Marlboro College is sad to report the death of Paul Nelsen, theater professor emeritus, on August 19, 2019, just months after a sudden cancer diagnosis.
“I talked with Paul just three weeks ago and he took the time to speak with me about the college,” said Richard Glejzer, provost and dean of faculty. “He made a point of wishing all of us at Marlboro well on our path forward. I know that Paul will be greatly missed by his students and the entire Marlboro community.”
Paul came to Marlboro in 1978 after working at Windham College in Putney, Vermont, where he helped establish an innovative and ambitious theater program. He retired in 2013 after 35 years on, and off, the Marlboro stage.
Immediately upon starting at Marlboro, Paul launched into theatrical experimentation with great energy. During his first semester, Paul and his students altered Whittemore Theater, rebuilding the stage and removing the balcony in order to expand the playing space. That same semester, Paul directed three plays: Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, and a version of Spoon River Anthology.
“I was young, ambitious, and maybe a little foolish,” said Paul, on the eve of his retirement six years ago. “But I continued with that level of intensity for many years, trying to do everything myself. There was no tech director, no work-study crews. All design, construction, and production work was accomplished by me and some dedicated students.”
In 1979, Paul led a student trip to London, the world’s mecca for theater. The program proved so successful that he repeated it a couple of years later, and subsequently expanded participation to include Marlboro College trustees, other faculty, and friends of the college from the local community. Paul’s theater trips to London continued on a regular basis for many years, sometimes three times a year and hosting people from across the country.
“Paul was an excellent leader on our trip to Britain—heavenly days of castles, cathedrals, contemporary theater, and Shakespeare out the wazoo,” commented Gina DeAngelis ’94. “He didn’t just teach acting or directing, he taught us theater folks how to use our talent and develop our skills to reflect, for an audience, life itself.”
In 1983, inspired by his London experiences, Paul invited a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Ted Valentine, to play the lead role in King Lear, a huge production that took place in Person’s Auditorium. The following year Paul worked on Sophocles’ Antigone and a Harold Pinter play, The Birthday Party. Paul was self-reportedly obsessed with achieving something that was exceptional, beyond standard intercollegiate quality.
Over the next decade, Paul continued to support student productions but decreased the frequency of his own. In 1996, he directed his final play, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and began to focus his teaching on dramatic literature as well as on exploring the history and practices of theater and film from diverse angles, often in collaboration with other faculty.
Also known for his scholarship, Paul was one of a dozen National Endowment for the Humanities Fellows who convened at the Folger Shakespeare Institute in Washington, D.C., to explore practices of teaching Shakespeare through performance. His research and publications in academic journals on Early Modern English playhouses resulted in an invitation to serve on the Academic Advisory Board for the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.
“One of the reasons I chose Marlboro College was so that I would have professors who really cared about, and interacted with, their students,” said Jesse Nesser ’13. “Paul Nelsen turned out to be exactly the kind of teacher I had hoped for. His curiosity, passion, insight, and dedication extended beyond his department and his classroom.”
A memorial celebration for Paul will be held on September 28, 1pm, at The West Village Meeting House in West Brattleboro, Vermont.