Nutley actress follows her dream, stars in off-Broadway show

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NUTLEY, NJ — Nutley resident Jess Appel has just finished starring in the off-Broadway play “Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares” at the historic Gene Frankel Theatre in Manhattan. Appel played the roles of Owl, Cactus and Jaguar in the story, which centers on a young Salvadoran American girl named Maya coming of age in Phoenix, Ariz. The show takes viewers through the magic and folklore of Maya’s culture while highlighting the difficulties of mother/daughter relationships and finding one’s identity as a mixed-race individual. There were 10 performances of the show, which ran June 15-26.

Appel, a dog mom to a 7-year-old beagle–Australian cattle dog mix named Maddox, moved to Nutley in April 2021. She lives with her 91-year-old grandmother, who has lived in the same home in Nutley for more than 65 years.

“It’s a time of my life that I will appreciate for the rest of my life. She’s the funniest person and we end up taking care of each other. … Our whole family is here. Family is my No. 1 most important thing in my life, and I’m so lucky that, now that I’m living in Nutley again, I get to have my family around me all the time,” Appel said. “It’s very relaxing, coming from someone who’s working in the city in the hustle bustle of the entertainment industry; getting to come home to somewhere that’s so peaceful and beautiful is just really, really nice.”

Appel went to high school in Montclair. Though she spent the first 10 years of her life in Denver, Colo., she prides herself on truly being a Jersey girl.

“Even though I technically lived the same amount of time in Denver as I did in New Jersey, I consider myself a Jersey girl, and I’m not embarrassed about it,” Appel said. “People are so nice here, especially in Nutley. People smile and wave hello here. … You would definitely get yourself into some trouble if you started waving at people in New York City, but here it’s a daily thing that happens to me.”

Appel developed a love of theater at a young age.

“I started reading at a really young age and was the narrator in my kindergarten’s performance of ‘The Little Red Hen.’ I was able to see the reactions of the audience and the kids in the play. It helped me to realize the power of telling stories that help instill positive values. And I was hooked,” she said. “I always want to be in productions that leave people feeling challenged to be better versions of themselves and shows that make people feel good inside.

“I love that every single performance, I get to be better at my job,” she continued. “I get to continue to evolve into a better version of myself not only as a performer, but the experiences make me better as a part of society, as a person.”

Appel attended Syracuse University, where she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting. Upon graduation she moved to the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. She worked for more than 10 years as a bartender while continuing to pursue her acting career. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Manhattan in March 2020, Appel viewed it as a wakeup call to pursue her acting career full time.

“When everyone got let go from my job on March 16 or 17 of 2020, I decided that I was never going back,” she said, adding that, while bartending was a great side gig, it did sap her of the energy she needed to go to auditions and break into theater, her “passion.” “Especially for being a real people person and giving all of my energy and myself to other people, I had very little left for myself.”

During the duration of stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, Appel worked with Amanda Quaid of the Talk Shop to learn 13 different accents, dedicating herself to working as an actress full time and all of the classes and study that go with that career choice. She said she prefers to work in the theater as opposed to film for a few reasons.

“There’s something about live performance and feeling the energy of an audience and also getting to go through a story from the beginning to the end and having that experience for myself, but also getting to see other people go through that experience, whether that’s the audience or my fellow actors,” she said, adding that films are shot out of order, which interrupts the flow. “You could be in a movie with an actor you’ve never actually met, and just collaboratively on the stage versus film you get to work with those people in the moment as one.

“Also, in the theater, there’s just this natural bonding experience that happens with your fellow actors, your director, your choreographer, and it’s kind of like a little family,” she continued. “It becomes a family with all of those quirks and moments and, as I’m sure with other forms of acting, these people become your friends that you have for a lifetime because of these really strong, really emotional bonds you form while on the stage together.”

While working at the Library, a restaurant housed at the Public Theater — the presenter of Shakespeare in the Park — Appel met actor, singer and writer Amanda Andrews, who has become one of her greatest friends. Andrews was working with Christine Stoddard, the writer and director of “Mi Abuela,” in another one of Stoddard’s works, “Forget Fairytales.” When a member of “Forget Fairytales” dropped out, Andrews introduced Appel to Stoddard.

“Christine and I ended up getting on a phone call together, and we just liked each other so much that she offered me the role and thank God I came through for her. I’ve continued working with her, and it’s been such a great thing. I’ve done five of her plays since January. … It’s been an insane challenge,” Appel said. “I feel like any sort of rust that I had has very quickly fallen off. She is really such a prolific, wonderful and just talented writer.

“Comedic acting in general is where I think I shine and what makes me happy. The first performance that I was in and making people laugh and I just realized that I wanted to do this for forever was ‘A Comedy of Errors,’ which is a Shakespeare play, but it was just so funny and hearing people’s reactions and you know just hearing and sharing joy with people,” Appel continued. “Christine’s plays are so smart. It’s not, you know, stupid humor; it’s really witty and really smart and touches on social injustices. A lot of it is quite feminist and female driven; it’s calling out things in society that make no sense.”

When asked about advice for aspiring thespians, Appel said, “Don’t worry about what anyone tells you in terms of if it’s right for you or if you should or should not be doing this. Just do it no matter what any acting teacher or director says. Just keep doing it and then you’ll find out for yourself if it’s where you belong. You get better every single time you do it. And for me, I think that the joy of acting is being able to improve every single time you do your job. It’s a lifelong learning process, and that’s what I love about it. It never gets dull, and it never gets stale.”

Photos Courtesy of Jess Appel and ‘Mi Abuela’