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Q&A: Actor Bruce Nelson sets the stage for his latest role at Everyman

Deborah Hazlett and Bruce Nelson in 'Private Lives'
Deborah Hazlett and Bruce Nelson in 'Private Lives' - Courtesy of Everyman Theatre
Bruce Randolph Nelson is a familiar face in the regional theater scene. He has won acclaim and awards for his range of roles from explosively energetic to the contemplative and weighty.
The resident actor at Everyman Theatre just wrapped up a stint in Center Stage in the Groucho Marx musical comedy “Animal Crackers.” Nelson is now taking up the role of artist Mark Rothko in John Logan’s “Red”, which runs Nov. 8-Dec. 8.
The actor recently chatted with BmoreMedia about his career, living as a “big fish in a little pond,” and why he remains in Baltimore.
BmoreMedia (BM): You are pretty well known in Baltimore, in fact a local celebrity. Do people recognize you?
Occasionally. It isn’t like I’m mobbed, though the other day coming out of “Animal Crackers,” it was a downright throng, and the doorman at Center Stage said there’s a woman outside in her car who wants to give you a kiss.
BM: Is that weird for you?
The big fish in a little pond dynamic works for me; anything beyond that becomes too overwhelming. Once the stakes are high, I get scared. Once I’m in a place that doesn’t feel like home. I can’t imagine that being any bigger would be a smooth transition.
BM: The logical next step would be for you to move to New York. You’ve chosen not to do that.  
There is a fear of not being good enough.
BM: And you are more comfortable at home?
That’s become the case. I teach improvisation, and I’m talking to these adult students in the class, helping them to let go, have abandon, a fearless quality, which is required in improv. Yet over time I’ve gotten more fearful. It’s better known as set in your ways. My fearlessness, the margin has narrowed. There was a time when leaping and looking later was par for the course. Now at 47 there’s more of a fear of where I’m going to land.
BM: Yet you take crazy risks with your roles.
Within the context of a role, I can exercise a certain amount of abandon that I’m not willing to do outside of the theater. Life offstage is very controlled; I like the routine, the sameness of it. Tana Hicken was famous for saying, onstage, that’s where she was safest. Offstage, a nervous wreck. I’m an anxious wound-up person.
BM: It must have been hard for you to be gay, be an artist and grow up with that kind of self-consciousness.
My family was four people who happened to be in a house together, I would routinely look around and say who are all of you? It was eggshells at home. A dad who had his own mental health issues, undiagnosed. At the drop of a hat he could have this explosive temper. Mom needed the comfort. Early on I was cast in a role, let me keep the peace, let me be on guard. It wasn’t safe. Drama class became the safe place.
BM: Drama is a good place for awkward teens.
It’s the island of misfit toys.
BM: Did all of the dancing and adjusting at home give you a set of emotions that helped you in acting?
Absolutely. The same fragile stuff that makes for lovely theater is offstage too. It’s a little thin, unsure, unsteady. a little paranoid and insecure. As much as I get to unload on stage in very special ways, it follows me home.
BM: How aware are you of the audience.

BM: Does it ever ruin a performance?

No there’s enough skill in there to keep me going, but there’s a little Bruce in there worrying if I’m doing it right, worrying about how the audience is doing.
BM: Did you know about Rothko before this play?

I knew about the fuzzy rectangles. I think one of our patrons has a Rothko and I think I was at that patron’s house.
BM: Do you have an opinion about his work?
I love that it’s a break from tradition, you go through this thing that puts the paint on the canvas, what’s on the canvas is secondary to the process. Then the artist has the ego to say, that thing on the canvas is a remarkable thing. It may or may not apply to you, but it’s my thing and it’s worth a certain amount of money. And if millions is the price, so be it.
BM: Is that fair? That the art is more about what the artist went through to make it?
He talked about how with his paintings, and those of his contemporaries, you have to patiently be immersed, to let it do what it’s going to do. You can’t just glance at it, judge it and move on. You have to study it and wait, give it enough time and you’ll see in the fuzzy rectangle your own sense of self.
BM: But that’s why people meditate, to learn the ability to be still.

That’s a great point. I’m thinking of the play “Art” – how it’s a white canvas, yet it stirs something in the soul of the purchaser. There’s a couple in New York (Herb and Dorothy Vogel), who scooped up lots of modern art. There’s a documentary about them. They were mad for this one artist’s piece, a one-inch piece of rope nailed to the wall. For them it was mysterious, curious, they had to have it. So they bought it and nailed it on their own wall. For me there’s a fascination with the artist’s chutzpah.
BM: It’s like Duchamp with his toilet.

It’s brilliant. It upsets the status quo. Thumbs a nose, someone’s nose, at the establishment.
BM: How does Rothko justify his work?

He’s down on human beings. Nobody has the depth of understanding, the capacity of knowledge or the worldliness to call something anything but ok. He is down on the Pop Art movement, where things are bright and cheery and likable and nice. His argument is that things are deadly and tragic. A lot of his movement was based on Greek tragedy, Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy.” Until you go to the dark side of pain you don’t know.
BM: I heard that during “The Mystery of Irma Vep”, Clinton (Brandhagen) lost 25 pounds. Is acting the new weight loss?
About 10 years ago I was very into running. I dropped about 80 pounds, I was a big boy. I’d been getting the fatherly roles. Since then, running has gone by the side. My exercise regimen right now is the next show. Although that could be an excuse.
BM: Did it come off because you were freed of something? Did it change your career?
Yes, weight and weight gain for me is control, probably hiding, probably, as popular lingo says these days, eating to feed something that wasn’t being fed. Fortunately for me it never meant I’d stop acting. With the weight loss, I was considered for more leading man roles.
The big weight loss had to do with health; my mother was dealing with diabetes, my dad heart disease, I had to do something in my own life to turn that around. I also was looking to be in a relationship and needed to feel good about my body.
BM: For a lot of us weight can be transformative in life or relationships, but it doesn’t always affect our careers so directly.

In my case, having the weight was a good thing. Not having it was a good thing.

BM: Now you can still play the serious portly roles, just without the port.
When I did “The Seagull at Rep Stage,” there was a lot in the reviews about the port.
BM: Did that hurt your feelings? A lot of actors don’t read reviews until the end of the run.

I tell myself I’m not going to, but if the City Paper’s there, I’m on it. And I go to the 1 percent of the review that says something’s bad.
BM: Have you ever changed a performance on the basis of the review?

I’m doing something with Groucho. We never talked about accents in rehearsal. I dropped the R’s (Bronx-style, “riveh for river), now I hear myself slipping in a little variation, and say foist instead of first. It’s all me building up in my head some flimsy concept. 

Martha Thomas is a Baltimore-based freelance writer who is lucky enough to write about the things she loves: food, beautiful homes and the arts. She has written for Baltimore magazine, Baltimore City Paper, Urbanite, Travel & Leisure and the Washington Post.

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