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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
October 31, 2006
DeKalb — Tracy Nunnally is a bear of a man with a deep, warm voice and a curly reddish beard that skirts the line between well-groomed and unruly.
But when he speaks of his life’s work – making actors fly and sharing that skill with others – his eyes gleam with the sly twinkle of an impish elf.
Or maybe that’s just the sleep deprivation.
“My husband has stamina like no one I’ve seen in my whole life,” says Gabe Nunnally, married to Tracy since 2000. “I’ve tried to keep up with him, but I can’t. Last night, he didn’t come to bed until 5:30 in the morning, and I had to get him back up for work at 7:30. One of my roles is to go to bed early whenever possible.”
“I’ve mastered the art of sleeping on planes,” adds Tracy, associate professor and technical director in the Northern Illinois University School of Theatre and Dance. “In this business, you just train yourself to get sleep when you can. Sometimes you go three, four, five days without sleep. Sometimes you get three hours of sleep a night for three weeks. You just manage.”
Yet Nunnally, 41, keeps a schedule quite the opposite of what’s usually considered manageable.
In addition to teaching 19 hours of classes across both levels, he teaches and supervises the graduate students who serve as technical directors for the school’s stage productions. “You can’t survive being this busy if you can’t delegate,” he jokes.
His cozy office in the Stevens Building, decorated with small toys, Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals and take-out menus, is a Grand Central Station of sorts for his students. His computer has three monitors, and he’s permanently wired to his cell phone through an ear bud.
A rundown of his upcoming freelance gigs, sent via e-mail at 3:59 a.m. on a Tuesday, tells the real tale.
Hall Associates Flying Effects, the company Nunnally bought in December of 2004, is in high demand around the globe – and the boss has a hard time saying no. Business has blossomed 400 percent since he took ownership, and Gabe, who Nunnally calls “the love of my life,” handles all the day-to-day operations.
Nunnally, professionally certified as a rigger and one of only 45 to pass both sections of the industry’s first-ever examination in 2005, spent a few days earlier this month in Colorado to mount a production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Over the next six weeks, he’s providing special effects for four high school productions across the suburbs. His work near the teens discretely woos them to the NIU College of Visual and Performing Arts.
In December, he will fly Santa Claus over the winter festival of Owensboro, Ky.
A motor-driven sleigh will soar above the outdoor crowd and land on a sidewalk near the Riverpark Centre, where Santa will jump out to greet the children. The sleigh will glide along cables strung from the top of a parking ramp and the rooftop of the town’s performing arts center.
December also takes him to Knoxville, Tenn., for the town’s annual production of “The Living Christmas Tree.” It’s become a tradition for Nunnally’s students, who fly everyone from Santa Claus to angels.
The Calvary Church in Naperville booked Nunnally and Co. for Christmas shows that require a hot air balloon gondola to transport three travelers, and the audience’s imaginations, to places around the world.
His company also has other Christmas shows booked in Arizona, California, New York, Tennessee and Washington, D.C. It’s a return engagement in the nation’s capitol. They’re rigging the flying systems for “A Christmas Carol” in the historic Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot.
And before the New Year begins, they’re flying Peter Pan in Missouri and Nebraska, Aladdin in Minnesota and Othello in California.
The industry is paying attention: Stage Direction magazine recently devoted an article to Nunnally’s work on “Dr. Doolittle,” a Broadway show he remounted for the road.
“The better you are, and the busier you are, people just seem to find you. You know, it’s said that ‘if you want it done right, find the busy guy.’ Well, people are finding us,” he says. “And this is what we live for. The world is safe if I’m busy. My mind is always busy.”
As are the minds of his fortunate students.
“It’s the firm belief of this faculty that we need to practice what we preach,” says Alex Gelman, director of the NIU School of Theatre and Dance. “It’s important that the faculty in the professional-training tracks remain active in the profession, and he is working at a number of different levels. That’s just of tremendous benefit.”
So are the associations. Paul Rubin, a friend of Nunnally’s who practices extensively on Broadway choreographing flying effects, spent last Monday on campus working with students on a day off from the Chicago production of “Pirate Queen.”
“This is at no charge to me or the school,” Nunnally says, “and a great connection for any of my students who want to go to NYC.”
Nunnally’s love of this life began in high school.
He grew up in Buford, Ga., near Atlanta. His father worked as a scheduler for a pipeline company, using math to determine the when, where and how much of transporting gas underground. It was a daily grind – a job tied to a desk – and a path Nunnally was determined to avoid.
Meanwhile, the 16-year-old and his buddies began fooling around with a video camera. Nunnally figured out how to “fly” his pal Bill Jones, starring as Superman in their homemade movie.
“That just migrated over to the live stage,” he says. “I like the stage better. It’s more of a challenge. It’s a deadline-driven industry. People are walking through that door on opening night, and you don’t have a second chance.”
Theater also presents puzzles.
Every space is different. Every actor is different. Some things have never been done before. The illusion of flight must seem real. The trickery of the movie camera or computer-generated imagery is not available. Safety is paramount.
“Tracy’s company is one of three in the country. I would trust him over the competition any day, and I’ve worked for the competition,” graduate student and Hall employee Scott Madaski says. “His tenacity to make it correct, and safe, is amazing.”
Producers whose pocketbooks cannot match their grand ambitions to fly actors, especially actors playing the boy from Neverland, discover a “good heart” in Nunnally.
“He’ll say, ‘I can’t turn myself away and know that they’re going to try to do it on their own,’ ” wife Gabe says. “He would rather lose money on a job if he thought someone might get hurt.”
Clients hear this: “Of course we can do it.” They don’t hear what Nunnally asks himself: “How can we do it?”
So far, though, no one has stumped him. Credit experience.
While earning his bachelor’s degree at LaGrange College in Georgia, he realized he wanted to teach college students. While earning his MFA at Florida State University, he learned enough to understand he knew nothing at all.
“I decided to work professionally for 10 years,” he said. “I had to make myself worthy.”
Nunnally moved to Canada, where he was hired as technical director for Theatre Calgary. He also found work for a film production company called Unreel Effects and as a rigger for the International Alliance for Theatre and Stage Employees, Local 212, of which he is still a member.
Eventually, the theater department at Calgary’s Mount Royal College asked him to teach one day a week.
The small class met from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., a schedule that sometimes interfered with Nunnally’s regular day job – and inspired his teaching philosophy. If he was unexpectedly needed on a set, he’d pile the whole group in his Chevy Suburban for an impromptu field trip backstage.
“I started to develop the idea that on-the-job training was so valuable,” he says.
After a decade in Canada, Nunnally felt ready to teach. His feelers found NIU. “The size, the proximity to Chicago, the attitude of the other professors – there are so many things good about DeKalb.”
Now students have an additional factor to count among those positives: Tracy Nunnally, a teacher for whom “Does that make sense?” ends most of his sentences.
Many disciples have come from far away simply for the rare chance to spend three years studying under Nunnally, who they most likely discovered at work on professional jobs. “I’ve gone out. I’ve worked with them. They like what they see,” he says. “They say, ‘Hey, I could learn from that guy. The stuff he’s teaching could be valuable to me.’ ”
Madaski, a native of Iron River, Mich., and a graduate of Northern Michigan University, is one who followed the piper to DeKalb.
“I met up with Tracy on a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ gig at Northern Michigan University,” says Madaski, who already had logged 15 years as a pro. “He told me about the program he had and what they did here as far as technical direction and all the different projects we can do with Hall Associates. There are more opportunities here than at other grad schools.”
“There are several schools where you can go to learn how to make a motor spin, or how to do rigging, but it’s an academic classroom example and it’s right out of a book,” adds Ryan Poethke, a Cedarburg, Wis., native who found NIU while working as a freelance theater tech in Chicago. “If students are interested, Tracy takes them to flying gigs around the country and the world. We learn by doing practical projects.”
Madaski, who leaves for Singapore soon to install a two-motor flying winch system he and Poethke designed and built for a nightclub there, hopes to follow Nunnally into academia.
“He is a confident professional, and I find it interesting that his patience level for freshmen and undergraduates can be so pronounced,” Madaski says. “I know many professionals who could not deal with brand new 18-year-old freshmen, but he is professionally and educationally calm and straight-forward. The term is ‘professional,’ but in our realm, it’s being very direct and very sociable and getting what you need without having to coax.”
Nunnally beams when he speaks of the experiences he provides his students, whether through internships, freelance jobs at his side or on tech crews for the School of Theatre and Dance.
“My students have a reputation of getting the job done and following through. To me, that’s just part of their education,” he says. “Being able to put people like Ryan and Scott out there, with the confidence to do what it is they want to do, gives me a great sense of satisfaction.”
It’s only one of the rewards that make his crazy schedule worthwhile.
The other comes in a darkened theater when one of his amazing effects begins its magic. He can feel the shift in the room. He can hear the collective inhale.
“When Peter Pan takes off from the stage and flies out over the audience and buzzes the Jones family in the seventh row … I’m getting goosebumps on my arm just thinking about it,” he says. “I love the look on kids’ faces when you have taken something from someone else’s imagination and brought it to life. That’s all the thanks I need. I don’t need a standing ovation or applause.”
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