Neel Keller talks fast and you can tell he’s thinking even faster. After sitting down with him for a little over an hour I feel like I learned more about the art of storytelling than any master class I have ever taken. Every other line Keller spouts is a gem about the art, about the craft, about what it takes to create magic in the theatre.
Keller’s remarkable journey has led him to his current coveted position as Associate Artistic Director of Center Theatre Group. “I really lucked into this theatre thing. I am very grateful.” Keller says. Not only does he help run one of LA’s most prestigious theatre company, he also directs, produces and helps develop material for all their venues.
Last season, Keller directed “The Nether” at The Kirk Douglas, which last month swiped up seven Ovation Awards, the most of any production last year. “Every ten years or so, I seem to hit one on the sweet spot,” Keller says. “This production was incredibly collaborative — we had a great script, great cast and great designers and everything worked seamlessly.”
But before Keller began hitting ‘em out of the theatre he was dipping his feet into the acting thing. “I had acted in a good number of plays in college but one year we had professional designers come into help us on a production and I really began to fall in love with telling the whole story.” Keller says. It was toward the end of his collegiate days that Keller really began opening his mind creatively and started to explore the idea of directing.
After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio with majoring in Theatre Arts, Keller decided to go home and work one last summer back home in North Carolina. “I accepted a job back home filing papers in Duke’s fundraising office and that turned out to be a very important summer job.” Keller says. Keller had told a co-worker that he was interested in theatre and through the networking grapevine landed his first job as a production gopher for Peter Sellars at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C..
And the rest is history. Sort of.
“I didn’t really know what I was going to do when left North Carolina but I was fortunate enough to have a job,” Keller says. His production gig working beside Sellars in Washington eventually led him up north to New York answering phones at the newly renovated Lincoln Center. “It was fantastic within a couple of months I was working as the resident Assistant Director and had the opportunity to work beside Arthur Miller, Bernie Gerstein, John Guare, Jerome Robbins…”, Keller humbly rolls off a few more theatre icons but I am lost at Arthur Miller.
“I’ve had many mentors throughout my career but my time working with Jerome Robbins was really special.” Keller says. Robbins hired Keller initially to work on Charles Ives Ballet but Keller’s work ethic became a real asset to Robbins and other opportunities surfaced quickly. “Jerry and I became fast friends and eventually he asked me to help archive some of his lost musical numbers which he created thirty years previous for new show called Jerome Robbins Broadway.” Keller says. For over a year and half Keller helped research Robbins his lost musical numbers. “It was remarkable to watch Jerry work. He was just better than anyone else at what he did. He was a genius.” Keller says.
Spending all that time assisting for Sellers, Robbins, Guare wet Keller’s appetite to direct his own material. “I directed up in Williamstown a number of times as well as some smaller productions back in New York.“ Keller says.
With Keller receiving more and more professional opportunities, he decided to take a leap west to Chicago and help revive a small company called The Remains Theatre Ensemble. After a few short years in Chicago, Keller continued with his westward ways earning a position as Associate Artistic Director at La Jolla Playhouse for four seasons before eventually landing here in Los Angeles working beside Gordon Davidson and now Michael Ritchie at Center Theatre Group. “I’ve been here (CTG) for ten years and it’s really been great.” Keller humbly says. “I am challenged by the material and look forward to creating more theatre here in LA. It has really been a series of lucky streaks and I am fortunate to have learned a lot about how to tell a story.”
Next up, Keller is directing Kimber Lee’s World Premiere production of “different words for the same thing” at The Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City opening May 4, 2014.