The Very Model of a Modern Theatre-Romance: A UCF Love Story

It’s a theatre love-story old as time. The set-designer boy and the stage-manager girl, sneaking glances at each other backstage, finagling opportunities to work the same shifts in the shop, and spending early dating-days listening to musicals together. But for Nikki Blue ’10 and Ryan Emens ’10, it was just the beginning of a lifetime spent discovering new reasons to love theatre and each other every day.

Born and raised in Winter Springs, Ryan was the kid playing LEGOs and building toy-models. He attended Winter Springs High School and started developing his interest in theatre fast. He was the go-to person for technical needs in the high school’s theatre program, figuring out lights and scenery for shows, managing the auditorium when events were held there, and when it was time for the school to put on “Les Mis” Ryan figured out the scenery for the show and executed its production. When a group from the UCF theatre department came to WSHS to show what the theatre program was about, Ryan was convinced. This was the direction he was headed.

Nikki grew up in Jacksonville, fluttering from one interest to the other. She wanted to do everything – be a vet, a counselor, just be a part of as many things as possible – until she got involved with her church’s theatre group and quickly took charge, pointing out ways to make things more efficient. When she got to high school and needed to fill an elective, she picked theatre and was cast in a one-act as a character with four lines.

“Because I wasn’t onstage all the time, I was backstage and noticed people kept forgetting their props,” Nikki says. “I was like, ‘what if – groundbreaking idea – we label where the props go on the table? And maybe, while I’m back here, I can remind people to grab their prop before they go onstage?’ I actually missed a cue because I was having so much fun organizing backstage!”

A stage manager was born. Nikki spent her next two years of high school stage-managing as much as she could. She learned that UCF had the best stage management program and so that’s where she was headed. Nikki, with her high school tales of showing up at midnight after a show at Village Inn with her theatre friends covered in glitter, and Ryan, who, same but at Denny’s, both ended up in the UCF theatre program. The first time they saw each other was Nikki’s orientation day.

“It was that Florida thing where there was not a cloud in the sky when I decided to bike from my dorm to the theatre building, but I got lost on the way and of course it started raining,” Nikki says. “I looked like a drowned rat.”

Ryan fervently shakes his head. “I just remember seeing her and thinking ‘OK, yeah, she’s really cute.’”

Not long after, leading up to a production of”The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, Ryan found out Nikki was working on a crew for the show. Sure, sure there was no credit he needed to fulfill, but hey he could help out, why not? It’s Rocky Horror! The moment Ryan had a feeling Nikki had a thing for him too was when he helped her out with the curtain she was working on for the show and later that night got a Myspace message that read:

“Thank you for helping me with the Rocky curtain. Rawr .”

Ryan was correct, that “rawr” was a longtime coming for Nikki; it had been weeks earlier when she had realized her crush on Ryan may be worth exploring. She was working in the shop, attempting to build a miniature flat, covered in sweat and sawdust.

“I must have split like six pieces of wood,” Nikki says. “I’m spitting mad, cursing, and I look up and I see those baby blues. He goes, ‘Hey, can I help with that?’ And it wasn’t in that let-me-show-you-how-it’s-done-little-lady way. He was so genuine and such a good and patient teacher.”

Not that she heard a word he said, as her mind was simply gushing over the fact that he was touching her hand as he assisted her with the drill, but the flat got built and the show, just like Nikki and Ryan’s budding relationship, went on. There were first dates, hand-holds at cast parties and once Ryan even put a bottle of Crush soda and Hershey’s Kisses in Nikki’s locker. The couple continued to work on shows together throughout college. Their last UCF show together was “Pirates of Penzance” — Ryan was the set designer, Nikki was the stage manager. Not only was this show the only time that’s happened, but Ryan also seized the opportunity to propose.

“Immediately after one of the shows, I ran backstage where I had a coat-tails suit ready with a microphone,” Ryan explains. “Meanwhile, we had said this made-up reason for a meeting to discuss the safety of the set. We had some friends make sure she was sitting in the right spot on stage and then the music starts playing ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ and I came out on the pirate ship, gave her a rose, and proposed to her with a spotlight on us.”

“It was absolutely perfect,” Nikki says, beaming. (And you can even watch it yourself, if you’re so inclined!)

The couple credits UCF with not only bringing them together, but for laying the groundwork for their successful theatre careers. Three months after Nikki and Ryan got married (August 2011), they moved to Chicago to try their hand at full-time, paying, theatre life. It was touch-and-go for a little there, with both needing to have a pay-the-bills job and doing theatre on the side, but eventually momentum started building. Ryan was able to use the connections he’d made to get freelance set-design gigs. Nikki got an internship with Goodman Theatre, a prominent pillar in the Chicago theatre scene.

Now Ryan has his MFA from Yale School of Drama in set design, hopeful to get a job teaching the craft soon, and Nikki is in her sixth consecutive season as an equity stage manager at the Goodman, hiring her own interns (one is even a fellow UCF alumna). The couple does a once-a-year Skype call-in to one of their old UCF classes, Theatre Careers in Production with Kristina Tollefson. The class was fundamental for Nikki and Ryan in developing the necessary skills to stand out from other theatre applicants. They’re also appreciative of the opportunities afforded to them for actual, hands-on experience.

“What is so strong about the UCF theatre department is the focus on actual production work,” Nikki says. “We actually got to be the ones to try things in this safe, academic bubble. We had the guidance of these gifted teachers, but we were able to make mistakes and learn from them.”

It’s clear talking to Nikki and Ryan, who after 13 years together still grin ear-to-ear when they talk about their coming together, that they have a deep-rooted team-mentality and a willingness to root for the other through rejections and celebrate each other in victories.

“He’s so talented,” Nikki says. “I remember when we were dating, when he did his first fully-realized set design, and I walked in and I just cried. Just seeing how talented he his and his commitment to always be better and better.”

As Nikki goes on to explain in great detail the pride that swells in her when she experiences Ryan’s work, he just smiles and stares at her as if she’s proving some point he already had crafted in his head.

“She loves so fiercely,” Ryan says. “The people that she loves are so cared for by her because she always wants to help and support people. She’s driven too, I noticed really early that she was going to pursue her dreams and I knew that we could pursue our dreams together.”

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