The curtain will rise this week on a new production of Nalsey Tinberg’s “Cakewalk” at the Main Street Theater in Houston, Texas. But unless you read the brief biography in the program carefully, you might miss the passing reference to her day job as an Occidental College professor. And many of the students in her mathematics classes are unaware of their professor’s unusual second career as a successful playwright.
“I generally keep it on the down low,” says Tinberg, a member of the Dramatists Guild of America who has taught at Occidental since 1980. “Occasionally students do find out. Last year, one came up to me and said, ‘I was at Pasadena City College with this actor friend of mine, and I saw this play, and they said it was by you!’”
Tinberg traces her fascination with drama to her days as a graduate student in England, when she would spend entire weekends in London taking advantage of the riches made possible by cheap student theater tickets. But it wasn’t until years later when she survived a bout with breast cancer that she decided, “Life is too short — I was going to do what I wanted to do.”
Her first play, “Bearing Witness,” which deals with the relationship between a Holocaust survivor and her daughter, was produced at the Stella Adler Theater in Hollywood in 1998. It was followed by what is now “Cakewalk” (2002), which also revolves around a Holocaust survivor and her daughter, and “Musical Chairs” (2004), a play about three women in breast cancer support group. Her latest play, “A Teachable Moment,” takes place at a fictitious women’s college.
“My plays are very personal to me,” Tinberg says. “The general thrust has been pretty experiential. I embellish and get to the heart of the matter pretty fast.” That directness, economy of expression, and logical flow are characteristics she attributes to her training as a mathematician.
The influences run the other way as well. “I think being a playwright has made me a better teacher,” she says. “As a speaker, I’m more comfortable in the classroom.”
What is it that has led Tinberg to lead a double life for so many years? “I enjoy the collaboration with actors – I’ve always found them extremely well read and smart. I really enjoy that interaction,” she says. “I also enjoy seeing what happens from page to stage, the incredible process of writing something and seeing the nuance the actors bring to it that you never saw, or working with them to get them to read the line in a way they hadn’t seen before.”
There’s also something attractive about appearing in a season of plays in Houston that include works by Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn, and Shakespeare, and the knowledge that four of the performances have already sold out. “This is my most personal and best play, and I have a feeling it may have a life outside of L.A.,” Tinberg says. “This is my first equity production, so I’m very pleased.”