Happy Retirement! Julie Nelson takes her leave
Tuesday, September 3, 2019
Tuesday, September 3, 2019
In spring 2019, Julie Nelson, a stalwart of our performance program for nearly three decades, retired from the Department of Theater. She's hardly gone from the theater world — Gina Kaufmann promptly cast Julie in the production of The Revolutionists she's directing for Silverthorne Theatre, for one — but we will miss her presence in the department nonetheless. Of course, we couldn't let her go without asking some current and former department members to celebrate her a little bit. Read on for some words from students and faculty!
Teaching side by side
After about seven years working together in the theater department, Julie Nelson and I decided to create and co-teach a new career prep class. Neither of us knew what we getting ourselves into, but two things kept us going—the suspicion that we could make something valuable for the students (I hope we did that) and the knowledge that it would be great fun (for us, if not for anyone else). Teaching side by side with Julie I learned several things about her: She loves really good writing and really good acting. She also loves a good joke. She is a voracious reader of new plays. She wants performers to take care of themselves and look out for each other. She likes to ask questions. She believes that hard work pays off. She roots for the underdog. She has some terrific shoes. Professionalism, compassion and curiosity are things she brings to the classroom and she hopes everyone else will as well. She is dismayed when talent is hampered by insecurity or laziness. She can bring out great work from her students. She is very, very funny.
I also learned a few things about teaching: Be more flexible, more observant, more compassionate, and more willing to praise others’ good ideas. Always want to read a new play, see an exciting performance, understand a new approach and support a fledgling enterprise. Be persistent even while shifting strategies. Ask for professionalism. Ask different kinds of questions. While having great fun teaching with Julie, I became a better teacher. Countless students have been guided, prodded, encouraged, surprised and changed by her. Selfishly, however, I am mostly thinking about how much I will miss teaching with her, seeing her on our stages (she is a fantastic actress) and laughing with her in the hallway.
— Chris Baker, Professor of Dramaturgy
The Julie Nelson fist pump of approval
Julie Nelson is the kind of professor who cares about her students as artists and as human beings, and gives them the space required to be vulnerable and to grow. I will always be grateful for having trained with her, and for the guidance and support she's given me over the years. Being an actor is hard. It's hard training, it's hard work, and it can be very brutal navigating the business. But it's a calling, and having someone like Julie in your corner makes it feel achievable and worth the struggle. When I had tried and failed to get into a graduate program twice, she was happy to spend nearly an hour on the phone with me, and this was years after I'd graduated from UMass. I was applying to grad school for a third time, and I was worried about how a particular audition had gone — I was questioning whether I wanted to continue pursuing acting at all. Julie was honest and straightforward, but supportive. I remember leaving that conversation feeling like everything was going to be okay. I should mention that all three times I applied to graduate programs, Julie happily provided me with recommendation letters. And, as it turned out, I got into the program I had applied to, and getting my MFA in Acting has been one of my proudest accomplishments.
Julie has continued to stay in touch with me, most recently supporting a web series that I've written and am starring in. Her interest and encouragement in my career mean more than she knows. She's had a huge impact on me, and anyone who's had the pleasure to study with her is very lucky indeed. I will always remember the thrill of, out of the corner of my eye, seeing this particular fist-pump she does when someone hits a really good beat when working a scene. When you got the Julie Nelson fist pump of approval, you knew you were on to something. And, to this day, I still use her Linklater warm-up before performing!
— Katharine Scarborough '05
She is everywhere!
Whoever has had the chance to be acquainted with Miss Julie Nelson would admit that she is one unique human being! Apart from her entertaining and unique personality, what stood out to me most about her was her passion for teaching.
Julie Nelson was a teacher in the truest sense, one whose sole focus was on her students’ growth: encouraging and helping her students and never hesitating in going the extra mile or two for them. I remember she would assign us to bring our own monologues, but when the deadline approached, she already had options ready for us in case we had an excuse not to bring one (which some of us did). She was also everywhere! By that I mean that she was not one of those professors you just got to see when you had a class with them. If you looked closely towards the backseats of the Rand or the Curtain Theater, you would find her observing and taking notes for students. I remember one specific note she had for me during The Lily’s Revenge, in which I was playing the role of Pansy. It said “COULD NOT UNDERSTAND PANSY”. You will also see her working with a student in the Purple Lobby trying to help them find their voice!
She never claimed to know the secret to acting but encouraged us all to find our own voices and to just be ready to make a fool out of ourselves. Her clown class has prepared me extremely well for future disasters! Any time in my daily life or in a rehearsal space I feel embarrassed or I fail, I think of her clown class and all the failures I had then and Julie’s message to us all that we have to own these “failures”.
I feel so lucky to have met her and have her as my teacher. She is someone who I always look to for advice because she is straightforward and is never afraid to tell you the truth. And I respect that. Her support, honesty and interest in my journey and growth has helped me tremendously. I feel so blessed and thankful to have her as a constant source of guide in my life. UMass and its students will absolutely miss having a teacher so dedicated like her!
— Abuzar Farrukh '18
Endlessly curious and open,
Before I knew Julie Nelson as my Professor of Acting, Voice and Movement I knew her as a fellow actor. I had just been cast in my first show, Walls, at New World Theater and had no idea what I was doing. I was 20 and had never been in a play or taken an acting class and was new to being a full-time college student. At our first rehearsal, I noticed somebody who did know what she was doing. And I watched her and learned. Julie has and continues to be one of my favorite actors. She is endlessly curious and open on stage. Her technique is so solid and bold but then there is this other thing always at play: her total love for humans and their stories. The gifts she has given me as my teacher are so numerous. And after I graduated she still kept teaching me, probably without knowing it.
I remember one bright beautiful afternoon after I graduated, eating a sandwich at her new home. She told me that she had plans to plant a wildflower garden in her backyard. Until that point, I was unaware that one could plant a wildflower garden; I thought they just happened by luck. And chance. It never occurred to me until that day that one could cultivate such wildness, diversity, and beautiful chaos. But Julie taught me this, and I have always remembered this potential in every artist. I continued and continue to watch Julie because she has in fact taught me how to be a woman in the American Theater. I have called her when teaching my own students has been rough. She gave me her son’s stroller and bassinette when I became a mother. Most recently she acted with me in my daughter’s play. And as I shared the stage with her I looked at her again and wondered if someday I might be able to do what she does.
—Michelle Hendrick '95
Many wonderful memories
For nineteen years, it was a pleasure for me to work in the Main Office of the Theater Department at UMASS. When I first started there, Julie Nelson was an Assistant Professor, and now she is retired, like me. I have fond memories of all the people I worked with, the amazing talent of all the artists ~ faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, guest lecturers, returning alums and others. Julie brought many guests to the Department and I always loved it when she introduced me to them. I recall when her son Lucas was born, one of her students holding the baby during a lecture. Such a precious memory! Julie was one of a panel of judges for a witch cackling contest I conjured up. It was so much fun and a good example of the unity and vibrance of our Department. Julie taught me once how to do a theatrical “trip” but not really trip. I was so proud of myself when I got that down. I was showing my family and everybody my new-found achievement.
I remember having one of those days we all get on occasion, and I was sitting at my desk thinking, “Oh Lordy, What a day!!” Then, I looked up and Julie Nelson's clown class had formed a pyramid of clowns in the entrance doorway for the Department of Theater. Well, that made my day! Last, but not least, her amazing performances. I remember her in Our Town, a favorite of mine, directed by Ed Golden. So many WONDERFUL memories have I! CONGRATULATIONS, Julie Nelson, on your recent retirement. YOU ROCK!!!
— Denise Lessard Wagner, retired Department Secretary