Meet EmJ Nelson and Leila Teitelman, Theatermakers Associates, and Adam Lee Secor, NTI Apprentice, who all help run Theatermakers, the National Theater Institute's summer program!
What do you do for the Theatermakers?
Leila: We work closely with Artistic Director Rachel Jett. She creates the Theatermakers curriculum and we help put it into place as well as identifying what can make it a holistic experience and make sure everything is rounded out. The three of us do a lot of the tasks in realizing her vision, getting the people here, and putting everything on it’s feet. The days are full--classes 7:30am to 10pm---with playwriting, acting, and directing tracks, so there are a lot of logistics to make that all come together.
EmJ: We’re the on-the-ground people at all times. We’re here 24/7 to ensure that everything runs smoothly. We’re liaisons between faculty and students and the O’Neill and make sure that everything stays together and is a good experience for the students. We are in communication with lots of departments and faculty to make sure it happens.
How did you all get to the O’Neill and NTI?
Leila: Spring 2014 as the last semester of the O’Neill that did not include music theater and did not include the new buildings. So, none of the cottages. We were the last old-school class, which was great. I was a student here, I discovered my interest in playwriting while I was here and then I went back to school and did a thesis on playwriting. So, I credit the O’Neill and Donna Di Novelli with most of my artistic endeavors since. I didn’t realize how much of an artistic home NTI was for me and how supported I felt until I was back at my alma mater and realized different environments yield different things for people. This environment yielded a lot of positive creative things for me. I decided to come back as an apprentice, then intern for a year and had a challenging, but rewarding experience doing that and am interested in what theater education means on a broader scope and thus wanted to experience a little more responsibility in that field. I came back last summer and now I’m back this summer and I’ll see where it takes me afterward.
EmJ: I was NTI Fall 2014. I was a student and I was incredibly enamored by this place and the creative notions that it exposed in me and really loved it and decided I wanted to graduate college early, so I could keep exploring this theatrical world as a professional. After my semester at NTI, I decided to graduate. Then I realized I had no money and no job and that was a rash decision. So, I came back to the O’Neill and asked for a home for a year and they gave it to me, so that’s how I became an apprentice. And it was, like Leila said, incredibly rewarding, incredibly challenging, but it was a great way to be involved in the theater, while still being taken care of financially and being outside of your educational environment. And that’s where I met Leila, my work wife. And we both applied to be the Theatermakers Associates for the summer and Adam was one of our students, so I’ll throw it over to him.
Adam: I was an NTI-Advanced Director in Fall 2015. There were four other people in my program, 34 of us all together in my class. The O’Neill was a shock to me because I kind of understood what it meant to take a semester abroad and train in theater. And they warn you about the rigor before you come, but it was like jumping into an ice-cold pool. It’s just an experience you’re never quite prepared for. I navigated it with the help of Leila and EmJ. The faculty was lovely. It’s kind of like a Theater Disneyland when you’re here, which if you really are passionate about theater you eat up. Then I felt like I wanted more O’Neill and more theater magic. During my semester I had a walk-and-talk with Rachel Jett about how I wanted to be back here during one of the summers, specifically to work with the Theatermakers in some capacity. I came back for a second year because I had a lot of fun. The O’Neill during the summer is a crazy experience, with how many people come in and out and the pulsing creative energy that is over all of this campus.
What is everyone’s favorite part of the summer here?
Leila: I get really excited to see all the new work. I’m really invested in the idea of new theater and I think that you get that as a student here, but it’s on a different level because mostly you’re doing works that have been produced at some point, even if they're within the last five years, even if they’re contemporary pieces. These pieces are grand-spanking new. As someone who’s interested in playwriting and new play development, to see how much a piece can get out of a staged reading and exposing it to an audience for the first time and seeing the reactions of the audience is really eye-opening. Also getting to meet the writers of those pieces and discuss with them their process and what they’ve learned and what being a writer is to them. I feel like that’s what this whole summer is about.
EmJ: As an actor it’s great for me to meet all these people coming in because there are hundreds of people on campus. It’s really exciting for me to meet professional artists in the field, whether they are directors, or playwrights, or actors. Coming from Minnesota and the Midwest, it’s really hard to find solid ground on the east coast when you don’t grow up with that. So it’s great to have the O’Neill as this anchor, so you can find your people in the professional theater world, where you want to be, because I want to be in New York. This is my segue into that and I’m super appreciative of that because I don’t feel like I’ll be flailing. I mean, I’ll still flail when I go to New York, but at least I have some cushions, some lifeboats to hang on to because I’ve met so many people here. The faculty, the artists coming in, the writers, and all of that is just a pool of creative people and it’s really lovely.
Adam: I have to say my favorite part is the opportunity to lose yourself in the creative energy that is here. There are a lot of spaces on campus and a lot of beautiful nature and a lot of incredible inspiring artists that are here. I just find myself so grateful that I have time here during the summer to work on my own things that are directly inspired by what I’m seeing all day long. It feeds me in a really nourishing way.
What do you do the rest of the year? What are your next plans?
Adam: I am assistant directing two pieces. I’m working on Hamlet and I’m also assistant directing a one-woman show with Leta Tremblay (NTI Fall 2005) and that’s going to be in the city. So I have to somehow make my way into the city. And then hopefully land in the city. I might bounce in the city then bounce somewhere else, but fingers crossed.
Leila: I’ve been in the city. I don’t really know what I’m going to do because I’m just trying to find something in theater and I feel like the nature of working in theater a lot of times - it’s not a steady stream of jobs necessarily. I hopefully have created relationships that will help me find things here and there, but I do live in New York and I also get really excited because I consistently work with my two best friends who have created a theater company and all three of us went to NTI together. It’s called The Hearth, it tells stories of women written by women and starring women, so that is their mission. It helps that we’re all in the same place and all met at The O’Neill because we understand how to communicate with each other creatively in a way that’s like “we can do this with very few means and very little time and we can still make it happen because we want to.” I was the Literary Intern at Manhattan Theatre Club, which is run by Barry Grove (NTI 1970) who credits the O’Neill with a lot of his success. He came here for the summer, during college, and he said his first three jobs in theater were just people from The O’Neill calling him up saying “Hey, do you remember me from the summer? Do you want to come stage manage this thing?” He talked about the O’Neill a lot when he talked to the interns.
EmJ: I’m moving to New York in October. And I’ll start auditioning. I’m pursuing an acting career and I’ll start auditioning for people, calling people up, asking if they need an actor to read their lovely work. I’ll always call Leila because I love reading her plays. I’m just going to start doing the thing! Finding odd jobs on the side. Before I came here, I spent the last 10 months as an au pair in Paris, France. It was really eye-opening and exciting to be in Europe for a year and learn lots of things. So, now I’m transitioning back into the United States, back into English, and then hopefully into my career. I didn’t do much with theater in Paris, I was just au pairing and nannying. Now, I’m really hungry for it and I feel ready to dive in and pursue my acting career and just audition, audition, audition.
What makes the O’Neill special?
Leila: I think what makes the O’Neill special and I see this only at the O’Neill and nowhere else, is it’s attitude of “We can do it no matter what it is.” We can make anything happen in theater because theater is magic and we recognize that magic in the creative process. Obviously the O’Neill works with logistics because it has to, but I think it’s very seldom that you’ll get something and the O’Neill says “No, we can’t do that, we don’t have the means to do that.” Instead they’ll make space and time and energy into theater.
Adam: While you’re on this campus, you are just an artist in a sea of artists. Yes, some artists happen to have Tony Awards or happen to have written plays that tons of people know and some have been artists for six months and are just finding out what it means. There is no sense of competition here. Everyone is working on something special to them and you’re simply sharing with a lot of other artists, which is beautiful. Especially because I think the industry has a tendency to be comparative or competitive -- where pieces are put against each other. So it’s nice to take that away and just all live in a bubble of theater together.
EmJ: My favorite part is that it’s constantly changing and progressing and reacting. It’s just so refreshing that here, every year, you have brand new works, you have this whole panel, and you never heard of any of them and we still fill the houses. These plays that we’re choosing from these artists are always new and relevant, so we’re not stuck in some theme from the 1990’s. It’s all living breathing, progressing text. Whatever you see onstage is going to be relevant to what’s happening in the world because I think the O’Neill strives to be a voice for the things that are happening in the world. And that’s really refreshing to me because that’s the theater that I relate to, the theater I crave, the theater I want to be a part of. The fact that we have a whole summer dedicated to those kinds of works is incredible to me because I think we have plenty of those other theaters that do summer stock, that focus on the sales and the house. This is one of the few places in the US where they don’t base their season on what they think will sell the best. That’s really exciting to me.