Mark Nelson '77, right, with Ari Brand in My Name is Asher Lev. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Mark Nelson '77, right, with Ari Brand in My Name is Asher Lev. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Mark Nelson ’77’s starring role in the off-Broadway play My Name is Asher Lev is more than a job — it represents what was for Nelson an adolescent validation. The play, which is based on a Chaim Potok novel of the same name, tells the story of a Hasidic Jewish youth whose artistic inclinations do not align with the religious undercurrents of his community. After reading the story at age 16, Nelson came to an understanding from its narrative that “there were lots of ways to be a good Jew.”

Nelson needed to hear that “sometimes parents don’t get it — that one’s particular nature needs to be honored sometimes at difficult cost,” he said, describing the challenges he encountered in reconciling his drive to make art with his family’s ideas about worthwhile pursuits. In working on the play, Nelson has found numerous people on whom the novel My Name is Asher Lev also had profound influence. “A lot of people need that affirmation that sometimes it’s more important to be happy than to be normal,” he noted.

Though Nelson struggled with his family’s views, he soon found a support system in Princeton friends and teachers — many of whom were involved in theater. Theater Intime was “a community of like-minded spirits,” and Nelson found a mentor in the late Daniel Seltzer ’54. Selzer taught modern drama and English; Nelson took every class the professor taught.

“The idea that someone could be a great scholar and actor at the same time was very inspiring to me,” Nelson said.

Nelson is now teaching at Princeton himself as a lecturer in theater at the Lewis Center for the Arts. He holds this appointment during the fall, which leaves him free to act and direct during the rest of the year. This March he received the 2013 Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship, which will allow him to participate in a weeklong master class with six-time Golden Globe winner and five-time Emmy Award winner Alan Alda.

But working with students is a huge priority, he said.

“It’s just really satisfying to help students find their own power, their own voice, their own beauty,” he said. “I’m crazy about teaching.”