YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Doing It All at the Colony

There's hardly a department that Todd Nielsen hasn't dabbled in during his 19 years at the Silver Lake theater. You might call it a perfect match.

September 07, 1997|Daryl H. Miller | 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.

Los Angeles Times Articles