In the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival production of Becca Anderson, Dan Marshall, and Julian Blackmore's Academia Nuts, Avenue Q Tony nominee Stephanie D'Abruzzo plays Sergeant Tina Van Wyke, coach of the Walla Walla Walruses' Quizbowl team. "My character is purposefully a bit of a mystery," says D'Abruzzo. "She's everything you'd expect a sergeant to be and then some, but she has her secrets."

Though she didn't spill any of those secrets, the actress did reveal who lies at the show's center: "It's definitely really the story of the kids," she says, referring to the nerdy high school students of Academia Nuts. The musical follows the two finalist teams as they take part in the National High School Quizbowl Championship — a setting D'Abruzzo says she can relate to. The veteran comedian chatted with TheaterMania about where high school social enclaves lie, when a fan becomes a geek, and why NYMF matters.

Stephanie D'Abruzzo plays Sergeant Tina Van Wyke in Academia Nuts at NYMF 2014.
Stephanie D'Abruzzo plays Sergeant Tina Van Wyke in Academia Nuts at NYMF 2014.

Do you identify with these kids who don't fit in during high school?

Absolutely. I did forensics speech and debate in high school, so I know what it was like to go to other schools, meet other people who did what I did, and be able to be ourselves in a safe environment. Doing these things where you meet other people from other places and you realize how much you have in common with them and that there are other people out there like you, that you're not the oddball you're made to feel like when you're in school. It's really a gift to be able to break out of how you're defined on a daily basis in your hometown and meet other people who share your passions. [In Academia Nuts] they're all a bunch of geeks and they revel in it, and this is a place where they can.

Do you and your castmates also identify with that geek culture?

Some of us do more than others. There are people who get references more than other people do...but I think nowadays too, a lot of geekdom has gone mainstream. It's not quite the subset that it used to be. Pop culture is such a big part of geekdom, and I guess what makes it geeky is your passion and knowledge. There are people who can like the Spider-Man movies and then there are people who just geek out on them. That's that fine line between mainstream pop culture and the geeks, if you will.

What is unique about being part of a show that's in development?

It's something that I've done a lot of, and I'm really happy that I've gotten to do that. Not everybody gets to create a character from scratch, explore it, work with the writers. When you're doing a revival, you're coloring a coloring book, but the broad strokes are already there for you. As opposed to doing a show that's in development, it's very free form. You draw a line and then you might erase that line tomorrow and draw a new line. You're trying to color in a picture that isn't drawn yet. And that can be really exciting and it can be really frustrating. But in every case, it's a gift when you get to do that.

What do you appreciate about NYMF shows?

Launching new work is always great, and NYMF has become a platform for these shows to be done right. Not everybody has access to facilities like the ones at the Signature. And when you do a full-on NYMF production, not only do you know that you're going to have a full production with great people behind it, you're going to get an audience, you're going to get an impartial audience, you're going get a wide variety of people coming to the show because NYMF is so well-supported and publicized and people have come to know it and rely on it. So you have a passionate audience there who's gonna tell you the truth about a piece. I don't think people realize how precious a good audience is to a new show.