Jeff Nellis pulled off an unusual feat this spring: He designed lighting for two one-person shows, both commercial productions, running in the same theatre (you could catch one show at 7pm and one at 9pm). The two projects had separate casts, directors, designers, and managements. They were as unalike as possible.
"My Italy Story," by Joseph Gallo, is a funny, touching piece about an advertising executive from New Jersey who travels to Italy to settle a decades-old feud in his Italian-American family. "Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown," by Guillermo Reyes, is a high-energy burst of comic monologues featuring an outrageous collection of gay, male, Hispanic characters. The only link between these two productions, presented at Off Broadway's 47th Street Playhouse, was Nellis. "The schedule was madness," he recalls. "We were teching one show until 4pm; then the crew was changing over while the next group came in and hit me with their issues of the day. I had a fantastic electrician, Andrew Merriweather, who worked the same hours I did--18 hours a day, seven days a week for a month, with never a day off."
"My Italy Story" was done on a bare stage with a cyc. The major set piece was a proscenium arch, designed by Jeff Cowie, on which was painted a series of Italian icons. "It was stunningly beautiful and probably one of the most difficult pieces I've ever lit," says Nellis. "It had a scrim 1' downstage of it, so all the lighting had to exist between the scrim and the hard surface of the proscenium. I mostly used 3" inkies around the sides, with some fresnels providing uplighting for the bottom. There was a question of when should we call attention to the arch, so we chose a couple of key moments when we really featured it."
Otherwise, he says, he used color washes on the cyc to chart the show's shifting moods and locations. "I went with ambers and oranges--more lush, romantic colors for Italy, which made a nice contrast with the blues and greens representing his family memories. At the end we went full blast again with the Italian motif."
In contrast, "Men on the Verge," which is still running, has a set, designed by George Xenos, that consists of three wing panels and an upstage flat with a door. The walls are covered with props and costume pieces that actor Felix Pire uses for each scene, then discards. By the climactic scene, about a drag queen dying of AIDS, Nellis says, "all the props are down; it's completely stark and barren."
For "Men on the Verge," Xenos designed a cover for the "My Italy Story" proscenium, which, Nellis says, "killed 8' [2.4m] of the front-of-house. A lot of lighting positions were severely limited, just to accommodate the storage. So "Men on the Verge" had to be done from high angles--it's all downlight, with some high sidelight and frontlight. There were very few opportunities for low sidelight."
That Nellis is in New York at all is a matter of some surprise to this Berkeley, CA, native, who says he had no intention of moving east. After graduating from the University of California at Davis in 1991, he started spending summers at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, MA. "It's fantastic," he says. "It's a place where you can truly learn how to put on a fully produced show, with high production values, in three days. It's where I started to learn about design. My first year there Tom Skelton did a seminar for [the interns] about color theory and approaches to design; it was very influential for me."
Nellis moved to New York in 1993, to be near his then-girlfriend, now his wife, Andrea Scala Nellis, who was a graduate student at Yale (she's now assistant general manager at Brooklyn Academy of Music). He started assisting LD Rui Rita, a Williamstown contact, on such projects as "Vita and Virginia" and "Antony and Cleopatra." "Rui is my greatest mentor," he says. "I've learned not only design techniques from him but how to work in the business."
In the meantime, he's picked up design jobs of his own, working frequently at Penguin Repertory Theatre in Stony Point, NY, where "My Italy Story" was originally done, and also at various Off Off Broadway theatres. He now designs at Wiliamstown; last summer, his projects there included a revival of Clifford Odets' "Rocket to the Moon," directed by Joanne Woodward, and Arthur Miller's "All My Sons." This summer, he's back there, doing "Broken Sleep," three one-acts by Donald Margulies, directed by Lisa Peterson, and a new musical, "Stevie Wants to Play the Blues," directed by Jim Simpson. He's also off to the Alley Theatre in Houston to do a revival of "Sleuth."
"When I was an intern at Berkeley Rep," he says, "[California-based LD] Peter Maradudin advised me strongly against moving to New York. And he might have been right. But I love working in New York. Everything is happening here. This has been a tremendous year for me, with the number of people I've met who I've had a great time working with, who I'm looking forward to working with again." Consider Jeff Nellis a man on the verge of an interesting career.