A Familiar Friel-ing


I fell in love with theatre directing while rehearsing a play by Brian Friel, so it seems auspicious and fitting that my first assignment at Indiana University is to assistant direct Dancing at Lughnasa.

It was Fall 2010, I had been out of college for just over a year and was living in Tübingen, Germany. I had just taken over as the artistic director of the Anglo-Irish Theatre, a thirty-year-old group that staged British and Irish plays in English, even though most of the actors weren’t native speakers. For one of my first productions with the group, I had chosen to direct Brian Friel’s Translations. It seemed a particularly suitable choice for the setting, given its focus on language and cultural identity.


“Translations”, Anglo-Irish Theatre Group, Tuebingen, Germany. 2010.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment it all clicked – but somehow during that production, I became sure that theatre directing would be my primary discipline, despite the fact that I had far more training and experience as an actor. Perhaps it was witnessing how Friel’s subtle text would awaken layer by layer in the rehearsal room, or seeing the gradual growth of our story from a difficult and elusive script to a living, breathing production.

I decided around this point too that I would eventually try to go back to school for a graduate degree in theatre directing – trying to figure out how to stage ambitious plays in a tiny black box theatre was a great start to learning the craft right out of college, but I suspected that some education, mentorship, and technique would do quite a lot to supplement my work. But before I could apply to MFA programs, I would need a lot more experience (most schools require between 2-5 years of professional work). I stayed in Germany for a couple more years, directing some of my favorite plays with the Anglo-Irish Theatre, then I moved back to the US to continue my work.

Cut forward to Spring 2015 – I had directed about a dozen shows since Translations, and I was finally back in the rehearsal room with Brian Friel (figuratively). This time, I was working on his superlative translation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country at a theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area. Working on the production was deeply emotional – the play meant so much to me but was intensely difficult, and I wanted to do it justice. But even though my strengths as a director were highlighted in the work, my shortcomings were very apparent as well.


“A Month in the Country”, Ross Valley Players, Ross, CA. 2015. Photo by Robin Jackson.

During rehearsals for A Month in the Country, I was in the midst of applying to grad school for the first time, and I had put myself out there for twelve different schools. One morning, I flew out of San Francisco to interview for a program, directed a sample scene for the department head, and received some feedback on what I had just done. He was deeply unimpressed.

“You talk like you’re huge on collaboration, but I just don’t see that anywhere in your work,” he said. “You never asked the actors any questions. You didn’t give the scene any room to breathe; you interrupted them every two seconds to throw out another adjustment. You need to start being quiet. Let them work.”

I left the interview feeling pretty shaken, went to the airport, flew back to San Francisco, and went to A Month in the Country rehearsal that evening. That night in the room, I was quiet. I let the actors work. My adjustments were rephrased into questions. I gave the scenes more room to breathe, and I noticed a difference right away – there was a spark of life that wasn’t there before. The actors were finding more moments on their own, without me interfering. Brian Friel’s text needed me to leave it alone for a moment so that the actors could experience it for themselves. It was a very humbling moment, and was a startling illustration of how some further training could improve my technique.

Late into the rehearsal process, I flew out to Indiana and visited IU. I interviewed with Dale McFadden and the other faculty – I remember distinctly discussing some of the challenges I was facing at the moment with A Month in the Country rehearsals. Katie Horwitz, then a 1st year directing student, took the time to show me around campus and talk to me candidly about the program. I saw the Wells-Metz Theatre for the first time and was awestruck – I had never seen a space like that before. By the end of my visit, I was convinced. I wanted to train at IU.

I wasn’t offered the spot that year, but IU helped show me what I was looking for in my grad school search. I applied again in 2016 – this time, not to twelve schools – just to IU. And this time, I was offered the spot.

My first day on campus after arriving in Bloomington, I met with Dale to talk through my schedule. He asked me if there was a show I’d like to assist that semester. “If it’s up to me, I’d like to work with you on the Friel,” I said.

And during the first rehearsal of Dancing at Lughnasa, I noticed that it felt very comforting to start my grad school experience back in Friel’s hands, as though he himself were welcoming me to IU, and wishing me a fruitful experience.


Brian Friel’s typewritten postcard, 11/25/10

In 2010, after my Translations in Germany, I received a postcard from Brian Friel. One of his former colleagues was a founder of the Anglo-Irish Theatre, and had mailed him some photos of my production along with a thank-you note I had written to the playwright. Friel responded with a short typewritten note of his own, and in his signature understated style, he wrote simply, “I hope your theatre career blossoms.”

James Nelson is a first-year MFA directing candidate. He is currently assistant directing IU Theatre’s season opener Dancing at Lughnasa.

About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peek behind the curtain at the productions and people at Indiana University's Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
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