By K. Woodzick, Editor
The Nicolet Players is a community theatre group that has existed in the Northwoods for over 50 years. Their home base is the Lakeside Center at Nicolet College. Over the years, hundreds of volunteers have acted, stage managed, designed and assisted the production of dozens of plays, which have delighted thousands of audience members. For 35 of those years, Jim Nuttall was at the helm of these efforts as the Director of the Nicolet Players.
Jim gave an overview of the history of the Nicolet Players in November of last year. We sat down with him to learn more about his personal history as a theatre artist and what he has been up to since retiring from the Nicolet Players stage.
When did you first discover a love for theatre?
High School – I think I spent more energy on extracurriculars than I did for classes. In college, I planned on pursuing something in the sciences, biology or physics, but the first semester of those classes was deadly boring. Departments need to put their most engaging teachers in freshmen classes, or they can lose potential students. So, I made an impulsive switch to theatre and plunged in. The college I was at didn’t have much of a theatre program though, so I transferred to one that did.
What is a memory that stands out from your time at SUNY Geneseo?
It was a great, great college – it still shows up on the “best public universities” lists. The faculty were enthusiastic and thorough, there were tons of opportunities at the college and in Rochester, NY. I mostly remember being incredibly busy- I was able to delve into everything – acting, directing, designing, management. It’s what got me committed to being a “generalist”; someone who can wear most of the hats it takes to produce theatre.
What stands out from your time pursuing graduate studies at UW-Madison?
Madison had a big emphasis on research, so I read hundreds of plays that I probably never would have. Plus studying a lot of comparative directing styles, histories, cultures… it starts to gel in your mind if you make an effort to apply it to what you want to do. The actual directing was mostly experiential – you’d direct a scene and then everyone and their mother tried to rip it apart. They also had some world-class lighting and scenic designers that I got to work with.
What are some of your first memories of Nicolet College and the Nicolet Players?
Working with adults. Back then I think the median age of a student at Nicolet was 29, so at 24 I was teaching classes with a lot of students that were older than me. And up until I started at Nicolet, almost all of the theatre I had been doing was with students, often trying to play 60-year-olds. When all ages of people came to the auditions, I discovered how much depth you get when casting someone who is the actual age of the role.
What lessons did you learn about curating a season for the Nicolet Players?
Don’t play it too safe; take some risks once in a while, sometimes they end up being the bigger success. Don’t offer too many weird things in a row or you start to lose people. Strive for variety. Now that I think about it, that’s not really a lesson learned, it’s what I wanted to do in the first place. Luckily, the college supported it – they never pressured me to only do box office hits or stay away from certain kinds of shows. We rarely had bombs, but if something didn’t sell well the college was very good at looking at the big picture.
What tips do you have for an actor who is nervous about an upcoming audition?
Show up. It’s never as bad as what you imagine. You can watch auditions for a while and then decide to try, but generally, most people that show up see that it is a very welcoming environment and give it a go. You can read the script and stand alone in your bathroom and read some of the lines out loud just to get a feel for it, but don’t do it so much that you’ve memorized it.
If you could direct one show again, what would it be and why?
Deathtrap by Ira Levin is an extremely well-written thriller and keeps people on the edge of their seats – to date our biggest audience scream came from a moment in Act 1. But probably the show I would want to repeat the most was The Diary of Anne Frank. The story is powerful, all of the characters are tremendous, and the dialogue is symphonic, it’s almost like speaking a Beethoven symphony; the words are so well put together.
You get to put five shows into a time capsule from your time with the Nicolet Players: which ones do you pick and why?
I’d try to select a variety rather than list my five favorites (if I could even pick them).
Outside Mullingar (2016) A comedy by John Patrick Shanley. I’ve seen four different professional productions of this and I’d stack our show up against any one of them. We decided to emphasize the comedy of characters, and it paid off – this show had the longest pauses for laughs than any comedy we’d done.
True West (2007) is a biting comedy/drama by Sam Shepard. This one was one of the “off the beaten path” shows – not a well-known title and a somewhat dark portrayal of two brothers who end up literally at each other’s throats. Fantastic performances by Charles Lynch and Dan Brekke, the two brothers.
Romeo and Juliet (2006) The first of three Shakespeare plays I directed. Spectacular costumes by Kay Anderson and some very complicated swordplay. Number three highest seller in our history (Dracula and A Christmas Carol were one and two).
Little Shop of Horrors (2004) I’d have to include a musical and this one had a strong balance of great songs and performances. Plus, we designed and built four different versions of Audrey the talking plant – we sold them after the show closed and they are still appearing in other theatre’s productions.
Children of A Lesser God (1988) Before the Oscar winning movie was the original play. The script is powerful and compelling and the performances matched the task. It was genuinely moving – I got more comments and letters afterward for this show than any other.
What inspired you to pursue the Theatre Arts Management certificate at NYU?
Necessity, I guess. We started the Nicolet Live series and were touring in a whole season of shows, and I felt like I was clueless about how to manage the whole thing, so I decided I needed some training. I probably overshot a bit with NYU since they were catering more to managers of the Detroit Civic Center and New York-y kind of places, but it still carried over to our small operation. And I got to spend a summer in NYC. Plus, back then the NYU student ID got you front row seats to any Broadway show for $20.
What makes a script compelling for you?
Potential – potential for big dramatic moments, be they laughter or tears or something else. I get wound up if I can feel an audience response while I’m reading the script. It also helps if the dialogue doesn’t go “clunk” every time someone opens their mouth.
Favorite Shakespeare play?
Hamlet. King Lear may actually be the greater masterpiece, but Hamlet is the bomb.
I’m not sure if I have one. The original Miss Saigon on Broadway haunted me for a long time, but that was the staging, I think. Les Mis had fantastic music and if you get world class singers performing it, it can’t be beat.
If you have a bucket list as an actor or a director, what shows are left on it?
I used to keep a list, but they were all shows that couldn’t really be done at the Nicolet theatre because of staging or casting or content or it Just Wasn’t the Right Fit. After so many years at the college I gave up adding to it, and I kind of pushed those titles out of my mind. A show called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead blew me away, I’ve seen it several times and that would be fun. In fact, just about anything by that author (Tom Stoppard) would make that list. Maybe if I start some new ventures in retirement, I’ll start up the list again.
What makes an actor talented, in your opinion?
Talent is a tricky word, since there are many, many actors who became talented after years of training and experience. But I guess if you want to see raw talent in an actor, you’d look for someone who can find the “subtext” of a character on the first reading. Subtext is what the character is feeling underneath but doesn’t actually say in the dialogue. I’ve found that an actor who can pick up the subtext instantly in a cold reading has some natural talent. Another way of putting it is if you can’t pick up that they are faking the line delivery, then they must be pretty talented.
What is the most challenging show you’ve ever produced?
All musicals. You have to sing act and dance in a two-hour show – that’s three times as much work and three times as hard to pull off as a straight play. As plays go, Noises Off had extremely difficult staging, tech, and precision requirements.
How are you spending your time outside of the theatre?
Not a whole lot to cover. The pandemic put the kibosh on travel plans and going to see shows. I’ve worked on fixing up the house, spent time with my wife, did some short driving/exploration trips. Probably my highlight is simply playing with the dogs multiple times a day. I’ll have had a year of that to adjust to retirement, and then I’ll start to figure what’s next.
What was the best thing about producing theatre in the Northwoods?
I dig the Nicolet theatre complex itself – it’s a warm cozy space. I love all of the cast/crew people – each one is there to have fun and get fulfillment. How many jobs out there have that kind of collection of people for colleagues? But I think the thing that is most distinct about the Northwoods is the audiences that attend the shows. They are a friendly, appreciative, welcoming bunch, and you instantly feel at home when they gather for a show. It’s palpable – just about every touring artist that has passed through the theatre has commented on it.
What do you hope the legacy of the Nicolet Players will be?
My accomplishments just get added to the list of all the Nicolet Players shows before my tenure. I think we had a good track record of quality productions. But my greatest hope is for longevity. For 50 years Nicolet saw the value of hiring a professional to direct and produce those plays. The best legacy of all would be another 50 years.
If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
“You left things better than how you found them.”
K. Woodzick is a life-long theatre artist and has over a decade of experience as a non-profit marketing professional and writer. They live in Woodruff with their silver lab, River.