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Contact: Mark McGowan
NIU Office of Public Affairs
May 17, 2006
DeKalb — Summer “break” means three things to Tracy Nunnally's students of technical theater: work, work and more work.
Most of his young accomplices from Northern Illinois University are primed to scatter across the United States and even the world to perform backstage internships in professional and community theaters.
Matt Massoth will serve as a co-technical director at the Timberlake Playhouse in nearby Mt. Carroll. Melissa Cozza is headed for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Sarah Fijalkiewicz, Anna Goller and John Moore will spend their summer at the Glimmerglass Opera House in New York.
Others are bound for California, Florida Wisconsin and perhaps even Liverpool, England.
All will take Nunnally's theory-meets-practice curriculum with them. All will return to share first-hand ideas and knowledge gained over a summer of 14- to 18-hour days.
“They go all over,” says Nunnally, assistant professor and technical director in the NIU School of Theatre and Dance, part of the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
“Most of our people are invited, usually by March. It's like the draft picks in the NFL or the NBA. Most of ours are gone in the first round, and all by the second,” he adds. “One of my undergrads had four positions to pick from, and they were all jockeying for her.”
Directors of summer theaters continue to call Nunnally looking for workers, he says, but they're too late and out of luck.
“I'm real proud of all of my students. They've earned it,” he says. “These are not gimme positions. These are positions of authority and respect, and you need to know your business.”
Nunnally makes sure his students understand his most important message before they leave for their internships.
“I tell them that, up to a point, your technical expertise isn't what will make or break the position. What will make or break the position is how well you get along with others. These are the people who are going to get asked back,” he says. “Theater is not rocket science. We call it 'play' for a reason.”
Living behind the curtains and out of a suitcase is a common experience for Nunnally's students, many of whom have jumped aboard planes at a moment's notice to work alongside their teacher during his professional gigs.
As president of Hall Associates Flying Effects, a company that enables actors and props to soar across the stage and the audience in productions such as “Peter Pan” and “Beauty and the Beast,” Nunnally almost always taps his NIU students to assist.
He takes them to production meetings and to jobs in New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami and Seattle. He takes them to Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei and Tokyo.
Last summer's clients included six productions of “Peter Pan” from New York to California and three productions of “Beauty and the Beast.” The fall brought four more stagings of “Peter Pan” and the annual “Living Christmas Tree” in Knoxville, Tenn.
“This has grown into such a worldwide business,” he says, “and I drag my students around the world with me.”
It's all part of his mission to make his students employable and more marketable.
To wit: Last December, with Finals Week just behind him, Nunnally was preparing to spend Christmas with his son in Canada. Then the phone rang. Broadway. Could he build, deliver and assemble flying effects mechanisms for a remount production of “Dr. Doolittle” in Indiana? Quickly?
“Absolutely” was the answer, effectively and immediately canceling holiday plans for Nunnally and a number of his graduate students who beat a hasty return to campus.
The crew spent days and nights in the shop of the Stevens Building, even logging one 48-hour stretch, to get the job done before classes resumed in January. When the location changed to Chattanooga on short notice, the NIU team took turns driving through the night to meet the trucks in Tennessee the next morning for the unloading and installation.
“Theater,” Nunnally says, “is an exercise in flexibility. It's finding the best, cheapest, safest and most efficient way to produce the safest environment for the actors and the most pleasing environment for the audience.”
Students in his automation class this spring designed and built a revolving turntable, financed by a dinner-theater company in Washington, D.C., that enjoyed a trial run on the stage of NIU's O'Connell Theatre during a February production.
Graduate students Eric Boxer and Ryan Poethke are federally licensed to program and operate the Pangolin laser, which can create Tinkerbell, the face of the wizard of Oz or almost anything needed or imagined. The government certification is mandated because the laser, used improperly, can blind actors or even pilots flying far above the earth.
When time permits, Nunnally hopes to lead a workshop in use of the laser for any interested technical theater students. He'd also like to put a laser show on the stage of the O'Connell accompanied by loud rock 'n' roll music.
But time is an issue for Nunnally, who is actually considering a week off this summer simply as a birthday gift for his daughter. She's turning 21, Nunnally says, and a vacation for her dad is all she wants.
He has hired a couple students to help him clean and refurbish the department's gear over the long academic break. He's got some more “Peter Pan” and “Beauty and the Beast” jobs. He's been approached about “Curtains,” a new musical opening in July in Los Angeles that requires former “Frasier” star David Hyde Pierce to get knocked off a bridge and then vanish.
Nunnally also will host the annual flying workshop the week of June 5, and later this summer he'll assist in lighting a stuntman on fire to demonstrate that technique.
“Our students here aren't just doing the school's projects. There's nothing being done in the real world that we can't, or aren't, doing here. The only issues are the facilities, the time and the tools,” Nunnally says.
“We have the skills to bring the quality to the stage as do the top companies in the world. Producers are choosing us over professional companies because our products are better. Special effects are just that – they're special – but you have to contract us early to let the students progress at their own pace,” he adds. “My goal – my job here – is to make these people employable.”
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