BYU theatre professor finds ways to share truth and testimony

Nathalie Van Empel
George Nelson is a theater and media arts professor at BYU. He said he strives to inspire young writers to create amazing work. (Nathalie Van Empel)

BYU theatre and media arts professor George Nelson is striving to make a difference with theater.

Nelson has written three musicals and 10 plays during his time as an actor and a playwright. His musical, Single Wide, received acclaim in New York. He has also participated in numerous shows and taught lectures on the power of educational theater. Nelson said the real power of theater comes through the opportunity to create and present universal truths and bear his testimony to others.

“If people can go to the theater and be taught things that are true, we’re drawing them closer to their Father in Heaven, and theater to me is to enrich, it’s to enliven, it’s to open minds,” Nelson said.

The theater enthusiast grew up outside of New York. He said it wasn’t unusual for him to travel into the city to catch a show. He had never considered acting as a career option, although he always enjoyed the art form and once starred in his high school performance of “The Music Man.”

“My patriarchal blessing has a little statement in it about my career, and it advised me that I needed to seek the Lord’s guidance. I made an assumption, because as a little boy I wanted to be an attorney, that that is what I should be,” Nelson said.

Nelson studied political science in his first semester of BYU, but he was not content. He was placed in a class created to examine how theatre relates to education in order to fulfill a GE requirement. It was a graduate level course, a surprise for a freshman to take, but it ultimately proved to be a turning point in his life.

“So I’m sitting there in that class, listening to the principles of theatre, and I’m in the process of deciding what to do,” Nelson said. “I’m fasting and I’m praying and probably the second most powerful revelation that I’ve ever received told me I needed to do theatre. And it didn’t make any sense to me, but I wanted to do what that patriarchal blessing said, and I knew the Lord was telling me to do this.”

Nelson changed his major and became an actor, the only thing he thought a theatre major could do. He continued to seek the Lord’s guidance and became interested in playwriting, which views as an opportunity to open the world to truth.

“I think LDS writers can be uniquely poised to really make a huge difference in the world as long as they recognize that they don’t need to become like the world,” Nelson said.

BYU hired Nelson in 1990 to build the theatre education program. He had a large understanding of the program and its possible weaknesses, because of his prior experience with the drama classes. He revamped the Theatre 101 class to be more inviting for all types of students. The idea was to create an opportunity for people to embrace all sides of theatre, not just the acting portion.

When the director of the playwriting program took an early retirement in 2011, Nelson happily filled the position, excited to have the chance to fulfill his dream as a playwright and to inspire young writers to produce their best work.

“My life is a testimony that the Lord has gently prepared me for things. I wished I had been doing playwriting 25 years ago, but that isn’t what happened and I’ve done a lot of other things,” Nelson said.

Nelson was brought in to change and revamp the writing program as he had done in the past with Theatre 101. The goal was to create a program which would become one of the top playwriting programs in the country. The program has achieved great success according to Nelson. He gives all the credit to the students, whom he claims, “came out of the woodwork to do amazing things” and have won national awards.

In 2012, BYU student Ariel Mitchell won the National Student Playwright Award for her play “Second Birth.” The play was later published. In 2013 the program received more acclaim as seven students were honored with national awards for their original new plays in the Microburst Theater Festival performance. The performance also won three national awards from the Kennedy Center. Nelson’s musical, “Single Wide”, received the National New Musical Award in 2015. The musical was written with the help of BYU student, Jordan Kamalu, who also was honored.

“What’s more interesting to me is the next generation of writers. If I can go on to affect the next generation of writers, then we’re going to have more of an impact, because we need people that write the truth,” Nelson said. “I tell my playwriting students, your job is to bear your testimony. What’s a testimony? It’s what you know to be true, so you need to write the truth.”

His dream to bring the world truth is emphasized in everything Nelson does, according to Wade Hollingshaus, BYU Theatre and Media Arts Department Chair.

“He shows integrity and morals in everything he does,” Hollingshaus said. “He pushes students to do their best work, beyond the easy answer, beyond the cliche. He gets them to recognize how the gospel has been part of their lives and shows them how to build that into characters.”

Single Wide,” a play written by Nelson, gained attention in New York during the New York Music Theatre Festival in 2015. The festival highlighted 10 musicals, picked from around a thousand entries of plays, which have never before been produced. Nelson was invited to produce “Single Wide” as a small scale production in an off-Broadway theater.

“Single Wide” takes place in a trailer park and follows the life of a third-generation single mother, who lives with her mother, trying to bring about a positive change in the life of her family. Everything is normal in the trailer park until a stranger moves into the neighborhood, sparking a love interest. The show emphasizes the lives of the forgotten and pulls on the idea of how each of them still has their own story and their own dreams of a better life.

The setting of the musical allowed for the possibilities of profanity and sexual content, but Nelson’s script created a family friendly trailer park environment. Nelson imagined New Yorkers were going to rip his musical apart because of the morality and virtue of his characters.

To his surprise, not a negative comment was made. ‘The Easy’ said “Single Wide hits it out of the Trailer Park!”. Theater in the Now commented, “There is so much hope in this musical” and “it takes the theater by storm”. went on to comment that “Single Wide” was “powerful and psychologically astute”.

“To me this play is about family. It’s about the law of chastity. Its about keeping your covenants and promise to people and what happens when you don’t,” Nelson said. “That’s the positive of our show, we see people coming out excited about family, excited to be better people and that’s what I want them to do.”

Nelson said he strives to not forget his purpose and continue to focus in on the development of students. He said he is not willing to change what he knows to be right in order to conform with the changing media of the world.  What truly matters to him is leaving his audience with a “universal truth that can resonate within them and make them better people.”

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