Abigail Bell started in theater like many children at school and in church.
“My first role ever was a lamb in my school’s production of ‘Noah’s Ark’ when I was 6. But I always start counting at the production of ‘Wizard of Oz’ I did with a community theatre down the street from my house in 2007. I had been to see shows there a few times and remember watching the actors interact with each other in the meet-and-greet lines afterward. They all seemed like such good friends, and they had this big shared experience. I think at that point I had never even seen ‘The Wizard of Oz’ movie; I just wanted to be part of this theater thing,” she says.
That sense of friendship and community drives Abigail’s interest in theater.
“Simply put: theater is community. It’s you and your crew and six weeks and a big stupid scary beautiful impossible project. You decide, ‘This needs to happen. This story needs to be told.’ And whether you have a million dollars or fifty bucks, and whether you hate each other or can’t live without each other, and whether your audience is Broadway or just your grandparents, you build these relationships and these sets and these prompt books and these inside jokes. It’s intense, it’s shared, it’s personal and universal, and it’s so, so brief - you always know strike is coming. The world ends and you go on to the next big stupid scary beautiful impossible project.
“I love the idea of living in another person, another world — maybe something that wouldn’t be possible in your regular life. I’m a reader, a TV-binger, all that, so I already love the concept of other worlds. But in theater you build a real world, too — a miniscule, ephemeral, tight-knit, personal world with your cast and crew that only exists as long as the show exists and then becomes memory,” she says.
Her background is mostly in community theater. She has performed with the Kingsport Theatre Guild, Theatre Bristol, Johnson City Community Theatre, Jonesborough Repertory Theater, The Drifting Theater, Blue Moon Theatre Company, Shakespeare in Johnson City, Celebration Church Worship Arts Ministry and the informal Highlands Youth Ensemble Alumni.
“Basically, if it’s a community theater in the Tri-Cities, I’ve probably done something there. In college I was able to immerse myself in all aspects of theater, from performing to design to directing, and I’ve worked professionally in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Massachusetts,” she says.
She spends time on stage as an actor but also enjoys being behind the scenes as a director.
“If a piece is character-driven, with rich personal backstories and beautiful language and emotionality, I revel in the acting. But in general, I would say I prefer to direct. I think my skill set lies more in that direction. Plus I get to boss everyone around,” she says.
She gives her professors at Emory & Henry College, Emory, Virginia, a lot of the credit for her development as a theater professional.
“Dr Kelly Bremner taught me everything a director could and should be — way beyond what I ever thought. Professor Rachael Swartz and Professor Rachel Black gave me the tools to start working in the world of professional theater, both artistically and practically. Professor Kevin Dudley got me interested in design — which I thought would be impossible — and taught me how to see a production from both sides of the table. Professor Annalee Tull could teach classes in attitude and work ethic.
“And I’ve been privileged, too, to observe and work with theater artists at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon - designers, actors, stage managers, front of house — all of whom have had an impact. Rick Rose taught some of the hardest classes I ever took in my life. Another huge influence is the current Artistic Director Katy Brown who makes theater beautiful with every show she does and every word she says.
“My ultimate fantasy is to have a résumé for every possible theater job. Like, you need an usher? A designer? A playwright? I have all those skill sets and all this experience. So in pursuit of that I apply to as many places in as many different positions as possible — in the past six months I’ve been a lighting designer, an ALD/AME, a stage manager, an actor and an assistant director. And I have an audition for a Zoom play this week,” she says.
As an English major, Abigail is a self-proclaimed “Shakespeare geek.” Her favorite roles are any Shakespeare character (especially Claudio and Helena), anything she gets to direct or create the lighting for, and any role no one’s ever played before.
“Musical theater is the perfect art form. There’s acting, there’s singing, there’s dance, there’s visual effects. I love how accessible they are, how they bring people together; I love developing concepts for musicals because there’s a built-in structure to work around. All-time favorites are ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘She Loves Me.’
“That said, I was also an English major. A good straight play is more like a good book — there’s a literary aspect to a drama, especially the classics, that isn’t always possible in a musical. Again — William Shakespeare is my man.
“My approach is nothing terribly exciting. It involves an awful lot of dramaturgy (which is a fancy word for theater geekery), especially when directing. You start with the text - read the play a billion times and do hours and hours of research and end up with hundreds of pages of notes. Then you step back and say okay, with all of that, what is the play about? What’s the most important story to tell here? And then you have to throw out anything that doesn’t fit that one most important story,” she says.
Her plans for the future include working for a while — a year or two — and going back to school. When not in the theater, she was involved in choir and dance. She’s also written or attempted to write a novel for National Novel Writing Month every year since she was 12.
Abigail is from Fort St. John, British Columbia and graduated from E&H in December. She is the daughter of Peter and Barbara Bell.