Marking fifty years at Nutley Theatre

After 50 years, Vicki Chalk is still acting at the Nutley Theater.

NUTLEY, NJ — Township resident Vicky Chalk is celebrating her 50th anniversary with the Nutley Little Theatre by rehearsing for another show. In fact, one might describe her life has having many scenes and many acts, but one constant: this theater.

Born and raised in Nutley, Chalk, 68, was a ham from the start, taking part in musical productions with the Nutley Recreation Department and joining the International Order of the Rainbow for Girls, a Masonic youth organization, where she performed.

“I also had a lot of musical productions in my backyard,” she said recently, sitting near the stage of the empty Nutley Little Theatre. “I was usually the producer and star. I enjoyed singing and thought I sang better than Shirley Temple. But she could dance.”
Chalk attended Nutley High School, graduating in 1969, and took part in her senior play, “Antigone.” As a pretty brunette, she recalled cheerfully that she must have been cast for her looks since she did not have a speaking part.

She attended William Paterson College and majored in speech communications, with a concentration in theater. Her first job after graduation was for Jimmy Nederlander, of the Nederlander Organization which owned numerous Broadway houses. She was told her letter of introduction asking for a job was so well-written that Nederlander wanted to give her a chance, so she began running errands for his Palace Theater.

“My brother, Brad, actually wrote the letter,” she said. “But I thought the job was a great way to get into Broadway, possibly as a producer.”

Because of a personality conflict, Chalk departed the Nederlander Organization and found work with another producer, all the while acting in Nutley Little Theatre productions. Her next employment stop was in an advertising agency.
“I loved the psychology of advertising and this opportunity came up as a temporary job,” she said.

She dated and eventually married Patrick Little, with whom she had performed in “The Boyfriend,” at the Little Theatre. The couple moved to San Antonio where he attended law school and she found employment with an NBC affiliate. Chalk kept up with the Little Theatre via its newsletter, and she did not think it was doing all that well, but reassured herself that everything goes in cycles.

Once her husband completed law school, the couple returned to New Jersey and resided in Montclair. Chalk found employment as the public information officer for the Essex County Parks Department and also worked for the N.J. Film Commission. The stork paid a visit in 1983 and she left work to be a full-time mother to her children — two boys and a girl.

But Chalk’s inner ham had never left her so she remained active in the Little Theatre by acting and directing while raising her family. In 1997, she divorced and went to work as an elementary school teacher, retiring last year from the Newark School District after 22 years. She currently writes a weekly column called “Over the Back Fence” for a local newspaper, and lives in the house in which she grew up.
“I’ve had a complicated life,” she said with a chuckle.

Speaking about her life in the theater, Chalk said people do not generally know what goes into staging a show. Pointing to a corner of the empty stage, she said “down left” is the best place to have a scene about unsuccessful love; pointing to “upstage center,” she said this is where a character finds their strength.

“You have to know where things play well,” she said. “I’ve never been turned down to direct. I have a good reputation for bringing an audience in.”

Although she acts and directs, Chalk said actors should never direct themselves because a director needs to see that the populated stage is balanced even when in motion; an actor onstage cannot possibly do this.

“A good director should have a vision and know the tricks of getting the audience to direct their eye,” she said. “And the director has to be a good communicator. The secret to direction is getting your actor to perform a certain way, but leading them to it. It’s always the emotion behind the line. What’s the motivation behind the action? That’s what makes it look real.”

Chalk prefers comedies to dramas, saying that comedy makes more sense to her, and getting the comedic timing just right for the big laugh is a satisfying challenge.

“I don’t want angst at a rehearsal, either as an actor or director, having that serious stuff over and over,” she said. “Whenever I direct, it’s either a comedy or mystery. You have to be a good listener for comedy. I love when I don’t have lines and you just react and make it look as if you never heard the lines before. That’s fun for me.”

In one basement room at the Little Theatre, the walls are covered with photographs of past productions going back decades. Sure enough, Vicky Chalk is in many of them, onstage among friends and looking out to the audience.

“We’ve seen a lot members come and go,” she said. “The average age is older now. It’s always been a battle getting new people in. When I direct, if it’s between an older and a younger person, with everything being equal, I’d cast a younger person.”
Having a corps of young thespians was not a problem when Chalk signed on. In fact, at one time, the Little Theatre had an auxiliary troupe of young people called the Youth Action Committee, but that group was disbanded 30 years ago.

A half-century of being active in a theater is a considerable accomplishment, but one role that escaped Chalk was the one about the boy who refused to grow up.

“I always wanted to be Peter Pan,” she said, “but I’m too old now. But years ago, when I first saw that record album with Mary Martin on the cover as Peter Pan …”

Chalk will be performing in one of two alternating casts for the upcoming Little Theatre production of A. R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” with six shows scheduled for Dec. 13, 14, 20 and 21, at 8 p.m., and Dec. 15 and 21, at 2 p.m. “Love Letters” is a story presented as a man and woman reading correspondences from their 50-year relationship. Chalk can be seen in the final three shows.