fearless actor, screenwriter, director: Nicole Quinnby DB Leonard & Adele Jones
Nicole Quinn is unafraid. Of taking on the difficult topics of age, gender, race; of challenging the status quo. Nicole is not afraid of anything, it seems.
“I’m a story teller, that’s how I define myself,” says Quinn. “The medium always changes. And not intentionally—I follow the way the story arises and how it wants to reveal itself.” Indeed. Her prolific talent is evident in plays, short stories and film, as an actor, screenwriter and director. In every arena, Quinn has maintained a deep compassion for the “great arcs that we share,” she says.
Born in a Catholic adoption home in California, Quinn was welcomed as a baby into a family in which both education and activism played a significant role. Except for one year at the Marymount School in Mexico, Quinn spent her formative years, from the ages of eight to seventeen, in a Catholic boarding school—an institution she essentially integrated. This had its predictable result: at one point, the parents of one of her friends had a teacher inform Quinn she was forbidden to speak to her friend. Quinn called the school’s bluff, telling them that if that were the case she—and her parent’s sizable financial support—would be leaving, and the school relented. Unwittingly, they all had helped her develop a lifelong fiery determination. “They taught me to defend myself,” states Quinn. “I always feel like I was raised on the razor’s edge of cultural reality.”
From an early age, Quinn began challenging the ways in which society defined itself. In the late sixties, at the age of eleven, she was returning from her semester in Mexico, and when filling out an immigration form, she was required to identify her race. She wrote “human.” Quinn was detained for an hour and a half. “I’m mixed race,” she laughs. “Aren’t we all?” After graduating from UC Berkeley, she worked at Berkeley Repertory Theater for three years before moving—with husband Paul, whom she’d met at Berkeley—to New York City to pursue her theater career, performing in regional theater, soap operas, films and Shakespeare productions. While working in the theater world, the couple lived in Brooklyn, raising two children.
As a mother wanting to participate in her children’s lives, Quinn switched gears from acting and touring to devoting herself to the written word. From the city she submitted a script, The Torment, to River Arts—a Woodstock writer’s workshop co-taught by Michael Christofer and locally prominent playwright, writer, and editor Nina Shengold. Not only would the script get her accepted into the workshop, it would forge a lasting connection with Shengold and become a bridge for her to the Hudson Valley, eventually leading her family to Accord as full time residents in 1980. Shengold became an early advocate of Quinn’s work, passing her script onto her own agent, who eventually took Quinn on as a client. That connection led to writing assignments in Hollywood for HBO, Showtime, network television and Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures.
While Hollywood provided opportunities for Quinn to hone her writing skills, she soon became aware that Hollywood wanted “Nicole Lite,” which meant stereotypical stories and characters with little depth. Determined to “not to be part of the problem,” she struggled to create authentic characters in her writing, working against the prevalence of ageism and racism.
Finally breaking with Hollywood, Quinn found herself with an unique opportunity to show what she was capable of, while keeping close to home. Her 2007 debut feature film, Racing Daylight—which she wrote and directed—starred Hudson Valley resident Melissa Leo (The Fighter, Frozen River) and David Strathairn (Good Night & Good Luck). A multi-layered, magically realistic narrative of two lovers separated by time, the movie was shot on location in Accord. The film generated enormous support from the community and has achieved a wide audience to date—as well as a collection of independent awards including first place at the Women’s International Film Festival in Miami. “I always think you should enlighten as you entertain,” says Quinn.
For ten years, Quinn has done both, formally and informally, as she and Nina Shengold have been teaching a playwriting workshop at Rondout Valley High School, with a group called Underage Thespian Action. The heart of the program is devoted to the collaborative nature of theater, encouraging the students to develop their unique voices—often deep ones. “Some are mining their own homosexuality, their own fears, their own passions,” said Quinn. “And we get the gift of seeing what they’re struggling with.”
Focusing on the practicality of production, each play has a limit of five actors and five pages. There are no sets, allowing the words themselves to be the vehicle. For six weeks the students write with the instructors, then cast and produce their work, engaging in every detail. Finally there is the ultimate test of the live performance. (This year’s spring semester will feature performances starting the first week of April.)
Shengold and Quinn pushed for deep truth from their students, and got it. Last year, the program ran into some resistance from the new school superintendent and school board concerning the use of profanity in one student’s work. The administration was concerned that the language would appear to condone “bad language.” It seemed important to all concerned that a distinction between behavior in everyday interaction and artistic content be made clear. “Words are not the enemy,” Quinn declared emphatically, “it’s the way we use those words.”
Believing there was a good reason for using the particular word in the play, Quinn and Shengold defended the student’s work along with the more fundamental concept of free speech. But Quinn feels strongly that such words should not be used frivolously. “There is no excuse for using expletives as a shortcut to emotion,” she says. “It’s about meaning,” she adds. “It’s always about meaning, isn’t it?” Following a board meeting where the community showed them unequivocal vocal support, the right to artistic expression was granted.
A proud proponent of the concept that school not be the only form of education, Quinn has devoted much of her time to her unrelenting activism. “If you’re in a community, everybody is your responsibility,” she says. Recently when Quinn needed a theatrical run for Racing Daylight, the owners of the Rosendale Theatre volunteered their historic space free of charge. Later when they requested Quinn’s aid in helping to generate a community base to purchase the theatre, there was no question: with Actors and Writers (please see this month's Theatre/Cinema highlights), she became one of the founding members of the Rosendale Theatre Collective, a new volunteer organization that now provides a lasting foundation for independent film and live theater and music in the region. Presently, Quinn serves on the board, as well as the children’s programming committee, the fundraising committee, and the humble concession stand. “It’s yeasty here,” Quinn said of Ulster County, which proudly boasts one of the country’s largest concentrations of artists outside of New York City—a community in which she is firmly entrenched.
Looking ahead, she has several irons in the fire: “The Gold Stone Girl”—a “dystopic, futuristic, feminist fantasy” novel, new film, [Slap and Tickle] a coming of age story based in the Depression era, and a comedic action thriller film titled “Meaning of Wife”, with Kim Wozencraft. It’s hard to imagine Nicole Quinn slowing her furious pace or her search for meaning—either in her own work or in the support of others—and the resulting stories exhibit an honesty and reality often missing in an increasingly superficial entertainment business. Fearless indeed.