Welcome to our new blog series, In the Artist’s Voice – a conversation with artists from our season, highlighting their work and their careers in their own words.
The first in the series features the creators of the upcoming one-man show Vietnam…through my lens. We spoke to writer, actor and Vietnam veteran Stu Richel, along with the show’s director Linda Nelson about their inspiration for the show, what audiences can expect, and their careers in the arts. See more about both artists at the bottom of the page.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO CREATE VIETNAM…THROUGH MY LENS?
STU: So, I’m outside, freezing my butt off, having a cigar and a beer, and sharing thoughts with Michael Kosch, a friend and classical composer. That was 2011. A Christmas party at the home of Alex Roe, Artistic Director of the Metropolitan Playhouse in Greenwich Village. The subject of Vietnam came up. Don’t remember how. I recalled the cascade of emotions that I felt on the day I was to leave Vietnam. Nervousness, because it wasn’t yet over. Silence as we boarded the plane, because “things” could still happen. And then, after the plane had taken off, a stewardess announced that this was “Flight G2 B4. Our destination… Travis Air Force Base, California, USA!” We cheered. We applauded. There was an overwhelming feeling of relief, pride, pure joy. We were going back, to the place we called “The World.” We were going home.
Michael was touched. “Hey, you’ve got to put that down on paper,” he said. Yeah, right.
The following year, same party, different cigar, more beer, a few more memories. Again, Michael pushed. “You’ve got to put these down. It’s important.” I guess I still didn’t think so.
Third year. Different party. More stories. More “push” from Michael and actor/director Michael Hardart. “Okay,” I said.
“I’ll try.” I suppose I had needed some assurance that I had enough to say. Beyond that, I had to feel confident that the show would not be just a vanity piece, that the material had some intrinsic value.
As the process of writing began…and goes on…so, too, has a good bit of soul searching. Are my words honest? How accurate is my memory, after fifty years or so? Why did I make some of the choices an audience hears about in the show? Do I think this play can be a meaningful part of the body of literature addressing the Vietnam War? Have I shown proper respect for the courage of so many who went over there, so many who were at far greater risk than I? And, of course, will people just plain enjoy the show?
So far, so good.
LINDA: In 2014 Stu came to me with a couple dozen essays and scenes that he had written about his experiences in Vietnam and how it shaped his life. Problem was, they were all disconnected writings and he wanted to shape them into a play. So he hired me as a dramaturge. It has been so rewarding collaborating with him on this play and I was excited by the project from the beginning. As a dramaturge my focus was on structure and helping Stu build connective tissue between the scenes. Now, don’t misread this, the writing is 100% Stu. I just helped to guide. After he had a play, we produced a very successful reading and at that point he asked me to extend my role from dramaturge to director and producer. I agreed, but only on the condition that he would agree to allowing me to hire Film Maker and video genius, Michael Lee Stever to add a visual component. After all, Stu was a photojournalist in Vietnam and he had all these great shots that he took during his service. It only seemed natural to share the photos with the audience. We produced the show in NYC to rave reviews and then decided it was time to take it on the road. We’ve been touring ever since and here we are!
WHAT CAN AUDIENCES EXPECT FROM THE PERFORMANCE?
STU: A series of heartfelt stories, punctuated by compelling photographs and videos. The odd path by which I ended up in Vietnam, what I did there, and how that experience has colored my life. On another level, though, the stories are about people I’ve met along the way…to, through, and beyond my time in Vietnam. The audience meets a B-52 pilot whose plane was hit by a SAM missile while on a bombing mission over North Vietnam, a priest who served as an Army chaplain in Vietnamand was awarded a Silver Star for valor, a restaurant owner who honors vets in uniform, a spy (!) and a host of other, colorful people.
Some of the stories are funny, some have a touch of drama, and still others are rather poignant. All are told by a fellow who is proud to have served.
No gore. No slide show. No politics. No military connection needed. A show for those who simply love good theater.
Folks will see a lot characters on stage, but only one person. During the course of the show, I play about a dozen, different people. Theatergoers enjoy the range of accents, voices and mannerisms.
Both men and women enjoy the show. Young adults, as well as older folks, will get attached to the show within minutes…and there they will stay…absorbed.
LINDA: I think Stu covered this, but this is a play, not a slideshow, not a lecture, a play. You will meet a number of characters along the way, and Stu will share his personal story with you. It is sincere, real, funny at times, and very moving. It’s the story of a young man coming of age in a difficult time in our nation’s history.
DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO WORK IN THE ARTS? WHAT IS THE CAREER PATH THAT LED YOU TO WORKING ON THIS SHOW?
STU: Have always had an interest in the arts. Initially, though, I did not see the arts as a profession for me. For seventeen years, I practiced law. On the side, I began to perform in community theater productions. Taught some college courses. Taught and performed in prisons. My amateur, acting work grew into professional work on stage and on camera. Then came the gradual realization that I no longer wanted to practice law. In the mid-1980s, I abandoned The Law and “jumped off a cliff”…into the arts world. Became a Development Director and Resident Playwright of Northside Theatre Company, a small theater in San Jose, California. Eventually, I grew “itchy” in San Jose and, heeding the advice of a friend, moved to New York City to “take a shot at it.” Have been giving it a shot for over twenty years now. Wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
LINDA: Well… I started in theatre at the ripe old age of 8 years old when my Fourth Grade Teacher cast me in the lead role of a Halloween Play.. as an unhappy bat. I jumped on that stage and never looked back. That led to more school plays, Community Theatre, Summer Stock and majoring in Theatre Arts in College. I did a lot of technical theatre along the way and eventually focused on directing. I’ve never really known any other way of life. And all of it started right here in Utah. Even though I have lived in NYC for more the half my life, I will always be a Utahan, born and raised in Ogden, then headed to Cedar City to get my degree at SUU, and spent a few years here in SLC before moving on to NYC, working at several theatres such as Salt Lake Acting Company and Theatre 138 before it closed its doors. I sincerely owe so much to the teachers who nurtured my talent along the way and gave me the education and confidence to continue my dream. Teachers like my drama coach at Ogden High, Ruth Darrington, and my debate coach, Doug Threlkeld, then at SUU the legendary Fred Adams, and R. Scott Phillips, Gary MacIntrye, and so many others that believed in me and taught me to believe in myself. I wish I could go back in time and thank that Fourth Grade Teacher, Faye Brown, who started me on this path. I’ve been fortune to continue working as an actor, mostly on stage but occasionally film or TV including a guest spot on “Orange Is The New Black” and a new Indy Short “Lipstick Ladies”. As a director, dramaturge, and producer, I’ve worked on projects as small as private readings, to as large as producing an opera at the Nation Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria, which was televised throughout Eastern Europe. I never could have stayed in the arts without the foundation from those teachers I mentioned, but more importantly, without my incredibly supportive family back here in Utah. They have always believed in me and have never given up on me, even in the craziest of times. And I am so very thrilled that they will be in the audience at Kingsbury Hall with a couple dozens amazing friends. It means the world to me that Utah Presents and the University are allowing me to bring this show to my home turf!
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ASPIRING ACTORS/WRITERS/PRODUCERS/PEOPLE WHO WANT TO WORK IN THE ARTS?
STU: If you have a passion for the arts, find a way to make that passion a part of your life.
Wherever you settle geographically, find outlets for your passion. Volunteer, take small paying jobs, network…do things that will create opportunities and increase your circle of associates who create and foster opportunities for those in the arts. Your familiarity with and use of technology and social media is important. (My resistance to technology has not been helpful.)
If you think about moving to New York City, be prepared for very stiff competition, an environment that is rough and tumble, and a burdensome cost of living. Unless you have access to a pot full of cash, you will probably need to juggle at least one “day job” with your artistic pursuits. Some people thrive in this environment. Others manage to survive, as they develop their artistic skills and opportunities.
LINDA: I always say to other artists “Just JUMP!” It’s hard I won’t pretend that it isn’t. And there are millions of talented people out there fighting for their own shot. If you don’t push, work hard, and JUMP, you won’t survive. And don’t be afraid to collaborate. The Theatre Community is vast and can be your best support system as well as an invaluable resource for projects, ideas, and networking. And get training! An education is essential, not just in your field, but in other areas of the arts, history, social awaremess, politics, environment. A well rounded person is much more interesting to work with and is better prepared for anything the world can throw your way. So JUMP!
About the artists
STU RICHEL (Playwright & Actor) was an Army photographer and journalist with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1969. He was a draftee, who later volunteered for service in Vietnam. He is a Life Member of American Legion Post 0581 in Manhattan and Veterans of Foreign War Post 5195 in Brooklyn. Stu has been a professional performer for over twenty-five years, with appearances on stage and on camera. He has appeared in over twenty, feature films and on a host of TV shows. He played a rich guy in a scene with Damian Lewis on “Billions”, a “suit” in a scene with Alec Baldwin on “30 Rock”, a priest in a scene with Giancarlo Esposito on “The Get Down,” a lonely guy in a new episode of “What Would You Do” on ABC TV, Jacqueline Bisset’s husband in “Death in Love”, and Blythe Danner’s husband in “Gypsy”, among other appearances. He has appeared in Off Broadway, Regional and other, New York City theater productions. Stu is a member of Actors Equity Association and SAG/AFTRA. He has written and toured four (solo) shows. He has written other “full cast” shows that have been produced on California stages.
LINDA S. NELSON (Director & Dramaturge) is also an actor and producer. New York directing credits include Toast, Boast or Roast – A Tribute to Austin Pendleton featuring Olympia Dukakis, Louis Zorich, F. Murray Abraham, Dylan Baker and Becky Ann Baker at the Players Club (Oberon Theatre Ensemble); Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry by Roman Feeser (World Premiere, Tour, The Barrow Group Theatre, Downtown Urban Theatre Festival and Winterfest); The Necessary Disposal by Bob Ost (Scripts Up!); The Choice by Claire Luckham (Shotgun Productions, North American Premiere); Three Tenors in Search of an Act (Helen’s Cabaret, Backstage Bistro Award Winner); Tongue of a Bird (The Medicine Show); and two interactive murder mysteries The Art of Murder and Delicious Death, both of which she co-wrote. Founder of Shotgun Productions, she served as its Producing Director for 19 years and produced theatre, dance, opera and classical concerts throughout New York, New Jersey and in Europe. As an actor, Ms. Nelson has been seen Off Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, Regional Theatre, Film and Television. She is a member of SSDC, SAG-AFTRA, AEA, NJ Rep, Oberon Theatre Ensemble, and TRU, and is a CTI Graduate. She served on the Board of Directors of Boomerang Theatre Company (2010-11) and currently serves on the Board of Directors for New York Innovative Theatre Foundation (NYIT) (2011-Present).