“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
These words by T.S. Eliot could describe Nabra Nelson’s circuitous route from theater to science and back to theater again.
Nelson was only 9 years old when she was bitten by the acting bug, and 15 when she turned her attention to directing. Despite devoting much of her high school life to theater, when it was time to choose a university, she took a sharp turn and headed toward the hard sciences.
“I thought, maybe I can’t do this for the rest of my life,” Nelson said of directing. “And I really loved physics; I took all the physics classes I could in high school. And I thought it was something I could do for a long time.”
So she entered UCSB as a freshman — having selected the university based on its renowned programs in physics and in theater and dance — and declared herself a physics major.
“But my first year here I joined two theater companies right off the bat — the Multicultural Drama Company and the Women’s Ensemble Theater Troupe,” Nelson recalled. “So I started doing theater anyways.”
By her second year, she realized her academic efforts were devoted to physics, but all her extracurricular time went to theater. “I was planning to do the physics major with a theater minor,” she said. “And then I thought, ‘Why am I deceiving myself?’ I’m doing so much theater I should do a double major.”
But when she met with an academic advisor about her plan and discovered she’d need a fifth year to complete both majors, she thought long and hard about what she really wanted to do when she graduated. And what she wanted to do was theater.
“So I decided to switch my physics major to a physics minor and take on the directing tract in theater, which is more intensive, and devote all my time to that,” she said.
“It makes it much easier to go into the theater world now because I’ve explored a completely different tract, and it veered me right back to where I began without my realizing it,” Nelson continued.
Cue Mr. Eliot.
Still, Nelson is glad she kept the physics minor. “It’s definitely a nice breather from theater work and my arts and humanities work,” she said. “It’s great to sit down and do some science and work those cogs in my brain.”
Not to mention the fact that physics has given Nelson problem-solving skills that prove useful in the director’s chair. “When you’re given a physics problem that you’re absolutely certain you won’t be able to figure out,” she explained, “but you have to, and you work on it and you eventually find an answer, knowing you can go through that process when you start with no hope makes you feel like you can do anything.
“Because I’ve done physics, in the rehearsal hall there’s no problem I can’t solve,” she added.
Immediately after graduation — the next day in fact — Nelson will begin an internship at Santa Cruz Shakespeare, working in production of Pierre Corneille’s “The Liar” directed by Art Manke.
With no time to spare, she will head north for a nine-month directing apprenticeship at Milwaukee Repertory Theater where she’ll work on an 11-show season.