Written by 8:56 pm fullerton, interview

Musical Theatre & the Dog Fight : Interview with Best Actress 2016 Ashley Arlene Nelson

 Written by Patrick Chavis

After making a strong, memorable mark with a plethora of performances in the Orange County theatre scene and receiving a Best Actress win in 2016 for her performance in Dog Fight at the Chance Theater, Nelson set off on her own to the Big Apple to chase an even bigger dream — the Great White Way (Broadway).

A Chorus Line @ Chance Theater (2016) photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio Tatiana Alvarez, Camryn Zelinger, Ben Heustess (front) and Ashley Arlene Nelson

“I took a plane, packed as much as I possibly could into as many suitcases as I could get on an airplane. I had my parents ship me the rest in small doses. They still have some of my stuff, I’m sure, sitting in boxes somewhere. just me and my suitcases on the train, and that was almost six years ago,” said Nelson.

While attending UCI, the University of California, Irvine, Nelson recalled a certain push towards New York at the school, especially in the theatre department. She mentioned Los Angeles was also an option, but New York was the top location advocated at the school.

“LA, while closer to home, which meant I could see my family and my friends when I wanted. Personally, it boiled down more to the environment,” said Nelson.

The cast of Dog Fight @ Chance Theater (2016)

Nelson had a very pivotal conversation with her cousin Kellie Pailet. Pailet told Nelson, “They tell you you have to live in New York or LA, but realistically, you can do theater anywhere. [If you want to perform], you will find a place to do theater. It exists all over. What you need to do is find a place that you enjoy living [because auditioning and performing is just a small part of who and what you are. Don’t forget to live your life].”

This conversation resonated deeply with Nelson and strengthened her resolve to make the leap to New York City.

There is just something to be said about [New York]. You can hop on the train. I can be reading through my music and listening to my music and going over lyrics or going over the script or the sides, whatever they send you. So the commute feels like you’re accomplishing something that feels like you’re not just sitting in your car, paying attention, making sure you don’t hit the person in front of you.

For her first years in New York City, Nelson bounced around Manhattan. In recent years, she has made her home across the river in the Bronx. “I get the best of both worlds. [It’s quiet, and] I’m right down the street from a train, and it takes me about an hour to get anywhere in the city,” said Nelson.

Since the move, many OC friends and acting costars have visited her in her new hometown.

My doors [are] always open to them. 

Andrew Puente, a friend and costar who played Eddie in the 2016 Chance Theater production of Dog Fight, is one of many friends who has dropped by in recent years. Another friend and costar, Elizabeth Suzanne, who played Blanche Barrow in Costa Mesa Playhouse’s 2015 production of Bonnie & Clyde, lives in Washington, D.C., now, and they still meet up to this day and hang out.

“I definitely still have the little families that I’ve created within the shows I’ve done over the years. They pop out if they’re in the city, and they’ll shoot a text like, not here long. Do you have time to grab coffee?” 

Before New York, before Dog Fight, Ashley’s musical theater journey started in Orange and Fullerton, CA.

“I grew up in Orange. I did a lot of theater in Fullerton, but the program I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. It was Fullerton Children’s Repertory Theater. My cousin [Kellie Pailet] was a part of it, the same cousin I had a conversation with about moving here. And it really shaped me as a performer. The two women who ran it at the time were Mrs. Schindele and Mrs. Strey.”

Nelson attended Fullerton Children’s Repertory Program from fifth to eighth grade, performing two shows a year and rehearsing once a week.

“you are putting in work. they didn’t care that we were 10.”

Instead of taking the traditional educational route, she was convinced of her love for the stage. Nelson chose homeschooling and did a weekly acting class at the Laguna Playhouse Repertory Program.

“Another couple of women who totally helped shape me into the person and performer I am was Kelly Herman and Donna Inglima. They gave us space to be kids. they really gave us opportunities to play and explore and be creative in a safe environment. When you’re in high school, the last thing you want to do is look like an idiot. she really encouraged us to be silly, to make fun choices, to really delve into physical comedy, and to explore character voices and physicality.” 

The cast of Dog Fight @ Chance Theater (2016)

In college, Nelson sometimes struggled with this creative field called acting, which sometimes says one thing but, in reality, does something else.

“I struggled in college with some of my professors because I really disagreed with some of the narratives being pushed. We’re being told to stand out, to be uniquely us, and to pick material that reflects who we are as people. But then, on the flip side of it, we’re all being conditioned to look the same and be the same. Be yourself, but don’t be yourself, and you know, sing a song that represents you, but also pick the perfect song that’s right for this part and right for this show, but don’t sing from the show. It was so overwhelming and frustrating.”

Being a working actor can be challenging. Ashley believes that you must find joy in performing because, ultimately, we act because we love it, and there is no correct way. It’s art. Have fun with it.

Nelson has vivid memories of her time at the Chance Theater performing Dog Fight and of the cast and crew who made the experience something she’ll never forget.

Jimmy Saiz Wedding (2024)

Little Women – The Broadway Musical Jimmy Saiz and Ashley Arlene Nelson photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

“One of the biggest shows that left a lasting imprint on me was Dogfight. A magical group of people who were all still friends, talking to each other and checking in with each other. It was just lightning in a bottle. It was such a perfect group of people at the perfect time,” said Nelson.

“One night, I came offstage after “pretty funny,” which was the act one finale, and I came offstage to pick up all my props, and I was hysterical. I couldn’t stop crying. I remember James [mchale] walking by, he’s like, ‘Oh, my God, are you okay?’ I said, ‘honestly, my body can’t get out of the feels. I’m totally fine. I’m coherent. I’m not feeling sad, but my body is having a reaction.’ [So] James gave me a hug. And then, as the cast was exiting, they all noticed. and in that moment, the entire cast [ran over and] started hugging me. we used to call it puppy pile and, and just sat there and held me until I stopped crying. everyone had your back. it was such a supportive group of people. it was just such a special show.”

The cast of Dog Fight @ Chance Theater (2016)

Nelson continues to act and pursue her acting dreams in New York, and OCR will continue to follow this talented actress on her journey, whether in Orange County or the Big Apple.

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