MC alums light up DC theater scene
By Tina Kramer
What seven words strike fear into the heart of a parent? “I’m going to be a theater major.”
College advice articles seem to confirm the bad news: “Most Useless College Majors” ... “Worst College Majors for Your Career” ... “The Best and Worst College Degrees for Your Money.”
Do theater majors face a future pulling espresso shots, pouring whiskey, or waiting tables—while waiting for their big break?
Not necessarily. Turns out MC theatre grads can make a living—and a life—in Montgomery College’s own backyard.
With 80 professional theaters around the District alone, Washington comes in right behind New York City as the most important theater city in the US.
Just ask the five 2013 Helen Hayes Award winners and nominees who are connected to Montgomery College. They’re all thriving. And they all cut their theater teeth at MC.
When the 2013 Helen Hayes Award nominees were announced this past February, Priscilla Cuellar ’04 was cleaning her house, not watching the webcast.
“I was very, very surprised when I heard that I was nominated,” says Cuellar, who was in the running for best supporting actress in a resident musical for Legally Blonde: The Musical at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland.
Cuellar never expected to win, so she didn’t prepare a speech for the awards ceremony held this past April at the Warner Theater in Washington, DC.
“I remember them reading the category. I remember them saying my name. I remember standing up and thinking, ‘I’m supposed to go up there,’ but I don’t remember anything I said,” says Cuellar, who tied with Theresa Cunningham from The Color Purple, also at Toby’s Dinner Theatre.
Cuellar, of Kensington, performed at Damascus High School, but she wasn’t bitten by the acting bug until her second year at MC. Brad Nacht, a high school and college friend, pushed her to audition for shows. (Nacht has since gone on to Broadway fame for his roles in Billy Elliott and The Addams Family, among others.)
“The rest is history. I knew I had to do this,” says Cuellar, who built an impressive resume of acting and singing roles at MC, performing in the College Performing Arts Series in the spring and fall, and in Summer Dinner Theatre during June and July.
During college, Cuellar studied with some of the area’s top theater professionals: Michael Bobbitt, artistic director of Adventure Theatre, who directed her in several plays; vocal coach Lisa Carrier; and acting coach Roberta Gasbarre, director of Discovery Theater.
She praises Professor Susan Hoffman, chair of the Department of Speech, Dance, and Theatre. “She helped me out a lot,” says Cuellar. “She knew I came from a single mom family, and she was a big part of my life here.”
A few short weeks after graduating, she launched her professional career, helped along by Dr. Jay Crowder, chair of the Department of Music. Crowder continues to assist her with issues and problems, and points her toward projects she should consider. “He’s Number One for me,” says Cuellar.
Crowder sent her to audition for her first job: the Musical Theater Center’s Schoolhouse Rock. Then it was on to Signature Theatre, and to venues all over Maryland, DC, and Virginia: Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center, Imagination Stage, Adventure Theatre, Keegan Theatre, Olney Theatre, Toby’s Dinner Theatre, and MetroStage, to name more than a few.
“For six years, there were no breaks in between shows. I was very lucky and very blessed to work so much,” says Cuellar.
Her work in Legally Blonde: The Musical garnered rave reviews. DCtheatrescene.com said, “Priscilla Cuellar as Paulette is as strong a comic as she is a vocalist, and spearheads the show’s arguably most uproarious number.”
Of her recent role in Keegan Theatre’s The Full Monty, broadwayworld.com said, “ … the force of nature that is the newly minted Helen Hayes Award-winner Priscilla Cuellar is particularly memorable.... Her take on... ‘Life with Harold,’ is a show-stopper, both in terms of singing and song interpretation... ”
Cuellar has arrived. Yet she continues to work full time as a medical auditor at Progressive Insurance Company in Silver Spring. “I tend to do only a few shows a year because it’s so taxing,” she says. “In 2012, I did four shows in a row. There was a time when I was doing just acting, but you have to say ‘yes’ to everything that comes your way. Now I choose what I want to be involved in because I have my job.
“I love theater and I could not be myself without it, but I’m not aspiring to quit my job and be on Broadway. I’m pretty content doing this on the side.”
After doing four shows in 2012, Cuellar is enjoying her downtime, looking at a few projects for next spring.
“I still have to audition, but with this Hayes award, I don’t have to wait in line. Most of the casting directors know me and just call me.”
The Sound of Success
The term, “too much of a good thing,” is how Matt Nielson ’95 might describe parts of his career.
Nielson, formerly of Germantown and a Seneca Valley High School grad, won a Helen Hayes Award this year for outstanding sound design in a resident production for The Illusion at the Forum Theatre in Silver Spring.
In the mid 1990s, he trained in music and theatre at Montgomery College, studying acting with Professors Susan Hoffman and Roberta Gasbarre, and taking music with Professor Mark Cook and Professor Emeritus Gerald Muller, who have since moved on.
He acted in MC musicals, including, among others, The Music Man, Candide, Little Shop of Horrors, and Oklahoma. In the music program, he cast, directed, and starred in Oedipus Tex, by Peter Schickele (P.D.Q. Bach).
In 1998, Nielson worked at Round House Theatre when it was located on Bushey Drive in Silver Spring. For several seasons, he built scenery by day and worked on the run crew at night. He spent two summers as a production coordinator at Wolf Trap, spending as much time as he could with the audio crew and learning as much as possible.
On a whim, he applied for a job as an audio master at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York City.
“I suspect they thought I was more experienced than I was; I had Wolf Trap on my resume,” says Nielson. “They ended up hiring me. My first year was trial by fire, but I learned an immense amount.”
It was easy to get burned out at a place like the Public, with five theaters downtown, plus Shakespeare in the Park productions in Central Park. “I was there for 9/11, which took a toll on everybody,” says Nielson. “It was very hectic; they cut staff in half, but increased production.”
Right around the time Nielson was losing steam at the Public, Round House was moving into new spaces in Bethesda and Silver Spring. So in 2002, Nielson hired on as assistant technical director/audio master. He split his time between building scenery, managing sound systems and audio needs for tech and previews, and running sound for the occasional production. It was during this time that he received his training as a sound designer, watching and learning from the great designers in the area who frequented Round House.
Several years later, Nielson began sound designing in small theaters in the DC area. His first big break came in 2007 when Round House Theatre asked him to design A Prayer for Owen Meany, for which he won his first Helen Hayes award.
He followed up with a Hayes award in 2009 for 1984 at Catalyst Theater, and was nominated several other times. In addition to his DC accolades, his work has been nominated for awards in Cincinnati and Philadelphia.
A couple of seasons into designing, Nielson discovered he was not finding the right music. He started composing, sneaking some of his own music into productions. “Little by little, I composed more and more,” he says. “I got to the point where I scored the whole play, Treasure Island. These days, that’s more the norm than not. Now, it’s rare that I don’t compose, which has brought me back full circle to my time at MC and the music training I had.”
In 2010, Nielson relocated to Asheville, North Carolina to open Sound Lab Studios with his cousin, an award-winning audio engineer. There, he expanded into film and television. His work can be heard in several local and national commercials, short films, documentaries, and cable spots.
Nielson still comes back to the DC area. This past spring alone, he did 12 shows. That’s considerably less than a few years ago, when his average was 22–24 shows a season.
“I was double and triple booked,” he says. Like Cuellar, he believed he had to take that many jobs, or the theater would never ask him again. “When you’re working that much, God forbid something happens in your personal life that you need to spend time and energy on.”
These days, he seems to have found a healthy balance. “Pace yourself,” Nielson advises. “It’s possible to make a living here, but it’s healthy and good to accept jobs outside the DC regional theatre circuit to gain perspective as an actor and designer.”
Celebrating Hayes Awards Nominees
Three other theater professionals with ties to MC were also nominated this year for Helen Hayes Awards: Paul Scanlan, Lawrence Munsey, and Jenny Cartney.
An Awakening Career
Paul Scanlan ’10 was nominated for outstanding lead actor in a resident musical for Spring Awakening at the Keegan Theatre in Washington, DC. The young actor received his nomination even before he graduated from the Catholic University of America (CUA).
At MC, Scanlan studied with Professor KenYatta Rogers, himself an actor and director. “I didn’t know a lot about acting,” says Scanlan. “Professor Rogers taught me the basics. He taught me the things I still apply today: how to figure out what you want in a scene, and how to go about getting it.”
In his two years here, he did The Marriage of Bette and Boo; The Who’s Tommy; Metamorphoses; The Rocky Horror Show; The House of Blue Leaves; She Loves Me, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
He transferred to Catholic University in 2010, and graduated this past May. At CUA, he took a body movement class with MC Professor Susan Hoffman, who also teaches there. “She’s fantastic,” says Scanlan. “I did a song and we analyzed it together. The things she said opened my eyes to what the song was about, allowing me to transform it in a way I never thought possible.”
He just finished up The Laramie Project at Ford’s Theatre and The Rocky Horror Show (Brad) at Studio Theatre; past roles include Cabaret (Emcee) at the Keegan Theatre, Company (Paul), and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at Signature Theatre.
Scaling the Heights
Lawrence Munsey ’86 was nominated for two Hayes awards this year: outstanding director in a resident musical and out-standing costume design, both for The Color Purple at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland.
Munsey is associate artistic director at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia and Baltimore, where he started working soon after leaving MC.
He took theater classes and did Summer Dinner Theatre at MC in the mid 1980s, studying with Hoffman.
The musical received rave reviews from DCtheatrescene.com: “[The directors] have gathered a young Broadway-caliber cast that delivers amazing performances to tell their individual stories.” Munsey, who also acts, worked with Priscilla Cuellar in Legally Blonde at Toby’s, playing Professor Callahan.
In 2012, he received a Hayes nomination for outstanding director in a resident musical for Chicago, and in 2008, he snagged a nomination in the same category for Titanic, both at Toby’s.
Munsey acted on Broadway and did national tours, but when Toby Orenstein wanted to open a second theater in Baltimore, Munsey “came running back.”
“It’s home and hearth; it’s where my family is,” says Munsey. “Here, I’m on a faster track. I wouldn’t have gotten these opportunities on Broadway.”
Alive and Well
Jenny Cartney was nominated for outstanding musical direction in a resident production for Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at MetroStage in Alexandria.
She was a composition major at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., but spent several seasons at the College’s Summer Dinner Theatre from 1999 to 2003. In 2008, she music directed Chicago at MC, and this past July, she music directed The Wiz for Summer Dinner Theatre.
She has fond recollections of studying with Professors Susan Hoffman, Lisa Carrier, and especially, Jay Crowder. Thanks to Crowder’s recommendation, Cartney participated in the Kennedy Center’s legendary Sondheim celebration in 2002, working as rehearsal pianist for Crowder, who was an associate conductor for Company, and serving as associate conductor for A Little Night Music.
Cartney has worked as a music director and accompanist in the DC area since 2002, and has conducted, music directed, or performed at the Kennedy Center, Ford’s Theatre, Signature Theatre, Arena Stage, MetroStage, and New York’s Town Hall.