As a resident member of the company of Everyman Theatre, Bruce Nelson has had the opportunity to portray all sorts of characters. Though this season, in addition to the imagined, he’s been given the chance to portray two very different real-life people. In “M. Butterfly”, he played the American diplomat Gallimard. And currently, he’s playing Richard Hollander, the subject of Everyman’s current piece, “The Book of Joseph.” As a fan of his work for quite some time, I was excited to have the chance to chat with him about his process. In a thoughtful conversation, we covered a wide range of topics such as what’s been the most rewarding thing about working with this company, and how he prepares to create these already very real characters.
Surprisingly enough, preparation for acting out the real instead of the imaginary doesn’t seem very different in the early stages. Bruce mentioned that he reads many of the true stories of these men before even thinking of calling a meeting with them. He wants to get a sense of their stories before making any acting choices. Though, in the case of “M. Butterfly,” it was never in the plans to meet Boursicot at all. Thanks to a very coincidental encounter in Paris, Vincent Lancisi, the Creative Director of Everyman facilitated the meeting between the men, as well as a crew from NPR.
Taking on their mannerisms isn’t where the drama is. He instead focuses on portraying their stories to the best of his ability.
Because of Bruce’s prior research, he had formulated an idea of the man in his head, but he found a very different character when they arrived in his village. The man they found living in a state-run nursing home was quieter and more-closed off. He had been reduced by his experiences. During their meeting, Bruce also noted that Boursicot kept to the surface facts only. He seemed intensely private of the whole affair, even though it’s been played out in the press and on stage for many years. Bruce decided to weave these traits into his portrayal of his character, Gallimard. It was a mixture of these qualities and bewilderment that audiences saw when Bruce first appeared on stage in a jail cell as Gallimard in Everyman’s “M. Butterfly.”
In the case of “The Book of Joseph,” Richard Hollander has been involved from the very beginning as the piece has been in development, so their meeting was planned from the start. Bruce did mention that after reading a play like this, it’s always a bit surreal to sit across from the person he’s portraying, however it’s also a useful tool. As an actor he doesn’t want to do impression of the men he’s playing. An impression would only present their surface attributes. Taking on their mannerisms isn’t where the drama is. He instead focuses on portraying their stories to the best of his ability.
The accounts of the men are so immensely personal and I wondered if it was almost easier to do a play about an imaginary character. But Bruce has a differing opinion on the topic. He believes that the journey from preparation to the final product is the same in both instances. When portraying real-life characters, there’s just an added bonus of getting the chance to talk to someone that has first-hand knowledge of the story the actor is about to tell.
And sometimes those very same people the actor is portraying will attend a performance. In my non-actor’s brain, I can’t think of anything more nerve-wracking, but as it turns out that’s not entirely true for Bruce. Richard Hollander has been to see “The Book of Joseph” numerous times. He’s become one of the show’s biggest supporters. When Richard is in the audience, Bruce tries to focus on the play itself. He has realized that if he focuses too much on getting Richard right, he misses the chance to tell the story. Instead he attempts to stay in the moment and lets go of those unrealistic expectations he has for himself. By doing so, he’s able to connect to the character and the piece more fully.
Though early on this was not the case. Bruce admitted to being worried about portraying Richard. Because the story is about a Jewish family fleeing the atrocities of the Holocaust, Bruce believed as a non-Jew, it would be difficult for audiences to accept him in the role. The Holocaust is such a significant event in world history and he felt that the story required a Jewish voice to share it. But an empathetic director helped him to see that the focus of the piece should be on telling a “good and important story.” After that realization, the rest of the work began to fall into place.
Because of the nature of the story, I asked if it was hard to tell it 8 times a week. It’s a play of tragedy and heartbreak, and it must be difficult for actors to not bring those feelings home with them at the end of the evening. Early in rehearsals, Bruce said that he found it very difficult. The scope of the tragedy of the Holocaust is so monumental that it’s tough to look directly at it. At one point a book of photos of those that had died in a concentration camp made its way around the rehearsal space. After seeing the photos, Bruce said that the cast was struck by “humans’ nature to be so ugly at the hands of a crazed dictator.” Karen Hartman, playwright of “The Book of Joseph” helped Bruce and the cast to see that at times of immense sadness and tragedy, like in the Holocaust, there are also moments of everyday life, which she wrote about in the play. Using this advice, the cast focused on telling the story of a family that is fighting to “survive” rather than just fighting to “not die.” In other words, “life includes good and bad” and playing both parts honestly is integral to telling the story.
The dichotomy of these everyday events, mixed with the atrocities of the Holocaust were difficult for Bruce to portray early on. The first act is set solely during the Holocaust, while the second act is set decades later, as Richard is finding letters from his family and attempting to piece together his story. At this point in the story, there is a struggle between Richard and his son, which the cast worked hard to portray, often going over the top with the drama. But again, Hartman stepped in and helped them to realize that they couldn’t “out-Holocaust the Holocaust.” While the struggle deserved to be seen, it was important to not get overly-emotional with it. She didn’t want the horrors of the Holocaust in Act One to be upstaged by the emotions in Act 2, which was an important lesson for the cast to learn.
Hearing Bruce speak about what went into preparing his role, I wondered if it meant he felt more emotionally attached to the very real characters he’s played this season, rather than the usual imaginary ones. In an interview with another actor who is currently playing a real-life character, Jenn Colella (Captain Beverly Bass, the first female American Airlines pilot in Broadway’s “Come From Away”), she mentioned that portraying Captain Bass and becoming friends with her, provides her with a more emotional attachment to this character. I asked Bruce if he found this to be the case. He said that yes, playing these men has been more emotional but in a slightly different way. As a company, the actors of Everyman have been together for quite some time and have appeared on stage together many times. In “The Book of Joseph,” he noted that there’s one very emotional moment near the end of the play. Observing the relationships that have grown and the stories the actors have shared all coming together in that moment is what gets him emotional. While he does feel more connected when playing real characters, it’s the connection to his cast and crew in particular that he’s felt most strongly.
Taking into account that most actors have a few dream roles, I indulged in one last question – the one he’s probably been asked many times before: Who, in real life would he like the chance to play? His first instinct was Truman Capote in the one-man show “Tru.” He enjoys the idea of playing someone so iconic who has so much rich storytelling under his belt. Another play he mentioned is the Harvey Fierstein work, “Casa Valentina.” As I learned from Bruce, the play is about men who travel to the Catskills with their wives, and dress as women one weekend a year. He likes the idea of playing into this “brotherhood” of men. Both works seem to speak to who he is as an actor.
This openness to playing all sorts of characters – real or imaginary – seems to be a defining trait of Bruce Nelson. He immerses himself in the stories of these men fully, yet his open heart and curiosity are always on display. This season alone, audiences have seen him play a hilariously mad-cap actor in “Noises Off,” a reserved French diplomat in love with a Geisha in “M. Butterfly” and a journalist attempting to re-connect with his son and his family’s untold story in “The Book of Joseph.” While all three shows are wildly different, Bruce’s talent brings them all to light in many different and surprising ways, something I’m sure Baltimore audiences are quite thankful for.