Curtain Call

Curtain Call

There were signs early on that Victoria Nolan, who just retired after 27 years as Yale Repertory Theatre’s managing director, was destined for the job. “I love the arts, I love performance,” Nolan says via Zoom from the 1810 farmhouse she shares with her husband, Clark Crolius, in Woodbridge, “… but I don’t have an artistic bone in my body. I like the business aspect. I like bringing the resources together, and I like being in charge.” She laughs unapologetically before recalling a childhood game: “I used to play office when I was a kid. I’d take all my parents’ junk mail and get a letter opener and open it.”

Nolan’s Aunt Charlotte called her “bossy,” a term that’s now verboten for girls but one Nolan seems pleased to claim, adding of her outspoken aunt, “She’s why I got in theater.” During a childhood in Maine, the only production Nolan saw was “a little traveling clown show that would come to the Portland Auditorium.” After high school, she decided to skip college and move to Boston to become a sculptor—her parents were visual artists—and an “ersatz hippie.” Her aunt, head of the fine arts department at Roger Williams University (then College), “just thought it was terrible that I was wasting my life, it was awful that I didn’t go to college, what did I think I was doing?” She steered Nolan into a theater program in London, where in nine months she saw more than 100 shows, some of which—like Laurence Olivier’s performance in The Merchant of Venice and director Peter Brook’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—became iconic. By the time she returned stateside, Nolan was desperate to go to school and train for work in the theater. She talked her way into the University of Maine and graduated in two years, with honors.

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By the time Nolan arrived on the scene at Yale Rep in 1993, she had already worked for a couple of dance companies and found her mentor in lighting designer Beverly Emmons. She’d left dance to work at Baltimore’s Center Stage for 10 years, then on to Indiana Repertory Theatre, where she was managing director from 1988 to 1993. Unlike an artistic director, concerned with the direction and performances onstage, a managing director handles the administrative side: production, marketing, personnel, finance, outreach. It’s her job to make sure there’s a falconer to handle the live falcon, an actor who can play the banjo or enough money for pyrotechnics, she says, offering a few quirky examples. “A lot of times people think the managers are the people who say no, and I say the managers are the people who figure out how to say yes,” Nolan says. “But sometimes saying yes is not the right choice.”

Nolan’s long career at Yale Rep is “unprecedented,” a Yale press release trumpets, covering “more than 150 productions and… exactly half of the theater’s 54-year history.” Back in 1993, Nolan says, Yale Rep was known more for “beautiful” productions than for its acting. Nolan and artistic director James Bundy, who arrived in 2002, changed all that, she says. They ramped up the pay for actors from about $800 per week for a nine- or 10-week commitment, to over $1300 and, consequently, got “a much higher level of actor”—a move that, Nolan acknowledges, was possible only because of Yale’s funding. “We’re quite different from other theaters in that our main revenue source is not the box office,” she says. “We are very privileged in that we don’t rise or fall based on our box office revenue.”

Nolan is hard-pressed to single out any favorite productions—30 leap to mind, she says when asked—but she goes on to recount a few stories. There was Bundy’s “epic” first production, Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, whose pumpkin carriage mysteriously ended up in his back yard one night. There was the Shakespeare set that featured a front-row reflecting pool. Nolan’s young daughters nearly leapt from their seats when the lights came up and an actor “literally shot out of the water.” But mostly, Nolan remembers the people.

“When I arrived here, my colleagues were people I had admired and, in many cases, worked with in some capacity,” she says. “To work in the company of such brilliant and generous collaborators was really extraordinary.” She seems equally impressed by the many students she’s taught and worked with over the years. In addition to her job as managing director, Nolan is deputy dean of the Yale School of Drama and a professor in the practice of theater management. Every year, the people who manage the company, oversee the artistic budget, hire the actors and perform many other crucial functions are graduate students.

“My responsibility is not to teach students the theater I did; it’s to give them space to figure out how to do the theater they’re going to do,” Nolan says. What their kind of theater is going to look like now is anyone’s guess. Due to the pandemic, the School of Drama and Yale Repertory Theatre have canceled their 2020/21 season and extended the length of the school’s programs, tuition-free. They will spend that time for reflection “in pursuit of a new paradigm,” including “deeper investment in the anti-racism work that must be at the heart of our training,” a June 16 press release announced.

“Are we going to actually go… back into a space that, by its very nature, is exclusive?” Nolan asks. “I don’t know.” She ticks off a list of what makes theaters exclusive: the “expectation of how you are going to receive the experience, the etiquette that is practiced in the theater,” the lack of accessibility for physically disabled people, wearing certain clothes, not speaking during the performance—“All of those things are, in some ways, barriers,” Nolan says. “Some of them may be necessary, but not all of them.”

Nolan herself will be off doing something else; political campaigning is at the top of her list. She won’t be the one sneaking into the back of a rehearsal with her lunch, just to see how a favorite director is working, or giving a curtain speech on opening night, as she often did in Indiana. Her seat will now be occupied by Florie Seery, whom Nolan has known for 15 years and who’s already been learning the ropes from her.

Despite all her experience, Nolan says it’s still possible for her to sit in the audience—especially at someone else’s theater—and be “completely sucked in” to a play she loves. It’s the same kind of magic she discovered back in London’s West End, and it never gets old.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Joan Marcus.

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