Elia Nichols grew up wanting to be an actress and one day live in Florence. And this is precisely what she set out to do. Today, after five years of living in the city, this very determined young woman is not only an accomplished actress, but she also created an international theatre company with other expats. To boot, she is a professor of the Lorenzo de' Medici Body Language and Communication course and, more recently, is making waves as a freelancer in the world of public relations and advertising. Originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana, she first set eyes on Florence at the age of 14, on a visit here with her father, and she knew it was someplace special. Little did she know back then that, years later, she would be captivating audiences in the Bargello and helping to dress future Florence mayor Matteo Renzi in costume for FESTA's theatre production of Peter and the Wolf!
Nichols is living proof of following a dream, and her infectious energy embodies her credo of going after what you desire to make it happen. Twelve years ago, when she discovered her U.S. overseas study programme didn't include Florence, she simply applied independently to Syracuse University in Florence, packed a bag and jumped on a plane. This experience was followed by a brief spell back in the States, working in theatre and film in New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles, where she was based, but she admits Florence always felt like her true home.
‘Maybe because life here is so full of drama that as an actress, I felt instantly comfortable and my theatrical personality was considered normal!' she laughs, adding, ‘there's just something magical about Florence.'
Nichols has never felt excluded as an expat, which she attributes to her fluency in Italian and engagement in the community. ‘There are so many opportunities for expats here, more so than for Italians: we're bilingual!'
With co-founder and fellow American Shaun Loftus, Nichols started Florence English-Speaking Theatrical Artists (FESTA) with the cultural community in mind and the aim of uniting English-speaking actors and artists in Italy (see www.festatheatre.com). The result is a thriving bicultural theatre company with members from all over the world, even as far as Singapore.
In 2009, FESTA approached Cristina Acidini, head of Polo Museale Fiorentino, for permission to stage FESTA's production of Macbeth in the Boboli Gardens. The answer was no, but eventually became ‘well...what about the Bargello?' The show was a sellout, and the company has since returned to this stunning landmark and museum with other performances, including an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, with Nichols playing the role of Lucy.
Nichols asserts that the mindset of the company adds a certain weight on a cultural and business level, and it has a lot of support in the community. Along with Matteo Renzi, then president of the province of Florence, FESTA cast then consul general of Great Britain, Moira MacFarlane, former consulate general of the United States, Nora Dempsey, and previous mayor of Florence, Leonardo Domenici, in annual productions. They also treated the crowds to a surprise appearance from renowned American actor John Malkovich.
FESTA's Kids' theatre camps are another popular service to the local community, providing a great social scene and theatre training for both English-speaking kids and Italian children who want to speak English. It's a great two-way learning tool, Nichols notes: ‘Over the years we see them improve and blossom into some really great actors, too,' she observes.
Last year Nichols also made her debut as a director for the production of Hansel and Gretel, a role she enjoyed. Although she is still acting, she has recently been nurturing a new passion in the world of public relations and for the past year has been concentrating more on the press and communications side of the business, as well as working in a Florence advertising agency. She has discovered that she's a natural at the Italian art of schmoozing. ‘Here in Italy, I've been in meetings that are 45-minute chats and 15 minutes of business, but it works! There's a real humanity to business relationships here, which I connect with. I can also bring an American mindset to the Italian way of working-a winning combination!'
FESTA are eagerly waiting to officially announce a Shakespeare in the Park production of Romeo and Juliet this summer (depending on the venue). Could it be inspired by Nichols' love for the city and, more recently, for a Florentine man?
Where would you take a guest who doesn't like art?
The secret passages tour of the Palazzo Vecchio. It's so cool, and hardly anyone knows about it!
Best cappuccino and brioche?
The pasticceria formerly known as Querci in the Statuto area, now called Pasticceria Vieusseux.
Best restaurant and why?
Mario's, near Mercato Centrale in San Lorenzo. Also, the rosmarino steak at Trattoria 13 Gobbi can compete for the best-steak-in-Florence prize!
One place in the city that inspires you?
[Smiling] The bench in front of the David's derrière in the Accademia! And the view of Florence from the Ponte San Niccolò. In my opinion, it's the best view of the city and it always makes me thankful I live here.
Advice for the newly arrived?
Learn Italian! It will radically change every minute you have here! Don't try to change the Italians. Adapt to their ways of doing things. We are in their country. And, if you are not blissfully happy here, leave. There is nothing worse than an unhappy (and as a result, complaining) expat. We are on their turf, and we, as expats, can leave; they cannot.
Favourite artwork in Florence?
Favourite Florentine, past or present?
I'm a pretty big fan of Matteo Renzi. Although it may be cliché, can you really beat Michelangelo? (I would have have said Giambologna, but he was Flemish.)
Pet peeve about Florence?
The way the Florentines will run you off the sidewalk. They will literally ram you in the face (without ever looking at you) rather than move the six inches it would take to share the sidewalk.
One thing the United States will always do better?
Organization and ease in moving up the job ladder.
One thing the Florentines will always do better?
Schiacciata and cenci! Thank God they are foods that only come around once a year!
What's on your shopping list to bring back here when you go home?
Taco seasoning, blueberry muffin mix and Cafe Du Monde coffee with chicory. Bizarre, but I sometimes love my American/Louisiana coffee ritual.
Favourite Florentine or Tuscan actor?
Of course, there is always Roberto Benigni, who is Tuscan. At the moment, my favourite Italian actor is Luigi Lo Cascio, in the film La Meglio Gioventù.