Nancy Gunn, W&M Class of 1988
Nancy Gunn arrived at William & Mary in 1984. While at the College, she was heavily involved in the theatre department and acted in several plays.
After graduating in 1988 with a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre, Gunn moved to New York City to act. She then returned to school at Tulane to obtain a Masters in dramaturgy. After meeting her husband at school, they moved to New York City together, where she briefly directed a podcast entitled “The Moth.” She then worked for the Metropolitan Opera as an executive assistant. She moved again with her then-husband to Los Angeles, where she began as a researcher for a series of documentary projects. She received a series of production credits on TLC, “The Amazing Race,” “Rock Star,” and “On the Lot,” she worked on “The Celebrity Apprentice” with Donald Trump. After having her daughter, Charlotte, Gunn moved to New Orleans to run a Bed & Breakfast. She then began teaching production courses at Tulane, where she continues to lecture now.
In her interview, Nancy Gunn says that William & Mary was “the place that called [her] the most.” In particular, she loves the school’s history and strong theatre department. She cites professors such as Jerry Bledsoe, Trish Wesp, and Dr. Richard Palmer as influential in her education and career. She highlights how the theatre department at the College became her home, and how she felt safe within that community to discuss social issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality, and politics. After graduating, Gunn lived in New York City and in Los Angeles. She credits her time and the College and at Tulane for the opportunities she received in production. She emphasizes the rewarding and challenging nature of television production and how difficult it was to juggle both motherhood and a full-time career. On working with Donald Trump on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” she stresses how despite being a democrat, she finds his certain attributes “admirable.” In reflection on her career, she says her proudest moment was winning an Emmy Award for her production on “The Amazing Race.” When thinking of her time at William & Mary, she admires the challenges the women she knows had to overcome to make strides in their goals. She hopes to see women continue to fight for equality in the future.
William & Mary
Interviewee: Nancy Gunn
Interviewer: Carmen Bolt
Interview Date: December 8, 2018
Carmen: My name is Carmen Bolt. I’m the oral historian at William & Mary. It is currently around 1:00 p.m. on December 8, 2018. I’m sitting with Nancy Gunn, an alumna, the class of 1988, in her bed and breakfast in New Orleans, Louisiana. So I’ve already stated your name, but if you would please restate it for the record and also tell me tell me the date and place of your birth.
Nancy: Certainly. My name is Nancy Gunn, G-U-N-N. I was born in Williamsburg, Virginia on June 16, 1966.
Carmen: And what years did you attend William & Mary?
Nancy: I attended William & Mary from 1984 to 1988.
Carmen: Great. So before we jump into your time at William & Mary, will you just tell me a bit about where and how you were raised? You said you were born in Williamsburg, but just some about your upbringing and some about your family.
Nancy: Sure. I was born in Williamsburg and lived there until I was about three, so I don’t have memories of it from that time. My family moved to the Richmond area, actually, just south of the James River in Midlothian.
00:01:02 But Williamsburg was always the pilgrimage place to go. Every spring we would go to look at the gardens. Every holiday season we would go to walk down Duke of Gloucester Street and look at all the decorations, so it was always a place I would go back to. It was only about an hour away. Both of my parents graduated from William & Mary, my mother, Margaret Barnhart Gunn, in 1961 and my father, James Sterling Gunn, in 1966. My mother was actually at his graduation ceremony and was expecting me any day, so I was there, too.
Nancy: I held on for another couple of weeks, though. But she reminds me how hot it was and how difficult I made it for her to attend my own father’s graduation.
Carmen: That’s a good graduation present right there, though.
Nancy: My grandfather also attended William & Mary, but I could not tell you the date he graduated, I’m sorry.
Carmen: So it’s a family affair.
Nancy: It is. It is.
Carmen: So did you know, did you always know it was going to be William & Mary? What was the process of just deciding on a college for you?
Nancy: At first I leaned against William & Mary because it felt like I was obliged to go there, and no teenager likes to feel obliged to do anything, I think. So I looked all around. I looked at lots of different schools and applied different places. And then as I got acceptances back, I looked at them and it became real. It was no longer just paper. And the place that called me the most was William & Mary. I think it was more because I knew the city, and I knew the campus, and I felt at home there than because it was a family place to go.
00:03:02 I knew I’d feel comfortable there. I also was and still am excited by the amazing history of the place. It’s absolutely unique. I teach theatre history now and it’s exciting, for so many reasons, to go back to the 18th century, and for things that I grew up with and knew from college to be parts of the bigger picture of history and theatre history. And also the theatre program, which I knew I wanted to go into, was and is very strong at William & Mary, and I really respected the professors I met there, and I knew I wanted to be part of that.
Carmen: Sure. Can you tell me a little bit of how you got into theatre in the first place? How did you know that was going to be it?
Nancy: I think in high school I just fell in with the drama kids. I didn’t fit with the preppie kids, I didn’t fit with the other groups of kids. And they just kind of, they were a little bit off, but in a fun way. And I always loved reading plays. I would go to the library on a Saturday afternoon—this is pretty lame and a big admission to do on tape—but I would go there and sit and just read plays and then check out a bunch of them and take them home. So it was just always a love of mine since I first got to be in my elementary school play about animals. It was Noah’s Ark. Yes, I remember. I played a crocodile. [Laughs.]
Carmen: And now you live in Louisiana.
Nancy: And now I live in Louisiana, although we have gators here, not crocodiles. [Laughs.]
Carmen: Okay, that’s a good correction. Yes, yes.
Nancy: It’s an easy mistake. They’re pretty similar. If either of them is coming at you, you don’t want to be there. But yeah, I always had a yearning to go into the theatre, so that was kind of where I knew I would end up.
Carmen: Sure. That’s great. So I would love to hear some of your first memories of William & Mary as a student. So you already were pretty accustomed to Williamsburg at large, but what was it like coming onto William & Mary’s campus as a student for the first time? What did it look like, feel like, smell like? What do you recall?
Nancy: I stayed in Jefferson dorm, which had burned the year before, and so I was one of a group of freshmen that actually didn’t come on the campus first semester. I came on second semester because it wasn’t ready. And I was on the first floor. And I remember just sitting in my window and looking out at the sunken gardens.
00:06:00 And it was magical. It was like living in a different time. At the same time it was so very new and modern and fresh because I was living, A, in a coed dorm. Our side was girls but right down the hall were guys. And I was meeting kids from all over the place and living away from home for the first time really, and so I felt like I was both living a little in the past looking around me, but also very much in the future in terms of suddenly being not quite a grownup, but on my own. And so it felt comforting and familiar, but also kind of scary, frankly.
Carmen: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. And I think a lot of college students feel that very…those very difficult to kind of reconcile feelings as soon as you get on a college campus, but yeah. So do you remember your transition to college being an easy thing or a difficult thing? How did you walk through especially that first year?
Nancy: It was not too hard for me. I cried in the car with my mom because I knew I would be missing her so much, even though she was just an hour down the road, and I knew she’d be coming and visiting a lot. But I felt that the transition was perhaps easier for me than for some. I think everyone finds a group and maybe that’s a sorority, maybe it’s a fraternity. For me it was the theatre department. We formed a family so very quickly, and even though I was a semester behind some of the other freshmen, I immediately was embraced and felt like I was…like I had my society, I had my community. And that made everything so much easier.
00:08:00 I also loved college because I could study what I wanted to. My grades, unlike some, went steadily up from high school to college and then to graduate school. I got better and better grades, I think because I was really able to focus on just what I wanted to. I love liberal arts education. I’m in it now. I have two jobs. But the chance to explore different facets of the world, and actually to be encouraged to do that is such a gift, it’s so marvelous. And I enjoyed that beyond measure. I loved being able to—what I did was when I had electives to take in other departments I’d walk through the book store and I’d just look at the books, and the ones I wanted to read, I would find out what those classes were and I would take them.
00:09:00 And that turned out to be a really great way of picking classes. So the transition, honestly, it wasn’t that hard for me, aside from emotionally leaving Mom at home, and my sister.
Carmen: Sure. And that story about walking through the book store and finding books and then taking classes based on those books: genius. I never would have thought to do that, ever, but genius. Because I did, I remember seeing so many different books. That would have been excellent. But I’m like oh, that falls outside what I’m taking, so too bad.
Carmen: I got to take existentialism in the Wren Building, which was beyond exciting, and Japanese art. I found this beautiful book on ukiyo-e, which is Japanese woodblock printing. It had nothing to do with anything I’d ever taken before, but I thought that’s cool, and I loved it, and it’s one of the things that I’ll always keep with me. I may never use it in my work or maybe never even in Jeopardy, but it’s an important part of my education.
Carmen: Sure, definitely. So you mentioned a little bit earlier that there were some impactful individuals that you ran into or met through the theatre department, so I would love to hear more about any professors, mentors, advisors that you had during your time at William & Mary who were particularly impactful.
Nancy: Sure. Jerry Bledsoe, in the theatre faculty, was amazingly influential. He was this classic kind of college professor with a little goatee he was always stroking, and he would look up in the air and muse if you asked him a question, and then he’d come up with the most amazing stories. We used to say that Jerry Bledsoe has forgotten more than any of us will ever know.
00:10:55 Jerry was marvelous. He taught acting. He taught design as well. His class was the hardest class in theatre. Everyone acknowledged it to be the hardest. You’d stay up all night working on design—costume design, set design, lighting design. The valedictorian of our class got a B in that design class, perhaps the only one she ever got. And I can’t remember what I got in that class. It was possibly a C, and it was possibly the grade I was the proudest of because it was so very challenging. But I loved it. And what I learned in that class I did use. Even though I wasn’t going to be a designer and I didn’t plan to go into design, Jerry’s class was excellent preparation for so many things.
Dr. Richard Palmer was the grand historian, and he would get us excited about ancient Greece and amphitheatres and all sorts of arcane things that seemed very dusty and boring until he started to talk about them.
00:12:05 And he made them come alive. And I think of him a lot as I teach now. Trish Wesp in the costume shop. Amazing woman. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. She was my boss. I worked there briefly in the costume shop as well as simply being around in acting and some directing. She was so very knowledgeable, and also compassionate. She was a person that you could go to and talk about just about anything, which was, I think every student needs to know that there’s a professor, there’s a grown up around that they can open up to about things other than the class they’re taking.
Carmen: Yeah, definitely.
Nancy: Those are just a few.
Carmen: Yeah, sure. So also during the time you were a student—well, I should give some background. I love asking William & Mary students or alums about their proximity to the presidents of the time, just because I’ve noticed especially in the more recent years there’s a really close proximity, and I like tracking kind of how that’s changed. So Paul Verkuil became president kind of right there as you started your time at William & Mary, so I’m just wondering if you have any reflections on his presidency.
Nancy: Not too much. Probably not because he didn’t…not through a lack of his affecting my life there, but probably more that I’ve just forgotten. Who was the president before Paul Verkuil?
Carmen: It was Thomas Graves.
Nancy: Yes. I remember, if I’m not mistaken I remember him reading us Christmas stories. [Laughs.] Like “The Grinch,” perhaps.
00:14:00 And I may be remembering this from before my student days, from coming up with my mom to Williamsburg. But frankly, Taylor Reveley is the president I’m closest to, who just retired. He is a marvelous man.
Carmen: Would you like to speak a moment, just about how you’ve been able to have a relationship with Taylor Reveley, get to know him as a president and as a person?
Nancy: Sure. President Reveley was so kind to invite me to be the convocation speaker for the class of 2017. The letter went to my former workplace. I was the executive producer of an NBC TV show at the time and it went there, though shortly after I had left that position. Somebody on staff there forwarded the letter to me and I wrote him back, of course.
00:15:00 One writes letters. One does not send emails to the president of the College of William & Mary. And I wrote to him explaining I had just left my TV production career and so I didn’t think that I was perhaps suitable as a convocation speaker because it was no longer what I was doing. I didn’t know if my story would be inspiring. And then I told him that I had moved to Louisiana and that I had purchased a bed and breakfast and really started over again in a new way with my baby daughter.
And President Reveley wrote me back in an email—[laughs]—he said we can get casual now—and told me that he felt that my story was even more interesting perhaps because of the fact that I did make a change in my 40s, that I was able to leave a certain life and come up with something new and start over again.
00:15:58 And that was actually flattering, but it was also inspiring to me because I hadn’t thought of it that way. I certainly had not thought of leaving Hollywood as failing in any regard, but I thought of what I was doing as just a way to be able to be around to raise my daughter, and it made sense, and I wanted to raise her in New Orleans, a town I loved so much. But he made me look at it as being somewhat brave and inspiring, and that helped me to think of myself as being someone who was starting over in an exciting way.
Carmen: Yeah, that’s wonderful. I did actually read your convocation speech and that’s totally what was conveyed through your words. It just was really impactful, this idea that you were prepared in such a way by William & Mary and by different things that happened in your life that yes, you could walk through all these obstacles and challenges and changes that you probably never anticipated and still your story’s still going. Your story’s still going in a new way, in a bright way, and it was just really inspiring to read.
Nancy: Thank you.
Carmen: Well, thank you for reflecting on the presidents that you do recall and the moments that you do recall. I think that’s definitely helpful because that’s a piece, certainly, of any student’s experience at or around William & Mary. So I want to open it up—this is broad—but to some of your very favorite memories from your time at William & Mary, be they in classes or with friends, just anything that you can think of.
Nancy: Oh, my goodness. [Laughs.] My friends at William & Mary were and are the best part of my experience. It’s hard to separate out one aspect because of course we were brought together because of William & Mary. And we stayed together because of William & Mary. I was in New York in October, just two months ago, and got together with about a dozen of my William & Mary classmates.
00:17:59 And then last month went to Los Angeles, where I met up with some more of my classmates. My dearest lifelong friends came from my four years at William & Mary. We were together through those difficult classes, through those long nights. And you know what? Some of the times that I thought of as the most difficult, some of those late nights now I look back on as some of my very best times. We would be working on a play. We would be drawing costume sketches or rendering. And we would turn on whatever the latest musical on Broadway way was. We’d put a cassette in the cassette player. That’s how long ago it was. And we would all sing along to “Cats” or whatever, and laugh.
00:19:00 And those times that were difficult—good Lord we were sleep deprived—but so wonderful. Performing with my friends, even competing with my friends. My very best friend, who’s my daughter’s godmother, Casey Camp, class of ’87, she got a couple of roles that I wanted badly. [Laughs.] And we’ll still joke about it. But you know what? Looking back, I’m mostly glad she got them because it taught both of us a thing or two. And one, for me, was you can’t always get what you want, and that sometimes that’s just fine.
One crazy thing we did, the night of graduation we stayed up as late as we could, to the wee hours of the morning, and then we all slept on the stage of Phi Beta Kappa Hall.
00:19:59 I don’t know if we were supposed to do that or not. Probably not. But there were at least 20 of us, and with nothing but the ghost light, which is the light that’s left on traditionally in a theatre overnight. And we just laughed and talked until we all just conked out.
And then, at 6:00 in the morning, we got up because there was a doughnut shop that was opening ironically the morning after our graduation, and it was the very first all night place to go and eat in Williamsburg, the very first that would be open 24 hours, which would have been pretty wonderful for people, night owls like us who were working at 2:00 in the morning to be able to run and get a doughnut and coffee or something. So we were the very first customers. We were there on the doorstep when they opened the doors, and we kind of—[laughs]—morosely grabbed a couple of doughnuts and went home to bed.
Carmen: Wow. That’s a great memory. Yeah, and Williamsburg I feel like still doesn’t have that many 24 hours places. It shuts down.
Nancy: No, I don’t think Williamsburg’s charm lies in its 24 hour doughnut shops.
Carmen: Certainly not. But we’re glad for the ones we have. Well, that’s fantastic. So what other sort of things did you do for fun with your friends or for social life? Were there restaurants in particular in the Williamsburg area you liked to frequent, or what did you do?
Nancy: There was a Japanese restaurant called Sakura.
Carmen: I’ve heard about this before. Was it in the triangle area over there?
Nancy: Yes, it was. And I remember they gave a discount to William & Mary students, and my friend Sheri Holman, who’s an extremely popular author now, won the Faulkner award and all sorts of wonderful awards, she and I would go over there and take our little checkbooks, and we’d write checks for $4.18, which is what the lunch cost for a William & Mary student.
00:22:03 And I remember even skipping a class, I regret to say, that she convinced me to go to lunch there. We did not have much money, so we didn’t go out very much. We would entertain ourselves in our dorm rooms, or if we were living off campus in our apartments. We would throw elaborate brunches were 20 or 30 students would come and everybody would bring a hot dish and we’d sit around for hours on a Saturday morning, if we had the time. And we would have wild parties. And I don’t mean wild like they rarely got…there was alcohol, and it was legal then. I was grandfathered in. I was legal to drink at 18, which is…boy, those days are gone.
00:22:57 But it wasn’t about drinking. We would, being theatre kids we would choose a theme and then roll with it like you wouldn’t believe with costumes, decorations. We had one—this was still in sort of the shadow of the Cold War, believe it or not, and we had one party that we called The Night Before the Day After, and we said come as you would dress for the night before the world was blown up by a bomb. Which is pretty dark, looking back on it. But everyone jumped in and did something really unique. Like the hors d’oeuvres were baked mushrooms for mushroom clouds. Myself and two friends dressed as the three fates, and we would dance over to anyone entering with our ball of string or twine and we would measure out their lives and clip it, like the Greek fates did.
00:24:05 And if we liked them we’d give them a nice long life. If we didn’t we’d give them a short one. I can’t even tell you. I mean, we’re going back a long time. But the costumes were amazing. The music was incredible. And there was just a whole lot of fun creativity and cutting loose that went on.
Carmen: Yeah, it sounds like it. Those sort of themed parties, that sounds amazing and just, yeah, beyond what most anyone will do in terms of a party, so that’s awesome.
Nancy: Well, later, when most of us moved to New York, they got even better. [Laughs.]
Carmen: Oh, I bet.
Nancy: I’ll tell you about those in another interview.
Carmen: Okay, sure. I can’t wait to hear. So you brought up a really interesting point, though, and that is the period of time you were at college was a really interesting and tense time in the broader world. I think colleges are little microcosms of what’s going on more broadly often.
00:25:04 And so I wanted to ask you how you saw a lot of things like the Cold War—well, coming to a close not long after you started school, or apartheid was going on, the AIDS crisis started, at a certain point we were looking at a switch from second to third wave feminism during this time. It’s a really interesting and in some ways fraught time in the nation and world, and so I’m wondering just how you saw sociopolitical things like that play out on the college campus. And what you just mentioned about theatre, I mean, that is in a way how it was being addressed. So just any other thoughts or memories you have of that.
Nancy: We were very socially conscious. I think that that may be true of most college students. I hope it’s true. But we kept close tabs on what was going on in the world in terms of race, in terms of gender, in terms of politics. We were probably, I’d say, mostly left and liberal leaning in a town that was somewhat conservative. I think for me as a woman I had the opportunity to talk openly about ideas and of gender in a way that I really didn’t in high school or growing up in a rather conservative, somewhat old fashioned, one might say, traditional town. For the first time I was with people who were thinking way outside the box, and I was with people who were comfortable talking about things that I had been mulling over by myself.
00:27:01 We did theatre about race, about gender, and in those cases we got to talk really openly with other students from other backgrounds, of other skin tones. And that was very important to all of us, I think. I got comfortable talking with people about these issues, and that’s something I carry forward as a teacher. I’m not…I think when I walked into William & Mary there are things that one just didn’t speak about, for whatever reason. But by the time I came out I had learned to talk about some difficult things. Not in all times and all places. Not at a wedding reception, necessarily, with your great aunt. But in the right setting to be able to ask some hard questions.
00:28:03 The AIDS crisis was getting underway and it was a death sentence at that time. And several of my friends in the theatre department were gay and it was a confusing and scary time. It was very scary. We moved to New York together, a good big group of us, after William & Mary, and it continued to be on everyone’s mind. It was a shadow in…I think it was a shadow of course on the world, and still is, but for people in the theatre especially so. In part because there are a lot of LGBTQ people in the theatre, drawn to the theatre, and also because in the theatre people are comfortable talking about these things. So AIDS was a shadow.
00:28:57 Politics was…it was a very interesting time. Of course looking back on it from the height of history now in 2018 it doesn’t seem as fraught or divided nearly as things do now. But it was a time of great and deep conversations.
Carmen: I think that’s important to know. You mentioned thinking that maybe a lot of college students are kind of politically minded or at least having these conversations. And I would say I find that in my interviews in more recent decades, but that actually going back far enough—and this might just be a consequence of memory—but I hear a lot of feeling like William & Mary was kind of a bubble or a place in isolation, and so not interacting so much with this. But again, some of that’s memory, some of that’s what we choose or don’t choose to hold onto and how we engage. But I appreciate hearing, for sure, how you and your friends and your circles were engaging with these topics. I think that’s really important to know.
00:30:01 I know the “Flat Hat” in particular—I went back and reviewed some from the time—and they were asking a lot of these hard questions and discussing a lot of questions, in particular about… So you came to William & Mary within two decades, really, of the first African Americans in residence in William & Mary, which is kind of wild to think about. And at the time you were there, the federal Department of Education was still imposing quotas on Virginia, in particular, and other states, to meet quotas of minority admissions.
And I think it might have been the first year you were there the quota was 102 students of color, of minority students. There were 68. So there was a big thing unfolding in the “Flat Hat” at the time. And I’m just wondering if you recall any details about just the racial climate or race relations on campus during your time there. It seems it was pretty fraught. It seemed pretty fraught in the “Flat Hat,” what was being covered in the “Flat Hat” and the conversations going on.
Nancy: My…the black-white relations—I’m struggling to remember. Oh, no, there was Andy [Pang]. I didn’t have many Asian or Latin, Latino and Latina friends. But the black and white relations, again, in my micro, microcosm of the theatre were incredibly warm. [Godfrey, Kelvin, Audria]. I have to remember which students were—which of my friends were black.
Oh, yeah, that’s right. We practiced nontraditional casting, so my sister might just as well be played by a black student, and was, which was pretty progressive at the time. People still find that progressive, even with “Hamilton” on Broadway. We produced a play. We students wrote and produced a play called “All God’s Children,” and it was about the African American experience in the South.
00:32:01 And writing that… I was one of a handful of white students in the play. It was predominantly African American. It was such a wonderful experience to talk about race openly and lovingly, to talk about the horrors, to talk about guilt, feelings of guilt, to talk about what it’s like to be a student of color on campus, to talk about just what it was like to be able to talk freely and to put together a show about that experience. So I don’t think my experience was necessarily that of every student, but our ties were really warm and comfortable. Kelvin, in particular, Kelvin [Reed], was a dear friend. Like as not when I lived off campus with three girlfriends he’d sleep on the sofa downstairs. [Laughs.]
00:33:02 He’d just fall asleep because we’d sit up talking and then he’d make us breakfast in the morning. Kelvin loved to make breakfast. And my sister died very suddenly when she was 22 and I was 24, and Kelvin drove from his hometown the night of the funeral and played the piano for me and for my sister, and I will never forget that. He ended up being the choir director and organist in his church, and he had an amazing voice and was a really gifted musician. And there are things like that. And Kelvin happened to be black. There are things like that that we just…we were aware of race. It affected us all because it’s hard not to be.
00:33:57 At the same time, we had such deep bonds that it just became a part of who we were, and it was in no way I felt what defined our relationships. And I’m speaking as a white woman, so I can’t get into the skin of someone who was on campus in the 1980s as a student of color. But I like to think that in our little micro world of the theatre, we lived in a way that was open and understanding and loving.
Carmen: It sounds like it definitely was a space, regardless, that conversation was happening. And that might not have been the case in other spaces. So to have a space where conversation could unfold, and these topics could be hashed out, and different opinions could be shared, I think that is really unique and special, so thank you for sharing all of that. There’s one other difficult topic I wanted to bring up about your time on campus.
00:34:58 And this, I mean, this transcends your time. It goes beyond. Sexual harassment and assault. These are topics that we’re still discussing on campus and we’ll probably always discuss, unfortunately, on college campuses in particular. And so as I was reviewing the “Flat Hat” I was noticing a lot of accounts, actually, several accounts of reports of assault, or there was an FBI investigation into the rape and murder of Rebecca Ann Dowski, I think, in 1986. I mean, some really kind of difficult things.
So I’m just wondering if you could share what the culture on campus was as it pertained to sexual assault, or what the awareness was, if this was thought of as something that could happen, was happening, if there was a fear surrounding it, just any memories or thoughts you have pertaining to that topic.
Nancy: Being part of a college campus today as a professor I look back and I’m surprised and shocked by the lack of discussion about sexual harassment, about sexual assault.
00:36:08 It was…we were far more comfortable talking about race and gender than issues of sexual violence. There was very little discussion of this. I had forgotten, sad to say, about that tragedy in 1986. My memory of it is that it got very quickly swept under the carpet and was not something that we were meant to be talking about. We spoke of it in whispers. And to my—and again, we’re going back many years—I don’t recall any training, any preparation for dealing with issues of sexual assault.
00:37:06 I cannot name names, but I did know of professor-student relations. That would be considered very inappropriate today. I did see not professors forcing themselves on students, but behaving in ways that would be considered an abuse of power today. I do not recall any instance of myself or my friends being subjected to sexual violence. I’m happy to say that. If there were, I was not aware of them or I have no memory of them. So that’s one good thing.
00:38:09 I’m very happy that… It’s very good and it’s also very scary. I cannot quite imagine being 18, 19, 20 years old in this time. It’s a very difficult time. It’s very good in that there’s so much awareness. There’s also so much fear. And it’s so difficult. I feel for young women, I feel for young men. I am thrilled that people are able to talk about their experiences and awareness is being raised, and people are speaking out. I also fear the backlash against people speaking out because I know that there is and there will be, and that’s a terrible thing.
00:39:02 I’m delighted, though, that college campuses today have taken it upon themselves to educate, to inform, so that when students come to school they know their rights, they know what’s appropriate, they know what’s not appropriate, and at least they can start on that footing.
Carmen: Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate you reflecting on that. I know it’s a difficult topic. Again, it wasn’t being addressed by any campus like it is now. I did note that there was an escort service I think maybe that had started somewhere around that time where maybe members of fraternities or different individuals offered their services to walk people home. So maybe that was the beginning of something there, some attempts that definitely looks a lot different now. There’s definitely at least a lot more discussion now. But thank you for reflecting on that.
00:39:57 So I brought up a lot of difficult topics as it pertains to sociopolitical world and college campuses, but I’m wondering if you have any particularly difficult memories of your own from your time there, be they school related, class related or otherwise that you reflect back on as being a particularly difficult time to get through.
Nancy: Hm. There were times when today we would say anxiety and stress, but those words were not really used. There were times when the workload was almost overwhelming. There’s a lot of pressure, obviously. And I’m astonished at how—you know, I look at my students who are in rehearsal for plays till 11:00 at night and then showing up for 8:00 a.m. classes and somehow managing to do all their schoolwork in between.
00:40:57 I don’t know how I did it and how any of us did it. There were times when I remember just desperately trying to stay awake just trying to finish one more thing. And it was… We didn’t, at that time, really have a whole lot of education as to how to deal with that. Or you know what? There may have been and we just didn’t seek it out. There may have been people there for us to talk about study habits and pacing and planning. But for whatever reason, I didn’t know or didn’t seek it out.
And so I do remember being overwhelmed at times with anxiety about finishing my work, about getting papers done, about passing tests. It was also such a different time. I didn’t… We didn’t have computers. I wrote my papers longhand and then I borrowed a typewriter from the girl down the hall. I didn’t have my own typewriter and neither did my roommate.
00:42:01 So it was a very different time in that regard. There was no Internet to look things up on. And I’m going to sound like one of those people who say oh, these kids today. But sometimes I do. When my students turn in papers a week late, when I…I just shake my head and I think you know, it’s so much easier for you. But then I remember, I remember the burden that all college students face, shoulder, especially in an institution with such high standards as William & Mary, and I’m a little bit more forgiving.
Carmen: Definitely. Yeah, I personally cannot imagine typing my papers on typewriters. You could give that as some sort of assignment one day. Just provide a couple typewriters and say let’s see how long it takes.
Nancy: Right. Oh, but you had to borrow them and figure out when they didn’t need it, and maybe only have it for an hour or two, and try not to make mistakes.
Carmen: Similar pressure, but yeah, it looks different in each different generation, but yeah, similar pressures transcend that, I guess.
Nancy: You know, Thomas Jefferson was probably complaining about having to trim his quill pen and his inkwell drying up, so I can’t possibly come up to that level of hardship.
Carmen: Certainly not. Okay, so this is a great—I loved reflecting on your time on William & Mary and appreciate you speaking about it, and I thought we could start to transition and just look where your trajectory went kind of after William & Mary. And I’m probably going to miss some of it, so we can cover anything I don’t, but a little bit here. You left William & Mary and there was a brief stint at the Richmond City Morgue that I would love to hear about.
00:44:00 But you moved to New York City, worked for the UN for a time, returned to school at Tulane. You eventually would move to Los Angeles, break into the film industry working as a writer-researcher-producer. A number of major shows such as some episodes of “Big Brother,” “The Amazing Race,” “Shaq’s Big Challenge,” which I’ve never seen, “The Apprentice,” The Celebrity Apprentice,” documentaries such as “Heroes of Iwo Jima” focusing on World War II survivors, “A Mother’s Confession” exploring the effects of postpartum depression. The list truly goes on and on.
And so you now own and run the quaintest B&B in New Orleans and are working as a professor at Tulane. So wow, first of all. And again, I know I missed some things. So can you just walk me through your career trajectory, where your sights were set as you left William & Mary, what you were hoping for, and just what has happened since?
Nancy: Wow. Okay. [Laughs.]
Carmen: That’s a lot, I know.
Nancy: I’m very blessed. I’ve had a life that I could not describe as boring. I left William & Mary and saved money to move to New York City, as a lot of my friends did. I got there and my friend Sheri Holman, William & Mary class of ’88 with me, her mother owned a temp firm for temporary workers in Richmond, Virginia, and she put me in touch with her New York colleagues.
And so although I wanted to be an actress at the time, and did get some really wonderful acting gigs, in between those gigs I worked for this temp agency. And they asked where I would most like to work and I said someplace really interesting. And I found myself at the United Nations. Originally I was working as a temp in various departments in the Regional Bureau for Africa, the High Commissioner for Refugees is what it was called at the time, Regional Bureau for Arab States.
00:46:14 Lots of different programs within the United Nations development program. Originally I was working as a temp and I would take off. I did several national tours. I played Juliet on the road for quite some time in a production of “Romeo and Juliet.” But when I wasn’t working as an actress I’d go back to the UN.
And I stopped enjoying acting. I still loved the theatre, but the difference between academic theatre and professional theatre, for me, at least, was in academic theatre it’s all over in about a week and you’re left with a wonderful memory and you’re moving on to something else. Doing the same show night after night after night, I have such great respect for actors who do that and love it. I got bored with it. I just was, after a few weeks I was just tired and wanted to move on to something else.
00:47:01 So I realized that why was I following a career that’s so difficult if it wasn’t something that I was going to love finally achieving, because of course everyone’s dream is to end up in a long run, and that just wasn’t for me. So I spent more and more time at the UN, and I got hired full-time. But I didn’t see the UN as being my ultimate goal. I still loved the theatre, and although it was extremely dramatic and exciting working with these people from around the world, I decided to go back to school. And I had, on my tour of “Romeo and Juliet,” one of the tours I had been in New Orleans for about a week. We had played New Orleans. And I knew that that was the place I wanted to live.
00:47:56 So I applied to several different graduate schools, but there was only one I really wanted to go to, and that was Tulane, in part because it was in New Orleans, but I also, I really had a lot of interest and respect for the professors at the time who were teaching at Tulane. I also knew I’d have the opportunity to be the assistant editor for the theatre journal, which is a scholarly journal that I was very proud to be a part of, and so that did become my job.
I was at Tulane for three wonderful years getting my master’s in dramaturgy. That was…I was the only student studying dramaturgy at the time, and that was magical because I could make my own major, pretty much. I could, with my advisor, figure out what classes were the best to take, what projects to do, what shows to work on.
00:48:56 I also directed a bit and thoroughly enjoyed that. But I got to really dive deeply into the academic side of theatre, which was, after five years out in the, quote, unquote, real world, was super exciting and fun, and seemed so easy now going back to after being on my own for a while. And of course I loved the city, and still do so much. Tulane reminds me of William & Mary in some regards. It’s certainly not as old as William & Mary. But you’ve got beautiful old brick buildings, ivy covered walls, gorgeous live oak trees, hundreds of years old just dripping down on campus, a slower feel about it. It’s not a huge school. And it’s up there academically, too.
00:50:00 So it was a great place for me to be. I got married. Met my husband at…he was in the department as well. He was getting his master’s in directing. And we stuck around New Orleans for a while after we both graduated, not really knowing what to do or where to go. And now as a professor at Tulane I see that a lot. It’s hard for kids to leave. At that time there was very little…there was theatre, but there wasn’t a whole lot of theatre in New Orleans, and so you really did need to go elsewhere. But we took long walks trying to decide where that place was and what we would do. We finally settled on moving to New York. For me it was moving back to New York. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my wonderful, heady degree of dramaturgy.
00:51:00 There’s a handful of professional dramaturgs working in America. It’s not a career that, you know, they’re not calling for dramaturgs very often. [Laughs.] You don’t open up the newspaper or look on Craigslist and see “dramaturg wanted.” Most people don’t know what it is. And my husband wanted to—he loved directing, but he really enjoyed the casting process, so he felt that that’s where he belonged. And he got a job at CBS in daytime casting, casting for soap operas in New York. I had a very brief, but very exciting stint. I was the very first director of The Moth, which is now a Peabody award winning podcast. Very brief. I worked for maybe three months as the director.
00:51:57 I got them their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and helped form the board of directors, amongst whom was Sheri Holman, who got me the job in the first place. She’s gotten me a lot of jobs, come to think of it. And then I got the job at the UN. The Moth was something that I didn’t see myself sticking with. Sorry, did I say the Metropolitan Opera or the United Nations?
I got a job at the Metropolitan Opera, sorry. The Moth was just, just getting going, and it was really more about raising interest and fundraising at the time rather than putting together evenings and events. That was to come, certainly, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for me. And this job at the Metropolitan Opera came up, which is theatre on about the grandest scale you can possibly imagine, so I was immediately hooked.
00:53:01 I love music. I played in the orchestra at William & Mary and I sang, although I don’t think of myself as a musician. But being around it was incredibly exciting. I worked in the office of the general manager. I was an executive assistant to the general manager, so I was there, a fly on the wall, for so much of the management portion of the opera, which is a huge machine with lots of moving parts—19 different unions, if you can imagine that—19, one of which only has one member, the bill posters union, putting up the posters. But that is a union. And I got to brush elbows with and intersect with so many amazing stars in that world.
00:54:01 James Levine worked down the hall from me, the conductor, and he was the music director as well. Opera stars Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti. Oh, boy, I’m trying to remember. There were so many. For me, as a theatre kid, the designers and directors were incredibly exciting to meet. Franco Zeffirelli, I had just years before been studying his sets in graduate school and here he is coming into the office and talking about his designs for the new “Carmen,” and the renderings, and the watercolors, and the costumes, and there he is, Franco Zeffirelli. Maybe not a household name to everybody, but to me it was incredibly exciting.
00:54:58 James Levine, the music director, was having a rather difficult meeting with my boss, the general manager, Joseph Volpe, about money, as always. I think it was about “Aida” and about whether they needed to cut—not whether, but how many supernumeraries they needed to cut. Supernumeraries are extras, essentially, in the opera, and “Aida” is a very grand, one of the grandest of grand operas, and you want to have a lot of supernumeraries carrying spears and looking impressive on the stage to fill up that enormous space. But it all costs money.
And there were some other cuts that the general manager wanted to make and James Levine did not. And he was waiting to go into a meeting and he said Nancy, remember this. Every artistic decision is a financial decision and every financial decision is an artistic decision. And I don’t know why he bothered to tell me that, the executive assistant, you know, making coffee and filing things, but it’s stuck with me all my life.
00:56:03 And when I became an executive producer, just remembering that balance became very important. I learned a lot more than I realized I was learning while I was there just watching things go by. It was an incredible place to be, very exciting.
Carmen: Absolutely. Okay, so that’s, yes, amazing. And I had meant to bring up The Moth because The Moth, at this point, I mean, is just major storytelling. They just do so much, and it’s a podcast and all these things. And I had noticed, I think just briefly somewhere, that you had been the first director and wanted to ask how you kind of broke into that, and what it was like as you were there. And you were actually kind of critical in some of those foundational pieces that have allowed it to become what it is.
Nancy: Very, very early on. Very, very early on, and briefly, but I’m proud to…honored to have been part of it.
Carmen: Yeah, that’s incredible. But all of it is. So you’re in New York at this point. What’s next? Where was next? What was your timeline?
Nancy: All right. Well, my husband, again, we—Curtis Colden is his name, my ex-husband now. We moved to Los Angeles for his career. I had never had any interest in Los Angeles because being a good New Yorker who had lived, at that point, in New York for maybe about seven years total, I had disdain for all things West Coast, the heathenish lotus eaters lying around in Beverly Hills by their swimming pools. I had no concept of what Los Angeles was. But that was where people kept telling my husband that he needed to be to further his casting career, that he was only going to go so far in New York. And as much as I enjoyed it at the Metropolitan Opera, again I didn’t see myself necessarily going into artist management, fundraising, performing arts management.
00:58:03 Although now I look back and would love to do that. But I just didn’t see myself there. And so he had a firm desire to move to Los Angeles and to get started there, and he had a lead on work, and so we did. And I loved it. I shocked myself. I read a great book before I moved there and came across the fact that Los Angeles is the place, then and now, where there are gathered together more creatives, more artists, more painters, more musicians, more composers, more dancers, more actors, more directors, more writers than at any other time at any other place in the history of the world. And that is very exciting.
00:58:52 I didn’t, as I was pooh-poohing the idea of Los Angeles with all the disdain of someone who had never been there, I didn’t quite know that. But after I got there and settled in one of the many, many really New York-like neighborhoods of Los Angeles, meeting incredibly creative, really well educated, bright people that didn’t at all fulfill the stereotype that Woody Allen sets—[laughs]—for Angelines, I loved it. I just loved it.
I got a job pretty quickly as a researcher for a series of documentaries. And I got it really, I answered an ad in the newspaper—you did that back then—for someone looking for a researcher. And they called me and they said because of my fancy resume, because I had a master’s from Tulane and my bachelor’s degree from William & Mary. So I can thank William & Mary for getting me in the door.
01:00:00 And I interviewed and I got that job. And it was a great deal of fun. We were producing Lifetime Intimate Portraits, which were one hour biopics on all sorts of people, all women, because it was Lifetime Television—Dolly Parton, oh boy, I’m trying to remember some of the…like Barbara Eden, a lot of what we would call B actresses.
But the network would allow us occasionally to cover a historical figure. And I moved up from researcher to co-producer on a biography of Harriet Tubman, which was wonderful. I got to fly back to Virginia and do some research on the underground railroad and do interviews and brought back some materials that we used in the documentary.
01:01:04 And that gave me the strength to say I want to be a producer. I asked the company I was working for and they said oh no, you’re way too young, you haven’t been working long enough, and I said fair enough. And I asked around and faxed my resume to a couple of companies that friends had said were good places to work. And I got called in immediately for an interview and got a job as a junior level producer at one with a woman who’s still a dear friend and mentor. She was the supervising producer of a series for what we called The Learning Channel at the time. It’s TLC now, but it was The Learning Channel, and there was some pretense at being an educational network.
01:01:57 And that was just pure fun. Worked my butt off. I mean, we worked so hard. But we would get to find a topic, get it approved, of course, by the network, research it, go out, shoot it, set up the interviews, get all the visual materials, and then sit in an edit bay and cut it together. Incredible training. And something that I hadn’t really had a lot of experience, practically none doing, but the theatre had prepared me in ways that I never would have guessed for producing television. The skills that I had learned at William & Mary—storytelling, just the basics of dramatic structure, good writing, understanding visuals, how to frame things, all those design classes that were so hard.
01:02:55 I picked up things far more easily than some of my colleagues did and found myself moving up very quickly. I did a lot of travel shows. My friend and mentor, Lauren Lexton, moved on and started her own company, Authentic Entertainment, which did very well. I produced about ten shows for them and then was called in to interview for “The Amazing Race” on CBS, in part because of my travel experience, I think, working for The Travel Channel, producing shows for The Travel Channel, rather. I was hired there.
And that was the hardest job I’ve ever done. We rarely slept. I was one of two to three producers that traveled with the teams that were competing on a race around the world and I was with them all the time. If they were sleeping on the street in a suburb in India, I was usually sleeping on the street with them.
01:04:01 Or rather writing down notes and not sleeping, and getting ready to interview them when they woke up a few hours later. It was so exciting. Having worked at the United Nations for years, to suddenly be racing through these places was beyond a dream come true. Even though I was exhausted most of the time, it was an experience you could not pay for at any price. Landing in the middle of the night, meeting a production assistant, a local film student who usually spoke some English and just whisking away and finding yourself in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in the middle of the night.
01:04:55 Finding yourself in a little Danish village, a cheese-making village. Finding yourself in a temple in Sri Lanka, places that I never would have had the opportunity to visit or even maybe thought to visit. Taking a three day train ride across India. Getting to meet people, getting to experience these cultures right up close and personal. And working with film crews and people who lived there. It’s not something you could get on a tour at all. You’re immediately thrown in working on a project with people who live there. Absolutely amazing. Incredibly difficult. Just trying to be on your game and manage 21 camera crews. [Laughs.] Being a liaison with all the executives, the network.
01:05:56 Working closely with our head of security, who was also a medic, to make sure that people tried to stay as safe as possible. One of the great stories that I love to tell is we were on an airplane and I was sitting next to Bob, Bob Parr. He was our medic. He was also a former British spy. He had—boy, he can tell stories. And he did. He was great. On a train trip across China you wanted to be sitting next to Bob Parr, because boy, you could learn some stuff. The pilot’s voice came on and said if any of our passengers is a doctor, please raise your hand so that a crew member can come talk to you. And I turned to Bob and I said, Bob? And he said I’m not a doctor, I’m a medic. He’s British. And I said all right. And then five minutes later the voice came on again, and it sounded a good deal more panicky, and it said please, if anyone aboard has any medical training at all, please identify yourself to a crew member immediately.
01:07:00 I said Bob? He said all right. So he gets up. And it turns out there’s a woman giving birth, and we are over the ocean. There’s no place to land. Bob goes up and he delivers the baby. [Laughs.]
Nancy: Our camera crews all are turning to me. They’re saying should we shoot this? I said no! Don’t shoot the woman giving birth. I said shoot the contestants and their reactions to it, but give her her privacy, for the love of God. And so we did. I knew that it wouldn’t end up in the show. There’s no time for things like that. But it’s one of those experiences that you never expect to have.
Nancy: Yeah. Healthy baby, did just fine. Bob came back and sat down next to me, and I’m like are you okay? And he’s a little shaken up, which you didn’t see. Bob never got shaken up. And he said wow, that’s a first for me. [Laughs.]
01:08:02 So yeah, those things just happened. Those things just happened. You never knew. You never knew what was going to happen.
Carmen: Yeah. No, that sounds abs—I mean, it sounds grueling, like it sounds exhausting, but it also sounds incredible. Like you said, you cannot pay any amount of money for that sort of on the ground experience. Definitely not the tourist experience, that’s for sure.
Nancy: [Laughs.] No.
Carmen: So you did “The Amazing Race” for a period of time, and then what was next?
Nancy: Boy, that was my first step into the genre of reality television, of which we are all so cautious of admitting that we have worked in. I often say I wish I had a nickel for everybody who says that they never, ever watch reality television because that is the No. 1 reaction that I get when I tell people that I worked in that genre. Well, somebody’s watching, evidently, because it was expected to die out around 2000 and it clearly hasn’t.
01:09:00 I was fortunate in that I worked—and one of the courses I teach in producing goes into the different genres of reality television, and it’s easy to lump them all together, but competition reality is its own special genre, and that’s what I specialized in. I enjoyed it very much. There’s a purity to it because it is a competition. It is like a quiz show and it’s governed by the FCC. So although you are telling the story of what happens, sticking to the truth is important. And I’ve always loved nonfiction. I do believe that some of the most amazing stories are nonfiction, that truth can be greater than anything we can come up with on our own. And the opportunity to take the truth, which may have happened over the course of 48 hours or a week, and compress it into 42 minutes, is a great challenge, but it’s also a wonderful workout for somebody who has training in theatre, in dramatic structure.
01:10:10 A TV show, a one hour TV show, is likely divided into five acts, just like a Shakespeare play. You have the rising action, you have falling action, you have a denouement, you have climax, all the things they’ll teach you in theatre, which really helped me. I went from “The Amazing Race” over to Mark Burnett Productions. He produced “Survivor” at the time, and still does, and he had a new show called “Rock Star” which I produced for two summers for CBS. It was incredibly fun. The premise was to find a new lead singer, the first season, at least, for the band INXS, whose lead singer had died some years previously, and they were putting the band back together again.
01:11:00 So I was working with these aspiring rock stars who were living in a mansion in Silver Lake, not too far from my home in Los Angeles. And just, you know, listening to rock music all the time. So much fun hanging out and just making that show. It was also, it also had a live to tape component, which was my first experience with something close to live television. Which, it turned out, theatre was the most amazing training for. A lot of my colleagues in the TV world had trained in TV and film, but working live is not something that they had had a lot of training with. Theatre is always live, so I was much more comfortable working that way. “Rock Star,” one of the episodes was live to tape, meaning that we would film in the morning and it would go to air that afternoon.
01:12:00 Between the taping and the airing we had to cut a huge amount out of the show, like sometimes an hour of content, and so as the show was going down I was taking notes on everything that was happening. And even as the show was still taping I would be taking things to one of our five edit bays and sitting down with the editor and saying pull this out, leave this, put this in, take this out, and that process would go right up until the show aired. Our post production supervisor wore sneakers because he would literally take the online tape when we popped it out of the machine and run across the CBS lot to where he would hand it over to air on the East Coast.
Carmen: That’s wild.
Nancy: [Laughs.] All of which was great preparation for when I went on and did a show that very few people remember called “On the Lot.” The claim to fame was Steven Spielberg was one of the executive producers. And I actually got to meet him.
01:13:01 And I can say that I worked for Steven Spielberg, even though he wasn’t around a whole lot, truth be told. That was a reality TV series about aspiring filmmakers, which was really fun. It did not do well, but I had a blast making it. And it had a live elimination episode every week, and I got to be the person structuring the show—again structure, dramatic structure. All goes back to theatre, all the things I learned at William & Mary. Figure out how we were going to bring the show in on time, within the allotted time. And to make determinations in advance of what could be taken out of the show and have the show still remain understandable, the dramatic structure would still maintain its integrity.
01:13:59 What could be lifted seamlessly, what could not, what would be okay to take out but something else would have to be taken out as well. And you have to be doing it on the fly and literally have someone counting down to zero when you are off the air and it’s news time. You don’t have any choice, you’re off the air. It’s so…it’s such an adrenaline high. And again, it’s very much like live theatre. When it’s done, it’s done. You’re not editing it. You walk away. And there’s something wonderful about that and terrifying about it.
Carmen: Oh, sure, yeah. That sounds very challenging, like uniquely challenging. But yeah, that’s great.
Nancy: And all of that brought me, along with several other productions. I did work in documentary. I’m very proud of that work. For a time I sat on the committee to choose the finalists for the International Documentary Association’s competition, which I still, I love documentary and would love to make them again someday.
01:15:01 But of course it’s the more commercial shows that people have heard of and know about. And so I was asked by Mark Burnett to be on the very first team producing “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Now “The Apprentice” had started some years earlier, and I had watched the first season and really enjoyed it. It was a smart show with smart people on it. And the premise is there are young business people who are vying for a job with the Trump organization. The show was overseen by the host, Donald J. Trump, at the time a real estate tycoon.
01:15:58 And quite a personality, of course. He was, even at that time, one of the best known people on the face of the planet. He had the tagline you’re fired. Every episode a contestant would go home. Well, at that point, when we came on to do “The Celebrity Apprentice,” the series had lost a lot of its viewership. It seemed a little old, a little tired, and so Mark Burnett had the idea to freshen things up by bringing celebrities in, with the notion that instead of competing for a job they were competing for money for their favorite charity, which was a really important aspect of it for me. Competing for money for charities, I could get behind that. And working with celebrities ended up being very challenging, but an incredible amount of fun. Even a B or C list celebrity is famous for some reason, with maybe a couple of exceptions, and usually they’re fascinating.
01:16:59 And their passion for their charities was intense. Many of them were charities that were very close to them for one reason or another. The Starkey Hearing Foundation was for Marlee Matlin. Shoot, I’m messing up her name. We’ll have to—I’ll add that in the notes. She’s a deaf actress, and she fought like heck to raise money for that organization that gives hearing aids to children in third world countries and gives them batteries and upkeep for the rest of their lives. Amazing. A group that I had never even heard of before. Marlee Matlin, I’m pretty sure.
01:17:58 I met and worked with these incredibly off the wall people. George Takei was one of my favorites. He was Sulu in the original “Star Trek.” But also, who knew he was in a Japanese concentration camp as a boy in World War II. And his charity was the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles. Joan Rivers, the late Joan Rivers, loved her. Adored her. She was marvelous to work with. Cyndi Lauper. Meatloaf. [Laughs.] These crazy icons. What fun. What fun. Super big challenge, of course. I worked my way up and I became the executive producer when my mentor and good friend Eden Gaha left to take on another company. I was his co-executive producer for several seasons and then I became the executive producer and show runner.
01:19:00 I at that point was working with—the network wanted a lot more episodes and they wanted 18 celebrities, whereas we had been working with 12 before. So I was managing 18 celebrities, their agents, their posses, their charities, the Trump organization, NBC, and the Mark Burnett Production Company. It was a big challenge. Around that time I had my daughter. [Laughs.] So I was…I had my office in Trump Tower and I’m nursing my daughter on the desk and changing diapers, and I had a marvelous nanny who lived with us, which is the only way I could get anything done. So looking back that was pretty insane. I was living the life of a superwoman.
01:20:04 It’s not something I’d wish on anybody, as challenging and exciting as it was. It was not particularly healthy. Working with Donald Trump, people always ask. I’ve turned down interviews with “Time” magazine—
Carmen: I’m sure.
Nancy: —CNN, the Associated Press and many other news organizations. I have signed a confidentiality agreement, so I can’t talk too much about what went on in the show. It was a very challenging personality to work with. People ask—I am a yellow dog Democrat. I’m a fierce feminist. I am a supporter of civil rights and I did not vote for him. But I do not hate him. I found things that I could admire in him.
01:21:01 I am…my one real statement I can say about the several years I worked with him very closely is that I thought he was a wonderful, outspoken, loud, coarse, occasionally buffoonish host of a television show. I never, ever, ever, ever, ever would have guessed that he would be the 45th President of the United States.
Carmen: Oh, yeah. No, that actually, because of course, as you said, I would have been remiss not to ask, but that was kind of my big question because this was not, as far as we knew, like an aspiration at that point of his, or maybe it was, but yeah, so to have this, to look back on your experience working with him and to know now that he is the 45th President of the United States gives you a really interesting perspective on that whole thing.
Nancy: It was an aspiration of his, and he talked about it a lot.
Carmen: It was, he had…okay.
Nancy: Yes. Our art department made up a poster that said Trump for President. It was 2012.
Carmen: Okay. Oh, yeah. All right.
Nancy: It was a joke. [Laughs.] We thought it was hilarious. And it was a picture of his face and the White House behind him. We thought it was funny. He asked us to make up dozens more. And I remember when he decided not to run that time he was despondent the next day and he asked me if he did the right thing. What a terrible question to ask anybody. And I said you did the right thing for the time. [Laughs.] And I just wish I could go back and say you did the right thing for all time.
Carmen: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah.
Nancy: Here we are, here we are. I do not hate the man. I know him. I worked closely with him. I worked closely with several people in his organization that look like now they’re now going to jail.
01:23:00 I worked closely with his family and I found things to like and respect about all of them. Did I vote for him? [Laughs.] Am I behind the polarization in our country right now? Not at all.
Carmen: Well, thank you for your reflection on that, because yes, I’m sure…I’m not surprised to hear that you have been approached by these various organizations who would love to get your inside scoop on that, so thank you for just briefly touching on that. But you were, you were doing this insane job. You were superwoman, or Wonder Woman. You were doing it all and it was, as you said, maybe not the most healthy. So walk me through kind of what’s happened since that moment.
Nancy: All right. My marriage failed. My husband and I had been…we were married 17 and a half years. Our daughter was born late in the marriage, when we had been married about 14 years.
01:23:58 And for whatever reason the marriage ended. I continued on with my career for a while and came to the realization that I was not going to—having an infant is one thing. Having a toddler, having a little girl, etc. is another. Popping Charlotte on my back and running from set to set, which I did, and then handing her off to the nanny and then coming back later, it was fine. She was happy. It was great. I was burning myself out, though, trying to do everything as a single parent. And I realized that at some point I’d have to give short shrift to one side of my life or the other, and I didn’t want to. A lot of people suggested that I go into working on the studio side of things, maybe being an executive at a network.
01:25:00 And that was appealing for a time, but I didn’t know if I would be able to make a full break. I am a kind of type A personality. I love working. And the idea of shifting or rather trying to downshift, I didn’t know if it would work for me. At the same time, although I love Los Angeles, I wanted to raise Charlotte in a town that felt more like the one I grew up in in Virginia. And Williamsburg to an extent, to Midlothian, a small town where you knew people. But having lived for a long time in New York and Los Angeles, I wanted all the rich cultural experiences that I got there. And I’d always wanted to go back to New Orleans. My ex-husband and I had often daydreamed about buying a bed and breakfast as sort of a retirement career, which now I laugh about because it’s so difficult it’s hardly a retirement career. But nobody knows that.
01:25:57 As a guest you just see the muffins and the happy top of the iceberg. You don’t see the scrubbing out of toilets and the leaks and dealing with all the things you deal with. But I thought well, you know, why not? So I got myself a realtor and I went to five banks and finally found one that would give me a loan, never having been an innkeeper. And I bought Auld Sweet Olive Bed & Breakfast in New Orleans in the Marigny and moved upstairs with my little girl. And at first I was making the breakfasts and greeting the guests, and cleaning, and doing everything while still getting Charlotte to school and picking her up and being a mom. And I found myself realizing that I had stepped just out of one hyper work situation into another in which I was getting paid about 10% of what I used to make.
01:26:57 And at first it seemed to be a little bit foolish. I started, fortunately I was able to build the business up. It had been not running very well. It had been in the red for years. But I got it in the black and was able to start to make enough money to where I could hire cleaning staff. God bless them. And I continued to live in our little tiny place above the bed and breakfast with Charlotte, and those were magical years, so much fun. I mean, have a toddler, have visitors coming from around the world speaking five different languages at the breakfast table. Charlotte loved it, too. She learned to say guten tag and bonjour and as soon as she spotted anybody that looked like a grandmother or a grandfather she’d waddle over to her little basket of books and grab a book and make puppy dog eyes at them.
01:27:58 And they would say oh, do you want me to read you a story? And she’d pop up on their lap. And the guests seemed to love it, too.
Carmen: I’m sure.
Nancy: There was one morning when, for whatever reason—it was an afternoon, actually—Charlotte decided that it was bath time, and took off all her clothes, and the guests were enjoying a glass of wine in the parlor, and she ran around the table once or twice naked. But again, you know, that’s a great story to take home about New Orleans, and I will never let Charlotte forget it. [Laughs.]
Not long after I bought the bed and breakfast I was approached by my alma mater Tulane, whom, I had kept in touch with my professors there. And they were interested in me teaching a course on producing, since that is what I’d been doing for 15 years. They said students had been asking for it and could I put together a curriculum. And I had taught at Tulane as a graduate student, acting, and so I thought, well, why not?
01:28:57 And of course it proved to be a lot more challenging than I had anticipated, putting together a whole semester with nothing to go on. I invented the class based on my experiences in theatre and TV and documentary, and also then in film and new media. But I loved it so much. I loved it. I loved my students. I found it so exciting.
And from that point they just kept asking me to teach more and more things. I taught theatre history. I’m still teaching and I’m giving finals next week. I taught plays and playwrights. And I started to look at the theatre program and talk with more and more students, and it seemed to be the consensus that one of the areas that could be built up within the department was performing arts management. And I started to daydream about what a degree in performing arts management would look like.
01:29:57 I worked very closely with the chair and now we are meeting with the dean’s office and it looks as if—I’m crossing my fingers now—it looks as if we will be able to offer, at the very least, an emphasis in performing arts management within the theatre department, so you could get a theatre degree with a performing arts management emphasis, and perhaps a coordinate major in that soon to follow. My original producing course I’ve taught again and it is now part of the regular curriculum. I have two classes that are rolling out this spring, one called Performing Arts Management and one called Nonprofit Development, handling both the commercial and the nonprofit sides of performing arts management. And those are part of the…those are pretty much the key courses, including producing, that will be the backbone of this new degree.
Nancy: We’re getting a lot of great feedback, a lot of support. People are excited about it. And I really hope that within a few years students will be able to come out of Tulane with a really, really solid background in performing arts management.
Carmen: Yeah, absolutely. And just also the courses you’re teaching, your background and how you’ve also been able to just like identify how your theatre experience shaped and helped you at every level of your career. I mean, that’s just incredible to hear, but also to have you re-integrate that into a course that students can then learn from, that’s incredible and great, and I’m sure an excellent experience for all of your students.
Nancy: It’s a dream. It’s still hard work, but it’s a dream. And I love what I’m doing.
Carmen: That’s amazing. Well, your career trajectory, I mean, I knew it on paper, but hearing it and hearing how you’ve walked through it and just all the pieces of it, and again those central threads that you’ve been able to pull through from your youth, from William & Mary, it’s just really inspiring to hear, because it has shifted. It hasn’t been the same thing all along. But you’ve taken what you have learned in the past and you’ve been able to apply that to each new step, and that’s awesome. So it’s been a pleasure to hear about that.
01:32:03 I was wondering if you could just tell me briefly what has been your proudest accomplishment in your career, or maybe also what has been your most challenging in your career.
Nancy: Oh, boy. Which career? [Laughs.]
Carmen: Right. I say career as whole. But yeah, exactly. Just in your life, in anything that you’ve done.
Nancy: Well, okay. One of the great moments that I was privileged to have is in 2005, as part of the producing team of “The Amazing Race” I was nominated for and won and Emmy award. And getting to go up on stage on live television and have my mom in Virginia see me win an Emmy was…it was very fulfilling.
01:33:04 It was very fun. It was very exciting to wear a beautiful dress and walk red carpets and have everybody… Well, here’s the thing. They all thought I won it for…people forget that producers and writers and all sorts of people win Emmys, so everybody figured I was just some actress they didn’t know. [Laughs.] But that was fine, too. I didn’t care. I got a night of being famous and that was all I needed. I really would not want to be famous. But it was awfully fun.
And I will say that was the most challenging job I ever did. Being at the very top of your game, being responsible for the show, for the end result, but also in part for people’s safety as you’re traveling around the world at breakneck speed in cultures that are very different from the American culture that we came from.
01:34:06 Having to understand how to be respectful, and fast, and safe, and to get a great story out of it, it was amazingly difficult and incredibly challenging. And so having gotten that particular award for that show, although it may not be the show that I would go back and watch as the one I’m most proud of, it was incredibly…it felt really good.
I got to say—[laughs]—this is going to sound so trite. But raising my daughter, who’s been with me through traveling back and forth from three months old from Los Angeles to New York, living there three, four months and flying back for a few months, and then landing in New Orleans when she was three.
01:35:03 And now she sits in, when her school is on a break she sits in my classes and just sits there at nine years old just as present as can be, raising her hand when she knows the answers to questions. To have that bright, happy child now that will go on and do things that I can’t even dream of in a world that I can’t even imagine, I couldn’t have imagined saying this ten years ago when I didn’t think I wanted to have a child, but watching her grow and imagining whatever her life will be is the most fulfilling, satisfying thing in my life.
Carmen: Absolutely. And you’ve given her such a wealth of experiences already, and she’s such a young person, and she’s already had this wealth, so it is. Yeah, who knows what lies ahead of her, but that’s incredible.
01:36:06 Well, that’s wonderful. And it all has been. And I want to loop it back to William & Mary if I can. And you, again, have already done such a good job of that because you are able to note how that has played out in your life in so many ways. But I’m just wondering if you’re still involved with William & Mary or return to William & Mary, in what ways and why.
Nancy: I do go back from time to time. I was part of a board of…oh, boy, I’ve forgotten the name of the…an arts commission for William & Mary, and I worked with other alumni to work with current students. Went and did workshops with them and sat down and talked with them. That’s been very fulfilling. I’d love to do that again.
01:36:56 I stay in touch with some of my professors there still. My mother lives just a mile off campus in Williamsburg, so visiting her I always get to go back. Really, though, the two things that have stayed with me and that always will from William & Mary is a stellar education, not just in intellectual matters, but in life. The things that I learned about work, about study, about focus, about diligence, about just continuing to try even when you don’t think you can try anymore.
And the people that I met that were there with me then who were the people whose shoulders I cried on through the hard times in my life and who are still with me now, who are my dearest friends. My daughter’s stepmother and stepfather, Casey Camp and David Johnson, living in New York and Los Angeles, I still feel that they are the people that I could call at 3:00 a.m. with a problem and they’d be maybe sleepy, but happy to hear from me, and would be there for me.
01:38:08 Those people, people make a place, and those people, for me, were as much a part of William & Mary and my experience as anything else.
Carmen: Fantastic. So we are in the middle of our celebration for the 100th anniversary of coeducation. That’s part of the reason we’re doing this sort of interview for that project, this oral history project on the experience of women over the past 100 years. So given that, can you tell me what you believe to be the value and contribution of women at William & Mary, but also at large?
Nancy: Wow. That’s a big question. Well, I’m absolutely thrilled, was delighted to hear of about President Rowe, that we have a female president for the first time at William & Mary.
01:39:00 I think that is so inspiring. I think after—I have not met her, but looking at her career, she is inspiring and a perfect choice. I love the idea that my daughter can look at her and know that being a president of a university is within reach, it’s definitely a possibility.
Contributions of women to William & Mary and to the world. Wow, that’s tough. I was very surprised to find out that women have only been graduating from William & Mary for a hundred years or so. I was amazed, because…right, wow. 1693, do I have that right? Yeah. That’s a long time to go without any women. But I think that women have definitely caught up in the short time, relatively speaking, they have been at William & Mary.
01:39:59 I look at some of the female professors and what they are doing in terms of research and contributions to the world in academia, but also in science and technology. I look at President Rowe. I look at women who have graduated from William & Mary and made huge strides in the world. My generation it wasn’t always easy. I was one of very few female producers at the time that made it into the higher echelon. That is changing, very much so. But I definitely had a few more challenges than I might have otherwise. And I know that’s the same for my colleagues, for my female colleagues from William & Mary. But I’m so proud of what they have done. I’m so very proud of just the friends that I know who are writers, who are performers, who are out there making a change in the world.
01:41:05 As for the contribution of women to the world, wow. I think our time is still coming. I would love to, as a child of the ‘60s, having witnessed the infancy of the women’s rights movement in this country in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I would like to think that we’ve gotten to a place where women are valued as much as men. I don’t think we’re there yet. I think you look at the wage gap and I think you look at a lot of things and you can see that we’re not there yet. I think that we’re moving towards it, though. And I think that if we don’t we are, as a civilization, behaving very foolishly, cutting off half of the experience and the intelligence of our species.
01:42:03 I think more and more people are realizing that and hopefully will continue to work towards a world in which everyone’s contributions are equally valued.
Carmen: Great. Thank you for answering that. So I have been peppering you with questions for the past, I don’t know, hour and a half, but I want to open it up to you before we close. If there’s anything you thought I would ask that I haven’t, or anything you’d like to talk about on record before we close out.
Nancy: Wow. Let’s see. We talked a lot about William & Mary, a fantastic school. I’m really proud of some of my documentary work. People don’t watch documentaries or know about them nearly as much as they know about some of the more commercial and widely seen work. I did a show for MSNBC Help about…sorry, MSNBC Health about postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis.
01:43:07 And I was able to learn a lot about that issue. I visited a woman in prison who’s in prison for life. Her child died in her care. It’s still a bit of mystery what happened, but what seemed to be clear to me, which was not brought up at her trial, is that she was suffering from postpartum psychosis. She literally does not remember anything. She needed help and she didn’t get it. Talking with doctors and specialists in the medical and legal world about that was enriching and it was also…felt like I was doing something important because people saw that show, men and women, and hopefully could start to see the signs and step in and get women help.
01:44:00 My work with “Celebrity Apprentice.” There was one night I woke up at 4:00 in the morning and we were doing a diamond auction to raise money for charity, and I woke up and I thought, wait a minute, we have been choosing pieces because of the wrong reasons. We should pick the least expensive pieces, that still look good on television, because the people who are coming to bid on these already have a preset amount that they’re going to give to buy, and that goes to the charity, so the amount, the lesser amount of the jewelry means the more amount that will be given to charity. And so I did numbers for like two hours, from 4:00 a.m. till 6:00 a.m., and then I called, God bless them, the production team, who were waking up about then, and I said, listen, we’re going to make some changes. And they’re like really? You know we start shooting at 7:30.
01:45:00 I’m like I know, I know. And we raised 40,000 more dollars that ended up going to a charity that night. So being in the position where I could make things like that happen were incredible.
And I had one more moment. I worked, as you know, at the Metropolitan Opera for two years, and I walked every morning from the subway across Lincoln Center Plaza past the fountain to my little office, and I would make coffee and get on with the day. And years later, there I am, the executive producer of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” and I thought wouldn’t it be fun to start the whole series right here at this fountain? I bet you anything I can find somebody who can control it so that it’ll shoot up when I want it to.
01:45:51 And what if I write an opening monologue for Donald Trump where he walks out of his limousine, up those steps, stands next to that fountain that I walked past every morning, and gives the opening monologue, and when he finishes with the name of the show, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” the fountain shoots up into the air and we pull out from him to a jib camera, so it’s a long shot, and then pull out to a helicopter shot, and it looks like you’re just flying up into space, and he walks off of Lincoln Center Plaza, like that would be awesome.
And I had the secret little thrill of having walked across that same plaza for so many years and then getting to see it come about, getting to see the helicopter, getting to have the jib camera, getting to have all 18 of those celebrities gathered on Lincoln Center Plaza, our team of about 200 people working there, Donald Trump pulling up in the limo. You know, it was very exciting. It felt like I’d come home.
Carmen: Yeah, that’s a full circle moment. That’s amazing. Very cool. Well, thank you for sharing those, because yeah, those are moments you don’t get to hear about or you don’t read on IMDb, that’s for sure.
Carmen: So thank you for sharing those here. Is there anything else you’d like to add at this time?
Nancy: No. I want to thank you, Carmen, for a wonderful interview. I’ve sat in your chair thousands of times, and you made this very easy on me. I am not used to sitting in this chair, and this was fun, and I really appreciate it.
Carmen: Well, thank you so much for participating. I mean, having this as a resource and as research material for understanding a hundred years of coeducation at William & Mary and beyond I think is just fantastic, so thank you again for your participation.
Nancy: Thank you.
01:47:38 [End of recording.]
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