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On Island Profile: Nicola Emerich

March 19, 2006 – Nicola Emerich's life gives new meaning to the word "worldly." The founder and artistic director of Pistarckle Theater has lived on St. Thomas for 17 years — the longest she has ever stayed in one place.
Born in 1949 in Hong Kong, Emerich said her father was a U.S. State Department diplomat whose career kept the family moving. By the time she went to college in the United States, she had lived in Greece, Taipei (Taiwan), the United States, Rome, Baghdad, two cities in Libya, the United States again, Jamaica, and the United States yet again.
"Children are resilient, but I would invariably make a really good friend or two in each place, and then it was heartbreak," said Emerich, who goes by "Nikki."
She said in retrospect her education suffered in math and science, but she excelled in art, history and English in high school and college.
College was "a real patchwork quilt," Emerich says.
She first attended Briarcliff College, and it was there that she fell in love with theater. "It was the only thing I really loved to do," she said. She also studied at Columbia University, London University, American University and Catholic University. But she never got her degree because by the time she was 22, she was already working as an actress in Washington, D.C., at places like the Folger Theatre and the Arena Stage.
In the mid-'70s, Emerich moved to New York, where she found success as an off-Broadway actress. She married there and moved back to Washington, D.C., but the marriage didn't last.
"I was constantly in New York, and he didn't want to move to New York," she says.
She then got her first experience as a producer at the Perry Street Theatre in New York. The play, called "Practice," was about rollerblading.
The thing she loves about producing, she says, is that "it seems to be a continual learning process."
In the early '80s, Molly Smith, with whom Emerich had worked in D.C., asked Nikki to direct "The Importance of Being Earnest" in Smith's hometown of Juneau, Ala. Nikki had acted in more than one production of the play, and she knew it well.
Emerich moved to Juneau and stayed in Alaska for three years, where she co-founded the Perseverance Theatre. She produced, acted and directed there in addition to teaching in underserved areas, such as remote fishing villages.
It was in Alaska that she met her husband, architect Brian Emerich.
"Juneau is gorgeous, it has lots of buildings dating back to the turn of the century," Nikki says. In addition to designing houses, Brian renovated a large part of Juneau's historic district.
After getting married in Spain, Nikki and Brian moved to New York, where Nikki worked again as an actress. Her daughter, Maxine, was born there in 1987.
The Emerichs moved to St. Thomas after taking a number of vacations on the island. Brian wanted to move to the island for some time, and Nikki finally agreed to stay "for a couple of years."
But theatrical work at the time on St. Thomas was scarce.
"I was totally going crazy after three years, and enough people had badgered me about starting a theater, so I finally said 'OK.'"
Pistarckle Theater, which has moved around almost as much as Nikki herself, started at Coral World in 1991 as a dinner theater.
The shows were such a huge hit there that Nick Pourzal, who used to be the general manager at Frenchman's Reef, offered the theater space there at a place called "Top of the Reef."
That space was torn down in 1995 to make more room for conventions at the resort. So Nikki made arrangements for Pistarckle to move into a space at Bluebeard's Castle. They had just moved their office equipment there and had started auditions when Hurricane Marilyn hit. The space at Bluebeard's Castle, which was glass on three sides, was destroyed.
Pistarckle Theater went dark until it found a home at the renovated Coral World in 1998. The theater's first summer camp for children was hosted there.
"That was a huge hit, which convinced me that there was a market for children's theater as well, so we have done the summer theater every year since," Nikki says.
But for every show at Coral World, Nikki and volunteers had to tear down the entire set and lights every night. As much as she liked the space at Coral World, tearing down the set nightly "got very old," she says. "It was very expensive and very exhausting."
In 2000 Nikki happened to talk to Rhoda Tillett, who said there was space available at Tillett Gardens. The 3,500-foot space there is Pistarckle Theater's current home.
Over the past 15 years, Nikki says the theater has brought a "heightened awareness in our community of how valuable and important theater is, not just in terms of entertainment but also as an educational tool."
She has also seen the theater affect her own children.
"It's incredibly empowering," she says. Theater has taught her children the importance of showing up, having responsibility to a group, and it teaches teamwork and the ability to concentrate, she says. "It definitely builds the ability to focus for long periods of time."
The theater has turned into a family effort as Brian makes repairs and improvements to the theater.
"Truly without him the theater would not run so well," Nikki says of Brian.
Maxine, now 17, has been the theater's lighting designer for three years. "She and I developed a working relationship outside of parenting, which has been a great learning experience for both of us," Nikki says.
Her son, Alex, 11, has also been in Pistarckle plays and summer camp programs.
Being able to bring her children into the theater with her has helped. When the children were young, she would put them to bed and then go back to work, or she would put Alex to bed on a makeshift mattress under the theater's box office.
"We don't have the typical, normal home life," she says. "We have dinner together and then I leave." But her husband's ability to work at home, she says, has helped.
Nikki's globetrotting days seem to be over. "I don't have such a huge urge to go trotting all over the world, but I do have a desire to go to the places I haven't been, like Venice and India," she says.
One of the overarching philosophies in her life, she says, grew out of constantly moving around the world. "Make the best of where you are," she says.
But it's nice to stay in one place, too. "I wanted to give my children a sense of home and roots," she says.
In the little spare time she has, Nikki goes sailing with her husband and children. Nikki's work time now is being spent preparing for Pistarckle Theater's first after-school program production, which opens March 30 at the theater.
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