New Paltz theater educator Nancy Owen helps people rewrite their life scripts

Nancy Owen greets children living in a rural village in the Jinja District in Uganda. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Regular readers of the New Paltz Times may recognize Nancy Owen’s name as the advisor to the Drama Club and director of the fall-semester play and spring musical at New Paltz High School. Families in the congregation of the New Paltz Reformed Church know her as the longtime director of education there, running the Huguenot Street Cooperative Nursery School, Kids Kare and other programs held in the church’s Wullschleger Education Building. Lifelong interests in theater, music and education have taken Owen on many an adventure, most recently to teach theater skills to AIDS orphans in Uganda.

Owen’s journey began in Snyder, a hamlet of the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, where she was the youngest of five children. “We used to do neighborhood plays,” she recalls. But her early interest in a theater career “kind of went underground” in eighth grade, when a guidance counselor ruthlessly told her, “You have to have talent to do that.”

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So young Nancy Shepherd decided to major in voice at Jacksonville University in Florida. “But then I took a theater course, for presentation.” So well did it click that the school offered her a scholarship if she would switch majors. She ended up with a teaching degree as well as a BFA in Theater Arts.

Her first real-world stage experience was with the Jacksonville Repertory Theater the summer after graduation. Then she moved in with her sister in Connecticut and found acting gigs with the Sherman Playhouse, including a “bus-and-truck” tour of Funny Girl. Edging closer to her eventual home in the Hudson Valley, she worked with the Cecilwood Theatre in Fishkill, and in 1976 she relocated to New Paltz, where her brother had stayed on after graduating from SUNY. Nancy got involved with the college’s summer rep program, creating costumes and quickly becoming assistant musical director. She took graduate courses in education as well, keeping her teacher certification fresh.

Nancy got married during this period and went to work as a music teacher for the Kingston school district. She took a maternity leave in 1982 when her daughter, Kate Weston, was born, and didn’t go back except to organize a spring concert. It was around this time that she got involved with the Reformed Church education programs and the nursery school. Her son Craig Weston was born in 1985, but her first marriage didn’t last much beyond that. As a single mother with two small children in tow, Nancy learned to piece together a fulfilling career out of many part-time and seasonal commitments.

For three decades she taught theater for Amadeo Productions, an organization of adult actors who put on assembly programs for schoolchildren. Among her most rewarding experiences, she says, were the five+ years she spent teaching creative writing and theater to inmates at the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch. It began with a group of women writers going into the prison to conduct a monthly comedy improv night, and led to a more structured ongoing arts rehabilitation program. With the inmates, Nancy mounted productions of 12 Angry Men and The Boys Next Door, although at first, she says, it was “hard to break through. I finally got them to do a musical – a shorter version of Guys and Dolls. They were amazing.” Once the convicts embraced the idea of doing theater, there was no stopping them. Her writing students collaborated on a play about a traumatic event that had actually happened to them: A diverse group of inmates had worked together to paint a huge mural, only to have it abruptly and arbitrarily whitewashed by prison officials. The collaborative artwork was preserved in memory in another form, onstage, with colored lights projected on a scrim to depict the mural. The play’s performance drew an audience of 75 and was followed by a panel discussion.

Correctional officials from the Sing Sing Theater Program offered to buy the rights to the play and “shop it around,” on the condition that the authors liven up the action by adding some scenes of violence. The Eastern inmates declined, she explains with pride, because the fact that the mural had been created peaceably, by people from a variety of ethnic cliques among the prison population, was the whole point of the story. To this day she still hears from some of her former charges at the prison, many of whom still do theater. One gave her a picture he’d drawn, inscribed, “To the first white person I’ve ever loved.”

Nancy remarried in 1991, to Vic Owen, an educator at BOCES Vo-Tech in Port Ewen. Their son Sam was born the following year. She then spent six years caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, and shortly thereafter, while Kate was attending New Paltz High School, began her relationship with the Drama Club, assisting with the annual musical on a volunteer basis. “I got more involved when they did Guys and Dolls,” she recalls. “Then I was asked to direct Bye Bye Birdie.” Before long, she was directing the extracurricular program. Under Nancy’s leadership, the Drama Club has become a magnet and a second family for creative kids, many of whom don’t feel like they fit in socially, or aren’t interested in athletic programs. “They make these wonderful friendships that are so lasting,” she observes.

It hit a financial rough patch in 2012/13, though, when the school budget was voted down and the club advisor’s stipend was eliminated. Work had already started during the spring semester on the fall production, Shades of War, a collaborative project that involved many of the students doing interviews and writing monologues over the summer. Nancy decided to go through with the project, regardless of whether she got paid or not. Fortunately, principal Barbara Clinton ironed out some union issues, and a group of parents got together to form the New Paltz Arts in the Schools Association, which raised funds to keep the program going. The club’s next production is the spring musical, The Secret Garden, to be performed in March 2020.

Now in her mid-60s, Nancy is contemplating retirement next year from her directorship of the Reformed Church education programs. But the congregation’s recent mission trip to Uganda led her to apply her skills in a context unlike any she’d previously experienced. Her students were desperately poor children in schools in the district of Jinji, run by the AIDS Orphan Education Trust. Nancy and Vic have been sponsors for several years for a 13-year-old girl named Cynthia Nakanda, whom she finally got to meet when the church group made an 18-day visit in late October and early November. “Her parents are both dead,” Nancy says soberly. “There’s a whole generation of people who are gone,” due to the AIDS pandemic in Central Africa.

Like the vast majority of girls in Uganda, Cynthia wants to be a nurse when she grows up. The country’s medical infrastructure is practically nonexistent, as the American mission volunteers learned when they assisted nurses on medical outreach trips to villages on sugar cane plantations. The necessity for triage was heartbreaking, as in the case of a man with an advanced case of hepatitis. “I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t touch him,” Nancy relates sorrowfully. A small boy was so badly emaciated from malnutrition that his kidneys were failing, but there was no way to get him admitted to a hospital. “We did no diabetes testing because there’s no treatment available. You can’t pull medicine out of thin air.”

The highlight of her trip was working with a group of sixth-graders. They produced a play on the subject of problems, in which a clothesline was strung across the makeshift stage. “If you have a problem, you can hang your problem on the line, but then you have to take somebody else’s,” she explains. Trading problems helped all the characters except one: a girl with a broken heart. So the group set up a “buddy bench” where the girl could sit and wait for someone to sit down beside her and listen to her tale. For the finale, all the children together sang “Lean on Me,” which they learned very quickly. Though they don’t do much in the way of spontaneous make-believe play, according to Nancy, singing and dancing are among the most popular activities for Ugandan children to do with their free time.

Will the experience help these youngsters reimagine a brighter future for themselves and their ravaged country? “Theater is such a great tool. It can help you achieve amazing things,” says Nancy Owen. “I’m already planning for when I go again, in 2021.”

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