Actors Bridge Ensemble co-founder Bill Feehely will leave his position as Assistant Professor of Acting and Directing at Belmont University when the spring semester ends a little more than a month from now. He won’t be cutting all ties to the school he loves, though, and he certainly won’t be severing his association with the city he’s called home for nearly two decades. It’s simply time for a new chapter to begin.
“I think there were two things at play – one thing because I’m able to, but also because I wanted to shake things up for myself,” the 59-year-old Feehely says. “I love teaching, I love Belmont, I love the students but…I wanted to get back to some of the other things I love to do. And as I get older…I was thinking that I know there are only so many productive days left and how I want to spend those days.
“This period may start with a little sabbatical where I try to figure out what (the future schedule) will look like.”
The company he started with Vali Forrister continues its work with Belmont, so it’s a safe bet that Feehely will remain a part of that educational and artistic union. Music, which has long played an important role in his work and life, will be part of the schedule too – Feehely recently finished an album and is writing music with others as well. Nashville’s ever-growing creative community offers new possibilities for directing and acting – “There are so many people I haven’t worked with. It will be great to have chances to do that as well” – and spending time with his wife Celeste Krenz is at the top of his to-do list.
He certainly won’t stop being interested in education just because he’s stepping down from a full-time teaching position. “I enjoy everything that I do. Teaching has always been something I’ve enjoyed tremendously,” Feehely says. “And seeing the classes that continue at Actors Bridge and the students that go on to perform not just for Actors Bridge but for other companies, including ones that they start, is really gratifying.”
But there is no question he’ll miss his current Belmont gig. “That’s the tough part of this,” he says. “To see this department develop (over nearly 20 years, since Feehely first taught as an adjunct professor before assuming his current role) with Paul Gatrell, the great faculty and students we’ve had and the new facilities that we’ve moved into during that time has been a wonderful experience, and I’m going to miss it.”
“Bill has been the core of the BFA in Theatre degree at Belmont since its inception eight years ago,” Gatrell, the chair of Belmont’s theater and dance department, says. “He has created one of the strongest actor and director training programs in Tennessee at Belmont for undergraduate students and at the Actors Bridge Ensemble for adult professionals. His work as an actor, director, writer, and producer has left an indelible mark on Belmont University’s theater program. He is one of the great artists and Nashville is fortunate to be his home.”
It’s hard to measure Feehely’s impact on Nashville theater since the Rutgers MFA grad arrived from New York City in 1995. If there’s anyone that can put his work here into perspective, though, it is Forrister, his longtime colleague and friend.
“Bill has had an enormous impact on the Nashville theater community,” she says. “He introduced Nashville to the Meisner Technique. Over the last 18 years, he’s trained more actors than anyone in town and has added depth, quality and integrity to our local talent pool. Over 3,500 students have been through the Actors Bridge Meisner training program and countless others have studied the technique with him at Belmont. He has quite literally impacted every stage in town.
“There is no one else like him. Bill is a master teacher and director. He can look straight into your soul and demand all you’ve got. He pushes actors to go further than they think they can, and in the end, they always agree that Bill gets the very best out of them.
“Of all our collaborations, I am perhaps most proud that the company we built continues to thrive as it celebrates nearly two decades of producing indigenous professional theater that gives voice to the stories that impact our community. We’ve got over 80 critically-acclaimed productions under our belt, 13 of which were world premieres of original works. That is quite a legacy. I look forward to seeing what he chooses to tackle next.”
Looking back over his time at Belmont and ABE, Feehely says while he’s taught he’s learned a great deal from his students. “Often when I’ve encountered stumbling blocks it’s been students that have helped me through it,” he notes. “If you’re open and really listening to your students, you never stop learning from that.”
What has he learned during the time he’s spent in Nashville? “In terms of my teaching the (Meisner) technique, it’s reaffirmed its value. Every time I introduce it to a new class, and go through a period of stumbling where they’re trying to grasp it…and then it clicks, and there’s this exponential growth that occurs with the actors.
“One of the things the technique has always done is that it begins to intersect with the person, who discovers ‘Hey, there’s an artist in me. What I’m doing is not separate from myself. I bring myself to the art.’ In that there’s an element of self-discovery, of letting go of postures, old habits and things of that nature. And I’ve also seen in my time teaching that there’s room for innovation and flexibility within the technique, and that for each actor it becomes personal, it becomes their technique.
“At the core of it is the struggle with vulnerability, the struggle to listen and be open and honest. That continues no matter what level we’re on.
“And I’ve learned the more you let go the better the work can be. The best thing you can do is let things evolve.”