Evans, who was 7 years old at the time. Michael is growing up in the Mundy family home, inhabited by the five Mundy sisters.

1936 is a year of great change in the lives of Agnes, Kate, Chris, Maggie and Rose Mundy. They have just obtained their first radio. More importantly, the Mundy home takes in Father Jack, a weathered man in his late 50s (though he often seems much older) who has recently returned from decades of work as a missionary in a Ugandan leper colony.

Father Jack exhibits signs of dementia, as well as a persistent preoccupation with the cultural and religious traditions of Uganda. He no longer seems to be a Catholic.

The Mundy sisters are all unmarried, so much of the play revolves around their ever-shifting prospects for husbands. The most important suitor in the play is Gerry Evans, who fathered Michael but did not marry Chris Mundy, Michael’s mother.

There are many plots and subplots in “Dancing at Lughnasa,” but the one that captured my attention the most was the relationship between Gerry Evans and Chris Mundy. Gerry periodically visits Ballybeg, each time with enthusiastic but untrustworthy promises of becoming a wonderful father and husband.

He dances with Chris and even seems to love her. He promises young Michael a new bicycle. But soon enough, he’s gone. In 1936, he leaves to fight in the Spanish Civil War — not for any political motivation, but for the sake of adventure. Actor Jason Craig West gives Gerry an alluring charm that makes us occasionally forget his neglect of his son.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” is a highly realistic play, one that shares the complexity and subtlety of a good novel. It’s also a long play, with extended conversations on a litany of topics that can become hard to track. There is little doubt that some who attend “Dancing at Lughnasa” will find the play boring. The drama isn’t mundane or inconsequential, but paying consistent attention becomes a bit of a task when a show in this style exceeds two and a half hours.

That being said, this production team has done a quite decent job of putting Friel’s script on the stage. The five Mundy sisters are played with energy, enthusiasm and convincing Irish dialects. Ashley Dillard (Kate), Meaghan Deiter (Maggie), Emily Sullivan (Agnes), Kathleen Cox (Rose) and Tess Cunningham (Chris) create palpable familial bonds onstage.

In a well-wrought performance as Michael Evans, Chris J. Handley ties the play together. Handley not only narrates us through what occurs before and after the onstage action, but also speaks the lines of the invisible 7-year-old Michael. Seeing the events of 1936 through a child’s eyes gives the story a special sadness and poignancy that it would not otherwise have.

The production is designed in a straightforward and authentic manner, with beautiful costumes from Emmie Phelps and a humble Irish homestead crafted by Ryan P. Miller.

As we approach the first anniversary of Brian Friel’s death, his work finds new life in the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. “Dancing at Lughnasa,” though not an intense play, is certainly a rich one.

If you go

WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.

WHAT: “Dancing at Lughnasa” by Brian Friel.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Halls Theatre in the Norvelle Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave.

TICKETS: $15-25. Available in person at IU Auditorium Box Office, by phone at 812-855-1103 or online at theatre.indiana.edu.

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times Online.
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