John Barry: I’m trying to remember the last play I saw you in.
Bruce R. Nelson: I’m not sure I’ll remember it.
Yeah, but you were on stage.
Sometimes I think that I’m so much in the moment that I’m not aware of things I’ve done in the past.
But you remember what you have to say for two hours.
Exactly, but not long after it all goes away. I know people who remember their lines years from now…but my memory dumps it.
Has it ever dumped in the middle of a play?
Absolutely. And that’s enough to….it’s one of the reasons I want to stay safe with the Everyman family. I don’t want to venture outside into the DC market anymore, where the stakes get high. I think the pressure of performing like that makes me so anxious, that I flaw my lines. I get so fraught about having to be outside of my normal family comfort zone.
The many faces of Bruce R. Nelson
I remember reading in the New Yorker five years ago about stage fright. British actor Stephen Fry was describing the feeling of knowing that something was going to go wrong. And of being paralyzed and unable to walk out on stage.
When I was doing Comedy of Errors a couple of years ago at Folger, I had several moments backstage where I was experiencing toe-curling anxiety about going on stage because I was thinking that it was so important that this show be perfect that I set myself up for it not to be perfect.
You live in Baltimore?
Yeah, I’m in Edward Gardens. My partner and I are on 36th Street.
Are we going to be seeing you a lot in DC?
Not as much. I think on an economic level, well, the DC thing isn’t worth my time, financially, gaswise, parking. And being away from people I love and know, and doing that kind of itinerant actor thing.
So, Woolly Mammoth?
Economically, it’s hard to do now. I do my teaching here, and the occasional corporate theatre skills building team and workshop.
You teach at Stevenson University.
I teach there, I teach at Everyman. I teach at Columbia, Maryland. I will go as far as Columbia.
You came out of Towson State?
You don’t know Maravene Loeschke, do you? She chaired the theatre department when I was there, She left for twenty years to do other things. Now she’s back as the president of Towson. So my former theatre teacher is now the president, which I think is very cool.
Then there’s your other life. You work with architectural design teams.
I help them present things in a compelling way.
So you’re the guy on “Mad Men” trying to get someone involved in an idea?
I am the person telling the presenter to be more like Don Draper. They don’t want to know about the windows or the distance from the sidewalk. They want to be made to feel a certain way. I help the presenter there.
What sort of advice?
I think in terms of how they feel about what they’re saying. It’s something I say to medical students at Hopkins. Why be a doctor? Money aside, it’s about connecting in a meaningful way. I tell them to get away from the talk about what’s important about what you’re doing, and tell us a story about why a particular building is meaningful, or about why a care plan is going to be meaningful.
So it’s about the story.
Yeah, and I try to get them as far away from Powerpoint and notes as possible.
And that’s what you’ve learn as an actor. People get won over with stories. They do. People remember how you made them feel sooner than they remember what it was you said. So try and say a lot less and crystallize it into some kind of story. Make a person sit up and take notice. Otherwise, why not just send the information, or give us a hard copy and we’ll read it at our leisure. Why do we need you up there at all to say anything.
So it gets to the point where what I have to say on the stage is not only unique, it demands that, in a way, you listen. So I try to get presenters not just to say rote words, but saying them like an actor would. They’re not just words on a page. You’re giving them lift and meaning and telling the audience to sit up and take notice.
It’s instinct now. I give it one pass, maybe two passes, and then the rehearsal process fills in the blanks. It isn’t so much the in-depth figuring out. As a teacher, that takes a lot of tinkering. I’m still learning about that. As an actor, I don’t need to tinker anymore.
How long have you been in Baltimore?
About ten years. Long enough to know I’m not from Baltimore.
Understood. And I’ve been here long enough to love the things I love about Baltimore and hate the things I hate about it.
What do you hate about Baltimore?
It has something to do with the fact that DC has easy and frequent access, it seems, to lots and lots of money. So when a project to overhaul a particular city block happens, it happens and it’s done. When it happens with us, it’s always a struggle to get the money. Then there’s a little bit of movement, and then it plateaus.
And that’s true with Everyman Theatre. It’s finally moving. But it’s taken over five years to get out of the building. I remember in 2005 or 2006 interviewing people and wondering what was going to happen to the block it’s on. The block looks exactly the same.
I wrote an article about that five or six years ago. And I remember people at Everyman were very frustrated a couple years ago. They didn’t want to be quoted on it.
Yeah, if [Artistic Director Vince Lancisi] had had his druthers, it would have involved renovating and reworking the current space. But he was getting pushed back by the people who rented it. That was not going to change. So finally, he had to get out from underneath having to rent and get his own home. That wasn’t going to come until he did a big move and was able to call his own shots.
But in the end, I don’t think he ever saw Charles Street as where he was going to stay. For awhile, it seems, there was going to be mixed use development. That showed some action. (Laughs) But I don’t think there’s anything going on right now.
Really? I thought there were going to be condos there.
I did too. I think there were things going on, but now there’s no action. I was talking to Vince. There was a 150 milliondollar West Side development which is finally getting pushed through because a judge found that Peter Angelos digging in his heels wasn’t valid. That gets to me, that someone with the purse strings, for twenty years, has kept it from happening.
What are you rehearsing now at the Everyman?
Kaufmann and Hart, You Can’t Take it With You. It was a movie with Jimmy Stuart. It’s about a family. The grandfather, the patriarch decided a long time ago that the nine to five world was killing him, and he was going to live life differently. And everyone in his circle – his daughter and granddaughters, everyone, cops to the idea that you can go there and live as you choose.
So we see this in the opening scenes. There’s someone doing a snake terrarium, and someone doing ballet lessons. There’s the daughter, working on her sixth play. None of them are finished. There’s any number of quirky things happening. But the granddaughter has decided not to be part of that. She’s met at work the bosses sons. And their family is really uptight. They come to visit. And they try to convince this guy to let loose.
It takes place in the thirties, post-depression, pre-World War II. The message is forget your troubles, do what you love.
Do you avoid seeing the movie before acting in it?
No. I’m big on seeing the movie. I guess that’s taboo in some circles. But a teacher once told me if you’re playing Hamlet, and you’re worried that if you see Olivier do it, you’ll play it like Olivier, you’re not going to play Olivier. So, I’m big on steal, steal, steal, steal. What’s the thing on…uh…’Amateurs imitate, geniuses steal.’
That’s a good one.
It wasn’t mine. I stole it.
So you’re going to play Edgar Allan Poe at Center Stage. And a movie just came out. Have you seen that?
Starring John Cusak. I have not.
That’s in October?
Yeah. September rehearsals, October-November run. And that came by…it just sort of fell into my lap. An in-house reading, and [Center Stage Artistic Director] Kwame Kwei-Armah asked me, “Would you play the part?” After a brief sit-down. I’d heard it through the grapevine that he was about changing the dynamic locally, and hiring local people.
Have you ever acted at Center Stage before?
Walk-on. During Irene’s term, she was from New York and she relied almost exclusively on her New York connections. So I realize that me playing Poe is a little bit of a political thing, too. A way to say, “I’m serious about hiring local talent.”
Kwame is definitely trying to make an impression.
He’s almost the Marin Alsop of Theatre. [Marin Alsop Baltimore Symphony’s conductor]
I hope so. And I believe that, currently. I don’t want it to change. He’s breathing new life.
So when is the Everyman move going to be complete?
The first two shows of the year are going to be on Charles Street. The third show, August Osage County, is going to be at the new space.
So you’ll be moving into a bigger downtown space. But we still have a hard time getting people from Washington.
I think the drive sometimes turns people off.
The Post reviews Center Stage. But does it review Everyman?
The Post does not review Everyman that I know of. Which is interesting. The Post will go to New York and review stuff there, but it will not review Everyman. It was the same weird thing when Judy Rousuck was reviewing for the Sun. She would maybe come to Rep Stage, but not often, until I think Rep Stage became sort of a powerhouse. She would go to Olney and New York, and sort of bypass theatres in-between, until their legitimacy had been proved.
You’ve acted for awhile in a place where critics and reviewers from the big papers don’t come in from out of town. It’s time for critics here to get a little feedback. You love all the critics here.
Do you read criticism?
I do. Absolutely. I used to be the kind of actor who couldn’t stand to see my name in print. But I’ve come to feel that no matter what I do – shitting in a bag on stage – generally I get blessed with good reviews. Now I’ve gotten to the point, at 46, where I think I can deal with it. If you say something off color, I can deal with it.
Tim Smith writes a great review. It’s almost like a book report. Everyone gets their paragraph. It’s evenly distributed across the review. He generally hits down the middle. He doesn’t go to an extreme love. He doesn’t just spend the first two thirds re-describing the play, while giving an opinion in the last third. Which I think happens usually because the critic is trying to be nice. If the show’s a stinker, the critic spends the space recapping the play.
When you read what people write about you, what helps and what doesn’t?
If I was an actor in New York and I was working on Broadway, I would want my review to be great, because it would keep the show going. And there’s a lot at stake there. In this area, because we’ve got subscribers, we’re not beholden to a tourist crowd. A show will run its alloted five, or four, weeks, whether or not it’s stellar. So what do I need from reviewers? I’ve been in the area for about thirty years, so I don’t need them to be any particular way because the subscriptions tend to fill the seats anyhow. A really nice review may extend the show a week.
Some things go full circle. There are a lot of young theatres around in Baltimore. You started out with an indy theatre after graduating from Towson in the early 90’s. You ever act with the new ones?
I can’t but I look forward to the time – and I think Single Carrot’s on the short track – to getting to the point where they get small professional theatre status.
Everyman has helped them out a lot.
Absolutely. I’d love to lend my name to the marquee, as it were, to see what that does. But they need to find a new home, or a bigger space, to accommodate the next growth spurt.
Could they move in to the Everyman space?
That’d be a great thing. Except that, as rumor has it, as we talked about, they want to change that into condos. But that’s mixed rent space! Why would they want to do condos only? Why not condos and a theatre on the first floor?
It looked like the only thing Everyman needed was a higher ceiling.
And we did need more seating. And we need a space to call our own. It’s nice that our new place was a theatre originally. And is now a theatre again. Everyman will also be elevating to regional theatre status, like Center Stage.
You get pretty regular work as a recognized actor in the area. But you still go from one show to the next.
A year’s salary gets made between acting and teaching and other work.
I know what that’s like.
Exactly. It’s a hat trick. Last year, I believe, I broke forty thousand dollars for the first time. My dad at my age was taking in a whole lot more. Maybe it’s a theme in my generation, that we’re not going to exceed our parents for the first time in history. I don’t know. It’s okay.
Did you ever get a panic attack?
I did, when I was on my own. I always wondered, when I can’t do theatre anymore and I retire, what am I gonna live on? So before I met Richard, my partner, there was a yearly panic about how to stem the tide. But living with someone has taken the panic away. I’m a bit more of a man of leisure.
And you’re growing a beard.
(Laughs). So I’m in a period when I’m fortunate enough to be able to pick and choose.
That’s a situation that a lot of people in Baltimore face every day, especially young ones.
Certainly that was the situation when I came out of school in my twenties. I was always relying on the kindness of strangers. If I was going to do what I loved to do, I needed to face the panic and do it anyhow. And I knew, and now I’m looking back, that what I had to give as an artist was great work. Money aside, the great work involves teaching and acting and not bringing in a lot of money. You can do okay with that, as long as you have money to follow. I never had enough money to splurge. If you’re looking to pack money away….nah.
When you started out here, how many theatres were there?
Not many, I helped start a theatre called Flying Tongues. I was doing full time work at Hopkins, pushing paper, and there was theatre at night. So sixteen hour days, working with Flying Tongues and three other little groups. They were all Towson grads. And no money. Then I got Equity status. Money. Um, but I knew even back then that if I was going to make sizeable money, I’d have to commute to DC. In 1998, I decided that it would be one thing or the other, so I decided to make the leap.
You must have had a lot of friends who figured that you had to make a bigger leap – to NYC.
Yeah, I had a lot of friends who figured that staying local wasn’t going to cut it. As much as it sounds like artists’ suicide, they decided to go to New York, where it’s harder to make it, and the odds are that much more difficult. There’s this legitimacy factor, though, that if you’re acting in New York, that means that you’re a real actor. But fortunately, there’s a pretty healthy regional theatre network. So if you go to New York and you go to an audition, you’re probably not going to work in New York. You’ll be shipped out to, say, St. Louis Rep or Center Stage. If you’re a younger person who doesn’t mind that Gypsy living, absolutely, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
But you decided to become a big fish in a small pond.
Absolutely. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made. Maybe it’s some muscle in me that said, well, you don’t have what it takes to run with the big dogs. So, maybe my insecurity has been my strong suit. Working here, with local theatre, has allowed me to grow a whole life.
Who were the big dogs?
Well, the Shakespeare Theatre was probably as good as it got. I was Tranio in the production of Taming of the Shrew. That’s a sizeable part, at a major regional theatre. So there I was Tranio in 2008 and in another incarnation of it in 2010.
When do you work best with directors?
Well, Donald Hicken directed me in I Am My Own Wife. He is, in my mind, my favorite. Why is that? Because if he has a solid concrete vision of the play, he keeps it to himself. And he lets the actor guide where it goes. If a professional actor comes to the table with a lot of good ideas and experience, why don’t you let them steer the ship and guide them gently from the outside. His beef – and a lot of peoples’ beef – with Irene, was that she’d take a fairly straightforward play and highly stylize it from the outside, a mark to be remembered.
So you’ve become pretty recognizable on the Baltimore stage. Does that make it hard to move past the idea of being Bruce Nelson?
It would if I didn’t create such a different person on stage. It is something I’ve worried about. I call it the Richard Bauer syndrome. He was a company actor at Arena Stage for years. He was remarkable. I saw him very early on in my acting career, and it was amazing. But after fifteen years of doing Richard Bauer, audiences would say, he’s doing Richard Bauer all the time. I like to think that maybe I get behind the character enough where I create something different each time.
You’ve done I Am My Own Wife, and Santaland Diaries. Both one-person plays, and real successes. Now you’re going to be playing the lead in Edgar Allan Poe (The Completely Fictional – Utterly True – Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe) which is ensemble but which focuses pretty heavily on one person.
Shows like that are like pushing a huge rock up a hill. But once you get out there and recite the first few words…It’s like both. You’re thinking O, my god, I’m running a marathon. But like a marathon runner, you get a little high.
But you don’t want to get too high.
No. There’s got to be a balance. There was something about I am my Own Wife that I really loved. It’s this direct address to the audience. I thought I was connecting to them in a way that I don’t when I do something like Noel Coward. But with I am My Own Wife, it was like, “I’m feeding off what you’re giving me.” I guess that’s why I decided that I wanted to teach.
So with huge parts like that how do you memorize your lines? Before the first rehearsal?
Sometimes. Everything’s on tape. Wherever I drive, wherever I’m in the garden, whenever I’m doing something that’s otherwise mindless, I’ve got the tape playing to match the speech in sync with the tape. So it’s hundreds and hundreds of hours of listening to my voice.
Do plays get better after the first show?
From the inside, relaxing into the play is a great thing. The trouble is when you start to relax too much. Then suddenly, you start wondering…what’s my next line?
What’s the worst on stage disaster you’ve ever had to deal with?
Did you see Private Lives at Everyman? Opening night I have this bit…with Deborah Hazlett. I’m Elyot, she’s Amanda. I have to light my lighter, and I have to light her cigarette. I try to light it. The lighter isn’t working. Then I have to go for the backup lighter. It isn’t there. I leave the stage, I come back on. She has the cigarette holder in her mouth. I put the lighter in front of her. But there’s no cigarette in the cigarette holder. But if that’s the worst….
That’s not so bad.
She reminded me after that performance. There are no theatre emergencies. It’s true. We think it’s so important. The earth will stop revolving, people will die. But it’s just theatre.
You have no understudies, as you would, say, at Shakespeare Theatre.
So if you’re sick.
You don’t get sick. Adrenaline. It’s a wonderful thing. And nothing gets in the way of performing. The wedding, the baby shower, the birthday. They are all second to getting the show done.
When I talk to a basketball player and I ask how they got so good, the answer is simple.
Ten thousand hours.
Right. There’s talent, sure, but ten thousand hours of practice.
That’s where I am in my life. If you do the math. It’s been ten thousand hours.
You must have some friends who were as good, but weren’t willing to commit.
There were certainly some. Who decided that they only wanted to take it so far. And then got out of it. I had the next thing coming to me. Although I wanted to, on a number of occasions, throw up my hands and say, it’s too hard, I quit. Not enough money, too much time, anxiety. For awhile I wanted to go into nursing. But my mom said I wasn’t good enough at math.
Bruce Nelson won’t be going anywhere soon. He’ll be playing in You Can’t Take It With You at Everyman, starting on May 16 thru June 17. Details and tickets
He’ll begin the next season at Center Stage as the lead in The Completely Fictional – Utterly True Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe.
Bruce Nelson’s corporate presentations coaching: Stage Presence, LLC