After a 10-month-long nationwide search following the unexpected death of Scot Copeland last February, Nashville Children’s Theatre (NCT) welcomes its new executive artistic director, Ernie Nolan, beginning February 1.
“I am thrilled beyond measure to declare Ernie Nolan NCT’s next artistic director,” says NCT Board Chair Jamie Eskind. “Ernie is an artist of the highest caliber and an esteemed leader in the field of theater for young audiences. His inspired vision, collaborative spirit and investment in what is special about NCT are the precise combination of abilities required to lead NCT into the future,” she adds.
The 40-year-old Michigan native makes his way to Music City by way of Chicago where he was artistic director of Emerald City Theatre (ECT). In the Windy City, Nolan was instrumental in creating The Little Theatre within the umbrella of ECT, the country’s first immersive theater program for children 5 and younger. He’s also a former resident artist of The Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., where he directed and choreographed world premieres by Tony-nominated artists like Willy and Rob Reale, Stephen Schwartz, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and Bill Russell and Henry Krieger.
As a playwright, Nolan is known for adapting children’s storybooks into plays, such as If You Give a Cat a Cupcake, If You Take a Mouse to School, The Adventures of Doctor Dolittle and other favorites. His work at The Broadway Playhouse includes A Charlie Brown Christmas, Fancy Nancy The Musical, Pinkalicious, Cinderella, Charlotte’s Web and the world premiere of Hansel and Gretel: A Wickedly Delicious Musical Treat, written in collaboration with Grammy-nominated recording artist Justin Roberts. In 2012, Nolan made his Off-Broadway debut as a choreographer with Lucky Duck at the New Victory Theater in New York.
He’s currently the Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA)/USA international representative for the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (ASSITEJ), an organization that facilitates the exchange of cultural ideas among professionals who work in theater for children.
“I am incredibly honored to be a part of NCT’s rich history of exceptional theater for young people,” says Nolan.”I feel so lucky to be able to call an organization with such talented artists, top-notch staff and dedicated board my new home. I look forward to serving the children, families and teachers of Nashville with programming that reflects Nashville’s amazing community and bring stories to life that both inspire emotional discovery and ignite a fierce passion for the arts,” he adds.
Nolan says theater has always been a part of his life, and his parents were highly influential. His parents are “theater people,” who took him to shows when he was as young as 3 years old. His first theatrical experience? Michigan Opera Theater’s production of Hansel and Gretel. Nolan and his parents were sitting next to the classical music critic from the Detroit Free Press (his parents were friends of the journalist), and Nolan remembers what happened when he realized a male actor was playing the witch.
“I blurted out, ‘Daddy, that’s a man-witch!’ and that ended up in the review,” Nolan laughs.
The theater bug runs deep in Nolan’s family. His parents both acted in high school and college playing opposite of each other in many shows. “My father has a doctorate in dramatic literature, and my mother has a master’s degree in children’s theater. I’m kind of a chip off the old block,” Nolan admits.
His parents were sneaky in that they let Nolan see anything he wanted as a child as long as he read it, which resulted in the young theater lover reading all sorts of dramatic literature well ahead of his peers. “My sixth grade book report was on Chekhov’s Three Sisters, because apparently that’s what I wanted to see at that time,” says Nolan.
Before he began writing and directing, Nolan was an actor who started dabbling with directing when he was working in New York. “I was a company dance captain and set shows for other people dance-wise, and one day it was like, ‘Oh, man, I can never make my own decisions, maybe I want to become a director,'” he reflects.
While in graduate school, Nolan says a lot of his stuff was “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” For his graduate thesis, he took Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and “Moulin-Rouged it with ’80s pop tunes.” So, what drew Nolan to the world of children’s theater?
“I taught in children’s education programs and directed some shows, but it was funny how all the things I loved to do … all the theatrical elements I loved to have in plays for adults … some people would say things like, ‘Oh, look there’s audience interaction,’ or ‘Oh, look, there’s music,’ or ‘Why is there a dance number showing up in the middle of the play?’ By the time I started doing theater for young audiences, nobody questioned that. All the theatrical tools I love to use to tell a story were at my fingertips. No one questions why there’s a puppet in my play when it’s theater for young audiences versus adults,” Nolan says. “Musical theater is my world. I just have a group of actors doing it at 10 a.m. as opposed to eight o’ clock,” he adds.
For this fall, Nolan will choose the 2017-18 NCT season. Newly arrived in Nashville (he moved here toward the end of last month), he’ll be spending time observing and listening, watching and learning. He’s optimistic about the future.
“My ideas have started.What I hope to do is begin to offer things to the audience that are familiar along with some new things that maybe they didn’t know. I think my first season will include familiar stories but told in new ways, along with stories that I think are incredibly topical right now,” Nolan says. Mirroring his start as NCT’s new artistic director, Nolan is looking toward themes of new beginnings. “I think it will come together to be pieces about discovery,” he says.
Also ahead, Nolan hopes to bring a theater-for-the-very-young component to NCT along with other exciting endeavors.
“I want to see a new works development program at NCT,” Nolan says. His intention? For young audiences in Nashville to be the first to see new works by some of the top children’s playwrights working in the U.S. today. “I hope that NCT becomes an incubator for new work and for presenting stories that audiences really want to see by top writers,” he adds.