BWW Interviews: Nate Eppler, A Life in the Theatre

BWW Interviews: Nate Eppler, A Life in the Theatre

As talented as Nate Eppler is as an actor (and he's got the reviews to prove that he is, indeed, just that), it may be his writing talents that will ensure his place in theatre history (and he has a growing file of reviews to prove that, as well). Of course, only time will tell on that score, but for now Nate Eppler is keeping busy, adding to the opus of work to be delivered from his imaginative brain.

On May 1, his play Long Way Down will have its premiere as part of Tennessee Repertory Theatre's Ingram New Plays Festival. Long Way Down will be presented at 7 p.m. at Nashville Children's Theatre as part of the festival dedicated to nurturing the works of new voices in the theatre. Mentored by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn (Proof), new works by the participating playwrights will be given staged readings during the festival, which will be capped by the debut of Auburn's new play, created under the auspices of the Ingram Fellowship.

Eppler's other plays include Vote Jesus, Keeping Up With the Joneses, The Shorty Hawkins Play, Modern Love, To the Teeth and Filthy Rich. Keeping Up With the Joneses, originally produced at the University of Memphis, was an official selection of the Kennedy Center/ American College Theatre Festival and was named runner-up for the American College Theater Festival National Student Playwriting Award. Nate was further awarded for his work on Keeping Up With the Joneses with the Larry Riley Rising Star Award, the Chattanooga Theatre Centre New Play Award and was named to the Top Ten Artists in Memphis by Memphis Magazine and best new artist by The Commercial Appeal.

From 2002-04 Eppler was playwright-in-residence for Breezeway Theatre Company where he developed The Shorty Hawkins Play and Modern Love, which was subsequently adapted into a screenplay and produced for ArchAngel Media. He has participated in the Charter Theatre Company First Draft Project, the Bloomington Playwright's Project (Reva Shiner Award) and the Kennedy Center Playwriting Intensive. In 2005, Nate was commissioned by the Kennedy Center and the White House Historical Association to develop the play The Amazing Unbelievable and (Almost) True Story of Eisenhower's Golfing Squirrels for young audiences.

A recipient of both the Tennessee Arts Commission professional development support grant and the Individual Artist Fellowship, Nate has studied in master-class environments with Gary Garrison, Marsha Norman, Lee Blessing, Chay Yew, Carlyle Brown, Mark Bly, Heather MacDonald, Steven Dietz, Melanie Marnich and Roberto Aguirre-Sacassa, among others. Nate currently serves as playwright-in-residence at the Tennessee Repertory Theatre.

After last season's Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre success with Eppler's Filthy Rich, this year will see the premiere of Rear Widow (running September 2-October 9) co-written with his playwriting partner J. Dietz Osborne. Described as a take-off on film noir, it's the nex play from the duo who also scored a critical hit with Southern Fried Funeral, staged earlier this season by Franklin's Bethlehem Players. He and Osborne will also write an adaptation of Cinderella for Chaffin's Barn summer children's theatre, running June 22-August 7.

Nate recently found time in his daunting schedule to answer our questions and give us a unique perspective on his "Life in the Theatre." Read and learn...and enjoy!

What was your first taste of theatre? A very tall teacher told me I should be an actor. Seriously, she was gigantic. Her shorter brother was Sweet Lou Dunbar from the Harlem Globetrotters. When very tall people make suggestions you have no choice but to listen, and so I tried out for the Flint Youth Theatre's production of the musical Jacob and the Hooded Fang. It was fifth grade. I played Jacob. And though I could not sing, I fell in love straightaway.

What was your first real job or responsibility in the theatre? I wrote a play called Vote Jesus that was produced by the Peregrine Theatre Company in New York. It was a new theatre company put together by graduates (and soon-to-be graduates) of Atlantic Acting School, and we were all very young and finding our way as we went. I felt lucky to even be there at all. I remember walking into my first meeting with the director and having this overwhelming feeling that I was just pretending to be a playwright. I told her it was my first play, that I'd only been in New York for about three days, that I didn't know what the hell I was doing and that I certainly wasn't a playwright. She smiled, handed me the rehearsal schedule and said "Well, you are now."

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in theatre? My father came to see one of the last performances of the first show I was in. I felt like he was more proud of me for that than anything else I had ever done. I knew right then.

Why do you pursue your art in Nashville? What are the best parts of working here? As of right now, Nashville isn't quite a theatre town; we can all agree on that, right? The vast majority of cities our size have a much healthier theatre scene. There are lots of reasons for that, but it is what it is. Maybe it's always been that way, maybe it's a feature unique to Music City, I don't know. But, I swear to you, I can feel it starting to change. You can see it in this year's offerings. I feel like there's something very exciting starting to happen in Nashville. Nashville theatre is more robust than it has been in years. Funding may very well be down, but ticket sales are up. More people are seeing theatre in this town than five years ago. Every single new audience member an individual theatre reaches is a potential audience member of every theatre in Nashville. The professional companies in town have weathered the economic crisis and come out on the other side more focused and producing more muscular work than before. The independent companies in town have certainly taken their hits as well, but are growing by leaps and bounds and are unequivocally leading the way into Nashville's theatrical future. Suddenly, there are so many productions and companies and one-off shows that there aren't enough performance spaces for all of them. This is an overwhelmingly good sign of positive growth. And there's a new crop of theatrical voices here in Nashville that are ushering in that growth; think of the audiences that Cathy Street and Trish Crist are reaching, or the professional approach new directors like Paul Cook and Lauren Shouse are bringing to the table. When I see somebody young and talented like Andy Kanies choose to stay in Nashville, produce new work in Nashville and pursue a career in Nashville, I can't help but think there's boundless potential in my adopted city. We aren't there yet, that's for damn sure. Producing a play, finding the right artists and getting the word out is still harder than staying at home and playing Farmville; but more and more people are out there doing it for an increasing number of audience members. I honestly don't know where Nashville theatre is headed, but we're moving in the right direction and I want to be part of the ride getting there.

In your opinion, what is the best new development in Nashville Theatre? I'm excited by the response I'm seeing to new plays premiering in Nashville. Rhubarb Theatre is consistently getting remarkable audiences for their new plays, People's Branch Theatre had a huge success this season with their 10x10x2 Festival and the Rep's three-year commitment to new plays culminates in this year's Ingram New Works Festival (of which, shameless plug, I am thrilled to be a part.) And they're not the only ones; my writing partner Dietz Osborne and I have been lucky enough to be commissioned to develop new plays for both Chaffin's Barn and Bethlehem Players this year, two theatres you wouldn't necessarily associate with new works. While producing new works is a tell-tale sign of a thriving community, certainly, it's the audience response I'm seeing that really has me turned on. Nashville audiences genuinely seem to be hungry for new product. Not to say that there still isn't room for Oklahoma! but there's audience enough now in this town to support a lot more than just that.

If you could play any role, direct any work, design any production, mount any production...what would it be and why? I'd like to mount the best production of anything anybody's ever seen. Wouldn't you?

Who would play you in the film version of your life story? Hopefully someone with better teeth than me.

What's your favorite play/musical? Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Three Sisters, The Pillowman, Travesties and whatever play I'm working on right now.

If you could have dinner with any three figures (living or dead, real or fictional) who are a part of the theatre, who would you choose and why? Orson Welles, Anton Chekhov, and a translator so Orson and I could understand what the hell Chekhov was saying.

Imagine a young person seeing you onstage or seeing a production in which you played a major role coming up to you and asking you for advice in pursuing their own theatrical dream...what would you say? To quote the poets known as Mobb Deep, "There ain't no such things as halfway crooks." If you're gonna do it, do it, but you gotta put everything into it. Beyond that, the rules are easy: Show up on time, leave your shit at the door, make bold choices and don't fall off the stage.

Nate Eppler, onstage in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.

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