Nick Ortolani '10 uses theater to get laughs
By Mehroz Kapadia | Wednesday, May 22, 2019
By Mehroz Kapadia
Wednesday, May 22, 2019
Theater training translates to other fields. We emailed one UMass theater alum, Nick Ortolani, a 2010 graduate who has taken in theater training to a related field, a few questions about his time here at UMass Amherst and the Department of Theater, because we wanted to know how theater has impacted him and his career as a stand-up comedian.
Like many successful performers, Ortolani grew up with a love for theater. He loved watching actors, whether it was live or on TV. “I was always quite the grandstander as a child,” he says. His parents quickly noticed his passion and talent. “My parents pushed me towards theater and music at a young age,” says Ortolani, “I think because they knew I had some kind of compulsion to perform.” He participated in theater, in and out of school, for much of his childhood.
Ortolani loved theater, but comedy was his other passion. “I was probably the only nine year old you could meet that loved The Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and Monty Python,” says Ortolani. The Comedy Central channel was at its peak during his formative years, he says, and after school, he would spend his time watching his favorite comedy specials. “I remember watching Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer and thinking ‘wow, this guy gets paid to say whatever he wants,’” Ortolani says.
Still, Ortolani remained committed to theater throughout high school and college. At UMass Theater, he performed in mainstage shows including Pericles, Marta the Divine, The Reincarnation of Jaime Brown, and Caucasian Chalk Circle, among others.
During his time at UMass, Ortolani learned valuable lessons that he carries with him in his career today. One teaching Ortolani says he will never forget was from his freshman year acting class, taught by Shawn LaCount, of Company One in Boston. LaCount told his class on the last day, “actors tend to be boring, vain people. Instead, you should strive to be theatre creators.” This was an eye-opening lesson for Ortolani, and it reframed what he wanted to do. It was this mentality that he carried throughout his career at UMass and after. “I still think of myself as a theater creator, albeit a non-traditional one,” he says.
After college, the job market was bad, so Ortolani found himself working long hours at a summer camp and a warehouse. “My whole life changed around those circumstances,” Ortolani says. Because most of his friends and girlfriend at the time still lived in Amherst, Ortolani commuted two hours to his social life every Friday.
Between the work hours and the commute, he had no time for theater. After doing theater for the majority of his whole life, it was a huge loss. “When you’re accustomed to having a certain amount of creative outlet, having it taken away from you is maddening,” he says.
Eventually, Ortolani transitioned to a job with more reasonable hours, yet he was still unable to commit to a rigid rehearsal schedule. “I decided to get serious about stand up, which I had done a handful of times,” Ortolani says.
The training he received at UMass came in handy. Ortolani credits UMass Theater for his reputation for taking big risks on stage. “I think if I hadn't done UMass Theater, I would have become a flatter comic,” he says, “I’ve always been theatrical, but at UMass, I learned that big risks are usually good risks.”
He credits two of his favorite professors from UMass, Professor Milan Dragicevich and the late Julian Olf, who gave him many of the tools that have helped him in stand up.
Ortolani recalled that his most challenging yet rewarding experience from Olf’s class was an assignment to write an hour-long play with a group; Ortolani’s group was assigned to write in a Postmodern style. They each went home and wrote one vignette that they connected together later on. “My initial vignette was based on a story he told us in class about a man who slept with a gun under his pillow and contemplated suicide every night,” he says, “It was so different than anything I had ever done. The group mentality in creating it is something I’ve tried to use ever since.”
Likewise, Ortolani learned a lot in Dragicevich’s acting classes. He could sense Dragicevich’s obvious passion for acting and enjoyed his interesting demeanor and presentation. “We went over a select few rhetorical structures, [...] to this day, I use them on stage as best as I can,” Ortolani says. He learned movement techniques from Dragicevich’s class and has a better understanding of being more conservative with motions on stage, which is yet another tool from Umass that gives him a better advantage as a comic. “If I feel like I'm settling into a monotone on stage, I think ‘what would Milan make me do?’” says Ortolani.
Asked what advice he's give current UMass Theater students, Ortolani says, “Just do as much as you can [...] If you don’t get cast in something, or you miss out on some opportunity, create your own product.” Whenever he would not get cast in a mainstage show, he would produce a show in Cabaret 204 (a series of student-produced work that has since morphed into the Student Work Series), where he had some of his favorite experiences.
“One of the great things about the theater department, and UMass as a whole is that there’s really no lack of things to do or projects to get involved in,” he says.
One last thing that Ortolani wants to say to students is, “enjoy your time at UMass and in Amherst. It's a great school in a beautiful place, and there's nothing quite like it.”
Watch a recent video of Ortolani’s stand-up:
(Content advisory: Explicit language and sexual references)