Allan Nichols presents Herod's coat

Actor and director Allan Nicholls encourages Theatre Arts students to break out of their comfort zones

The Lees-McRae Theatre Arts costume closet now contains a piece of theatre history.

Allan Nicholls, an actor, director, writer, and musician, visited Lees-McRae in April to gift the college the costume he wore during his performance as Herod in the 1972 Los Angeles production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Nicholls received the almost 50-year-old cape from the estate of Tom O’Horgon, the original director of the show, and wanted to find it a good home. He decided on Lees-McRae after learning about the college from his niece, who is a current student.

Nicholls was impressed by the college and its emphasis on experiential learning and knew his gift would be going to a program that would appreciate it, saying “I wanted to have it have a home in a place where you study theatre.” It was the first time he had donated a piece of his collection.

In addition to sharing part of his career with the college, Nicholls also shared insights from his years of working in the performing arts with students. Nicholls started out as a drummer for the Montreal rock band “J.B. and the Playboys.” In the 1960s, the band’s manager encouraged the group to come to the city to increase their visibility. Despite having no previous acting experience or formal training, Nicholls was invited to audition for the rock musical “Hair,” eventually taking over the role of Claude.   

“When I started, I had no knowledge of how hard it would be to be on Broadway,” Nicholls said.

Nicholls went on to perform in several other rock operas, including his 11-week stint as Herod. He then moved to film and television, starting with an acting role in for the 1975 film “Nashville,” for which he also composed the score. Nicholls also took up writing and directing, receiving BAFTA and WGA nominations for helping write the 1978 film “A Wedding.”

Along with performing and creating, Nicholls has a passion for teaching and connecting with students. His visit to Lees-McRae was the latest stop in a career that has included serving as the artistic director for the New York Film Academy’s Abu Dhabi campus, an associate professor at New York University’s Tisch Asia School of the Arts, and the director of film/video production at Burlington College in Vermont.

Because of his nontraditional introduction to the world of theatre, Nicholls offers students a different perspective as well as practical advice for getting started. For his second class with the Lees-McRae Theatre Arts program, Nicholls led students in the same warm-up and breathing exercises he used when preparing for a show. Many of the exercises were intended to push people out of their comfort zones, which Nicholls says is vital for excelling on stage.

“One thing I find is that people are afraid to embarrass themselves,” Nicholls said. He explained that during a show, every time someone new joined the cast everyone had to attend rehearsal and engage in warmups that tended to make them feel ridiculous, like making exaggerated faces or nonsense noises.

“In the process, you learn to shed away the things that make you embarrassed, uneasy, and uncomfortable,” he said.

When a performer is on stage in front of thousands of people, it’s easy to feel self-conscious. When performers can overcome that hesitation, they are more able to have fun with a role and connect with the audience.

For example, Nicholls—who says he was “born a ham,” brought playfulness to the role of Herod. In each performance he took a different approach to his entrance, sometimes purposefully mispronouncing words for humorous effect or wearing glasses fitted with miniature windshield wipers. He had freedom to ad-lib and improvise with the role, which is something he tries to bring to the projects he directs.

“I like the collegial teamwork of directing,” he said. “I try to let people do what they want because I find joy in creating with others.”

Nicholls also spoke on the importance of making choices as a performer. Acting is more than repeating words that were written by someone else—a performer’s interpretation is what brings them to life.

“Someone has taken the time to craft the words so you feel something when you say them,” he said. “And now you need to make the audience feel something when they hear them.”

He encouraged the students to not be afraid of the choices before them. The only way to figure out if an acting choice is the correct one is to try it.

“You have educators pushing you out the door with the tools you need to make the right choices,” Nicholls said. “Don’t say no to a challenge, and keep going.”

As the students prepared for careers in the industry, Nicholls reminded them that there are no small parts. He said he never wants to hear someone say they are “just a crewmember,” since every person involved in a project is necessary for its success. An actor or crewperson doesn’t have to force themselves into a position that doesn’t make the best use of their skills or demonstrate their strengths.

“Be honest about yourself and your limitations,” he said. “There are places and roles for everybody.”

Looking to the future, Nicholls hopes to return to Lees-McRae and work with more students. He enjoys passing along his expertise, born from years of experience in the industry, to future creators. Nicholls also plans to return to his roots with a revival of "J.B. and the Playboys." The group played a gig in 2019 and scheduled a tour for 2020 before the pandemic interrupted their plans.

Although Nicholls has already had a full career, he doesn’t intend to slow down. His approach to life seems best summarized by the advice he gave after noticing Director of Theatre Arts Danielle Curtis’s daughter playing by herself in the back of the theatre. He paused the class to and encouraged everyone to listen to her talk to her toys.

“You need to go forward with the freedom of a five-year-old child,” he said.    

Allan Nichols shows a picture of a "Jesus Christ Superstar" performance. 
Herod's costumed featured embroidery and hand-sewn mirrors. 
By Emily WebbMay 17, 2021