Doing It All at the Colony

Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

Director Todd Nielsen and his performers are slogging through the boring, restless part of staging a play--the middle weeks of rehearsal, when hours upon hours are devoted to such mundane matters as when, where and how the actors move.

Hard at work for more than two hours already, they are slowly, methodically walking through the most complex sequence in their revival of Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker": an antic chase that weaves among the furnishings being transported from and to the stage for the next scene.

Nielsen withstands a barrage of questions and keeps track of 1,001 details. He makes wry offhand comments that keep everyone laughing. Most of all, he remains calm--easygoing, yet intensely focused.

Though the performers are weary and frazzled, they follow suit.

Fast-forward three weeks, to this weekend, as "The Matchmaker" opens at the 99-seat Colony Studio Theatre in Silver Lake. This is payoff time, when Nielsen--who has directed such hit productions there as "City of Angels," "Rags" and "The Skin of Our Teeth"--retreats to the back of the house and, with the rest of the audience, watches the show come to life.

But to know Nielsen--or any director, for that matter--is to know him in rehearsal.

"He is the most calm, most patient, most centered person--in the midst of chaos--that I've ever encountered," says Jodi Carlisle, who plays the central role of Dolly Levi.

Barbara Beckley, the Colony's producing director, adds: "When he decides he's going to do something, he somehow manages to overcome every conceivable obstacle and make it go right--because he is determined. He's also very stubborn, and we've knocked heads more than once over that," she adds with a laugh. "But he doesn't get angry; I don't know that I have ever heard him raise his voice. He's this sweet, charming guy with a core of steel--and he has pulled together extraordinary productions here."

Nielsen has rarely been out of sight during his 19 years with the company. He has tackled almost every job imaginable, having also choreographed, designed sets, stage-managed, run sound, handled props, served on an artistic advisory board, launched a new-play festival and organized a couple of gargantuan yard sale fund-raisers.

"There just aren't a lot of opportunities to have such a sort of sandbox available to you, creatively, and I'm very, very grateful for that," Nielsen says. "I suppose in some ways it may be a bit too much of a haven, and that it would be good to get out there and do a little more at other theaters--although there were certainly periods when I did. In some ways, I've been content . . . to work here and learn."

Since the mid-'80s, he has directed at least one show a season and performed in many of the others. And this season, he's been involved in every main-stage show: playing an ultra-cosmopolitan party guest in the Stephen Sondheim revue "Putting It Together," portraying a sensitive British lieutenant in Australia's penal colony past in "Our Country's Good" and now directing "The Matchmaker."

That's a lot for a theater company to put in the hands of one individual. Why does the Colony do it?

"He gives us hit shows," Beckley says. "We're not stupid."

Colony regulars watch for Nielsen's work. "If I know he's directing a show, it's pretty much a safe bet for me that it's going to be good," says Stephen Allott, a subscriber since the mid-'80s. "He seems to get inside the material; he seems to get right underneath, deep down into it."

On weekdays, Nielsen, who lives in Burbank, arrives at the Colony after having clocked a day with Disney Feature Animation, where he works full time as a liaison to outside divisions that develop products based on Disney's animated films.

It's an insane schedule, Nielsen concedes, and his hours at the theater come with the usual perils of working in Los Angeles' small theaters: notoriously low pay and the challenges of staging shows on postage stamp-sized stages.

"When I'm visualizing musicals, I always make the mistake of thinking of the Ahmanson stage--and then I get in here," Nielsen says wryly.

But he savors the challenge. "When you're restricted, that's when you're the most creative," he says.

In the end, he affirms, it all pays off.

"I love getting the rush when an emotional moment works onstage, and I just get all choked up over it. And, as an actor, I enjoy working with an audience; I enjoy the science and the art of it."

Rehearsing on a Saturday, Nielsen dismisses the actors for lunch and sits in a theater office trying to gulp down spaghetti between sentences. He is lean and boyishly handsome at 44, looking not much different from the lad in photos of his first roles with the company.

He is self-deprecating. ("I'm my own worst critic. Aren't we all?" he adds, reflectively. "But I really am.") And he is supremely embarrassed about being the subject of a newspaper profile. ("I feel like I'm sitting on a porch in a rocker in some nursing home somewhere," he cracks as he looks back over his long history with the company.)

Directing, he says, is "a balance between planning and spontaneity." That means doing the homework--becoming so sure of where the show needs to go that he can walk into a rehearsal and "take a right" when he "had already planned to take a left--and to survive it."

The same goes for acting. "It's all about getting out of the way--relaxing, getting out of the play's way, getting constrictions out of your own way. . . . It's all about flow--turning on the tap and seeing what comes out."

The Colony is a membership company, which means that it stages its shows almost entirely with the talents of its six directors and about 60 actors.

Nielsen joined the nonprofit company in 1978--three years out of the University of Minnesota, where he had studied theater.

"I had just moved here from Minneapolis. A friend of mine was doing soaps out here, and he said, 'I'm a member of this theater group; you should come over and check it out.' I walked into a rehearsal and said, 'What can I do to help out?'--and I was promptly ushered up to the sound booth. And I've been here ever since."

Nielsen ran sound for that production of "The Diary of Anne Frank." Soon he was acting, then pushing to direct.

As a director, he has demonstrated a particular talent for digging up failed musicals--including "Rags" and "King of Hearts"--and finding ways to make them work.

Though he has also directed comedies ("Same Time, Next Year") and dramas ("The Diviners," "Execution of Justice"), he is probably best known for his stagings of such musicals as "Guys and Dolls," "Working," "The Robber Bridegroom" and "A Little Night Music." His 1996 staging of "City of Angels," on which he collaborated with Nick DeGruccio, was widely praised for the inventive ways in which it translated the technically demanding Broadway show to a small stage, on a small budget. The production received the Ovation Award for best musical in a smaller theater, bestowed by the trade group Theatre LA.

One of Nielsen's most acclaimed productions was his 1990 staging of Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth"--a madcap tale of humankind's perseverance through an Ice Age, a great flood and the ravages of war. (No, it wasn't a musical.)

That production, Beckley says, showcased one of Nielsen's strongest assets: his attention to detail, such as an earthquake-jarred chandelier that crashed to the "Phantom of the Opera" theme and, in the Ice Age sequence, a vast sheet of parachute cloth that eddied and flowed across the stage like an advancing glacier.

Nielsen had wanted to stage "The Matchmaker" for several years, and with the centennial of Wilder's birth this year, the time seemed right.

Nowadays, "The Matchmaker" isn't as well known as "Hello, Dolly!"--the musical it inspired. Set in the late 19th century, it focuses on Dolly Levi, a force of nature who intends to marry rich but miserly Yonkers storekeeper Horace Vandergelder--if only she can get him to cooperate. Her freewheeling behavior inspires a revolt in Vandergelder's household; his niece and store clerks sneak off to New York, where--despite nerve-racking complications--they have the time of their lives.

"It's about being fulfilled in life and living life to the fullest," Nielsen says. "It's about the adventure of life--facing every danger and enjoying it."

In keeping with the play's frankly theatrical nature (characters are forever turning to speak directly to the audience), Nielsen's production is performed by a troupe of wandering players on what looks like an old-fashioned outdoor bandstand. "Wilder's intent was to keep reminding people that this is theater, and that, in an offhand way, theater is life," the director says.

Talking through his history at the Colony, Nielsen is surprised to find his voice constricting with emotion. "I'm going to have to go away and splash cold water on my face; I really was not expecting this," he says.

"Each show has taught me something different," he summarizes. "I've learned an immense amount."

It has been a collaborative enterprise, he adds. "You have to trust; you have to give what you've got and then open it up for other people to join in."

And so, the Colony has become a home, its members a family. "If it isn't," he dryly observes, "I've been living in the wrong place all these years."

*

"THE MATCHMAKER," Colony Studio Theatre, 1944 Riverside Drive, Silver Lake. Dates: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. No performance Oct. 31. Ends Nov. 9. Prices:$23-$25. Phone: (213) 665-3011. Web address: http://www.colonytheatre.org

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