The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The importance of being DePaul Theatre School professor Ernie Nolan

Playful posters of children’s stories “Snow White” and “Alice in Wonderland” cover the wall, adjacent to a desk shelved with a rainbow-colored array of youngsters’ books and a Charlie Brown figurine. A theatrical, hard-working and responsible man who conveys a powerful inner-child sits in his swivel chair with an energetic posture and beaming face.

Ernest “Ernie” Nolan is renowned in the world of theater for young audiences. Through the years, he has directed, choreographed and written his works through reimagining plays for children between the ages of three and six. As the producing artistic director at the Emerald City Theatre (ECT), Nolan has directed more than 20 productions. In addition, Nolan is an assistant professor at The Theatre School at DePaul University, teaching class twice a week, alongside directing at the Merle Reskin Theatre. On average, he writes one to two plays per year. How does he do it all?

“A lot of time management and a lot of coffee,” Nolan said matter-of-factly. Theater has always been a huge part of Nolan’s life- and family. His parents played opposite each other in various plays and they studied English in college. Bedtime stories were acted out in Nolan’s family. He and his parents would act out roles in such stories as “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Three Little Bears.”

When Nolan went to see his first play, “The Opera of Hansel and Gretel,” at the age of three, he noticed something atypical about one of the actors – to which a young Nolan turned to his parents and commented that the female witch was played by a man.

“That [comment] made it to the papers, so I know for a fact that was the first documented play I ever watched,” Nolan said.

At the start of his career, 25-year-old Nolan taught a musical theatre workshop in Michigan for a summer. During this trial, he endeavored to become the director for a children’s play at a neighboring theater. As a third-year graduate student at DePaul University, Nolan strived for an open-assistant directing position- which he was just shy of receiving- so he returned to Michigan to teach for another summer.

“I didn’t want to just be directing- I wanted to go out with a bang,” Nolan said.

In the end, the early struggles became a blessing in disguise for Nolan when he was offered to work at The Coterie, a theater in Kansas City, Mo. Nolan decided to intern there for three months, kicking off his young audience theater career. During his time at The Coterie, Nolan had directed eight shows and he is still considered a resident artist there.

Shortly after Nolan’s work experience, “Time” magazine released an article on the “Top 5 Theatres for Audiences in the Nation.” The Coterie, to Nolan’s unexpected amazement, was listed number three.

When Nolan went into his interview for the Emerald City Theatre, there lay that same issue of “Time” magazine, a lucky coincidence, helping Nolan receive a directing position. From there, he built up his work to assistant artistic director and then full-blown artistic director.

“It was kind of a snowball effect of events,” Nolan said.

Nolan’s biggest passion in his career, however, lies in playwriting. From “Five Little Monkeys” to “If You Give a Cat a Cupcake,” much of Nolan’s work happens to be adaptations, though more and more he is commissioning original stories.

“Sometimes I’m taking a book that’s already written and making it come alive on stage. Sometimes, there is no book, I’m just creating it in my mind,” Nolan said.

Nolan’s proudest accomplishment was his play, “A Lonely Boy’s Guide to Survival (and Werewolves),” which was selected to be work-shopped at Kennedy Center’s New Voices symposium in Washington, D.C. The play is about two boys who enter a fictional world of battling monsters to cope with deceit and a father’s death through fantasy.

“This piece made me feel really recognized as a playwright, so this piece I am very proud of,” Nolan said.

Nolan is currently writing a play for the Milwaukee Zoo Theatre Program geared toward middle school students, required to use STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) concepts combined with Nolan’s humorous and zany style. Along with this, Nolan is working on “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” song, a play specifically for babies and toddlers. Nolan also just finished his last project, based on Lois Lowry’s novel, “Number the Stars.” This play was performed at the Merle Reskin Theatre last February.

“It’s been a couple busy months, but I finally get a break,” Nolan sighed.

Nolan’s “break” will be traveling to India in part of “Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA),” a national service organization where people from all over the world help network and publish a magazine for people in the field of young audience theater. Nolan, who is vice president of this organization, will be meeting with a larger international organization. Nolan takes interest in seeing the recognizable difference in children’s plays from different countries. He has seen nudity in Europe, a chicken acting in Denmark and a play told through rock music about the Berlin Wall.

“I saw a crazy piece from France,” Nolan said. “This woman played several different characters by wearing masks all over her body – including one on her butt.”

This was something Nolan had never seen in a children’s play and when he turned to one of his Australian colleagues, she said, “Eh, nothing new. You seen one butt puppet, you seen them all.”

“You can’t imagine the chaos that would consume with American children,” Nolan said.

Nolan has been inspired by international children’s plays – notably his latest work, the aforementioned “Number the Stars.” This play broke from traditional design concepts by implementing “numbers” of elements. For instance, instead of having a literal house on the stage, there would be multiple picture frames; or on a street there would be multiple laundry lines.

“My newest obsession is the use of live music in my plays – ‘Number the Stars’ actors play guitar, cello, violin, percussion and melodica.” He intends to incorporate live music for his upcoming summer piece.

Nolan has stimulated his university students to focus on children’s theater. DePaul theater major Meredith Matthews, who is the stage manager of “Number the Stars,” has clicked with Nolan, finding his happy spirit to be a positive influence on his students.

“Ernie had me fall in love with children’s theater. He inspired me to pursue it.” Matthews said.

Matthews, who is a senior, is in the process of applying to various theaters that focus on social change; notably “The Steppenwolf Theatre” and “The Children’s Theatre Company” in Michigan. Matthews would love to one day follow Nolan’s footsteps and work at The Emerald City Theatre.

Theatre major Cassandra Kendell also holds high admiration for Nolan. He has taken several of her favorite tales and transformed them on stage.

“Ernie was the first professor I had here at DePaul,” Kendell said. “He has such an exciting enthusiasm for theater for young audiences and theater in general. He has the gift for holding onto integrity of a story while bringing fantastical flair to it.”

As a freshman, Kendell has already been given a vast opportunity in theater, thanks to Nolan. In the duration of two quarters she has been working alongside Nolan on costume crew for “Number the Stars” and “Hansel and Gretel.” She has been moved by Nolan’s work since her first interview at the Theatre School.

Nolan, happy with his work, sees himself in the future still writing, still directing, and hopefully having written at least one adult piece.

“Theater is like a celebration,” Nolan said. “It’s such a joyous event and I think that going to the theater is one of the closest things to showing young people that magic in the world really exists.”

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