Atlanta-bound playwright and comedian David Lee Nelson discusses the lessons he learned in Charleston 

Curtain Call

click to enlarge Don't worry folks — David Lee Nelson will be back

Jonathan Boncek

Don't worry folks — David Lee Nelson will be back

When David Lee Nelson returned to Charleston in 2013, he was only supposed to stay for a few months. Taking a break from his time in New York City, he was going to play the lead role in a production of Hamlet and teach a semester at the College of Charleston. That was the plan, but new opportunities kept popping up.

He produced The Debate Over Courtney O'Connell of Columbus, Nebraska at Boone's Bar downtown. By the time that was over, Nelson was preparing to perform during Piccolo Spoleto, then came another teaching opportunity which led to the production of his most recent new play A Sudden Spontaneous Event. Every time Nelson has planned on leaving Charleston, something has kept him in town. As Shakespeare wrote: "Our wills and fates do so contrary run." But now, after years in the Lowcountry, the actor, playwright, and stand-up is ready to share his talents with his new home of Atlanta.

"Every day I wake up not in Charleston is a day I wake up slightly disappointed," says Nelson. "But I also feel like it's time for me to go explore somewhere else for bit and bring what I learn there and create there back here."

Nelson is quick to point out that he doesn't consider his move to Atlanta to be the end of his contributions to Charleston's creative community. The relocation is more of a way to expand his level of exposure, as well as a way to grow as a person and performer. His time teaching at the College of Charleston has come to an end. His agent has set up shop in Atlanta and is asking clients to spend some time there. Also, the big city simply offers more opportunities when it comes to film and television roles, as well as new crowds on which Nelson can try out his stand-up material. In addition to the wealth of opportunities that the city offers, he is also opening himself up to new audiences, new critics, and new collaborators. While that all may seem a bit intimidating, the change is something Nelson feels is necessary for his continued growth as an artist.

"I think it's really good for artists to be uncomfortable and to be in new situations. Joy Vandervort-Cobb is one of my mentors. Something she always said when I was in school was that 'If it scares you as an artist, you must do it,'" says Nelson. "The idea of going and working with new people, people I don't know, it's scary and exciting and thrilling. And as an artist, I think I have to seek out situations and people that are new to me and possibly uncomfortable."

Although he may be moving to Atlanta, Nelson will still be lending his writing talents to Charleston's PURE Theatre and will remain involved in this year's upcoming Piccolo Spoleto Festival. In addition to building his stand-up career in Atlanta, Nelson is also working with longtime collaborator Adam Knight to premiere a new solo show next March. On top of all that, the playwright is looking for more opportunities to stage A Sudden Spontaneous Event. But as Nelson sets out for a new town, he'll be leaving Charleston with more than just his sense of humor and body of work.

"Whenever I'm here, I'm so happy, and I really feel like myself here. I think that is the lesson I would take away," says Nelson. "When you are true to yourself, you create the best work because that's work that only you can create. I feel comfortable in my own skin here, and I guess that is what I will take with me wherever I go. Just be comfortable being who I am, which in Charleston, I learn that anytime I'm here."

So if that's the lesson that Nelson is taking with him, what advice does he leave behind? As a performer as well as an educator, there is one piece of direction that he gives to all of his students ­— and Nelson is willing to share it with anyone who listens.

"I advise people just to do it, and the more you do it, the better you get. And it sounds so obvious, and yet I hear people say, 'Oh, I've never written a play before.' Well, I hadn't either. Everyone has never done it before," he says. "I promise you if you start and keep doing it, you are going to get better. And that's no matter what you do. Who knows where it will lead you. When I left acting school, I didn't expect to do stand-up. When I started doing stand-up, I didn't expect to start writing solo shows. And now, I didn't expect to write plays. But that's just what came next. And I just kept writing through all of it."


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