Arts & Culture

The Full Nelson

Actor Bruce Nelson taps into his emotions, onstage and off.

Sitting in the upstairs lounge at Everyman Theatre, Bruce Nelson looks appropriately like the quintessential everyman. He wears a plaid shirt, cargo shorts, ankle socks, and running shoes, with a Blue Angels cap atop his head and a half-smile on his face. He could be a genial soccer dad. 

This regular-guy Bruce Nelson is the foundation on which the acclaimed actor constructs his chameleonic roles, performances that local theatergoers have come to cherish. Those theatergoers might be surprised to learn that Nelson, who is so assured onstage, struggles with anxiety off it. “I’m actually full of fear in everyday life,” says Nelson. “But I am incredibly lucky to have a place—the stage—where I can let it go and tap into a sense of fearlessness.”

He points out a photo of actress Tana Hicken, who recently passed away, on a nearby wall. “Tana always told me that she was a bundle of nerves just moving through life, at parties and things like that,” continues Nelson. “But the one place where she felt totally comfortable was onstage. I completely understand that. Do I feel safe out here in the world? No. Up there [onstage]? Yes.”

Nelson feels particularly safe on Baltimore stages. “As an actor, it’s difficult to get steady stage work, especially if you don’t live in New York,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to find an artistic home in Baltimore. In fact, I didn’t feel like I had a real career until I settled here and became a company member with Everyman in 2001.”

He’s since evolved into a bonafide local treasure.
Maryland Theatre Guide has called him “one of the finest actors in the Baltimore/D.C. area,” and City Paper dubbed him “Maryland’s finest actor.” Baltimore named him “Best Actor” in 2014’s “Best Of Baltimore” issue.

This season, Nelson will appear in three consecutive plays at Everyman, and he just wrapped an acclaimed run as Salieri in Center Stage’s production of
Amadeus. Last season, his roles ranged from painter Mark Rothko (Everyman’s Red) to Groucho Marx (Center Stage’s Animal Crackers).

“Bruce delivers every single time,” says Everyman founder/artistic director Vincent Lancisi. “He climbs a mountain every time he steps onstage.”

“Bruce is a treasure,” says Center Stage’s Kwame Kwei-Armah, “He stands tall amongst the best anywhere.”

Despite the lofty accolades, something still gnaws at Nelson, something akin to the offstage insecurity. “I haven’t had that New York thing happen,” he says, “which, for some people, might suggest that I’ve had a ‘career-lite.’ My work hasn’t, for instance, included the Broadway thing.”

Nelson takes off his cap and runs a hand through thinning black hair. “There’s a little juggle I have to do in my head around that sort of bullshit,” he says, leaning forward. “Because of it, I’m always having to remind myself, ‘Bruce, you chose a different path, and you have been quite successful at it.’”

He flashes a disarming smile: “‘So shut up.’”

Nelson grew up an Army brat, though he loathes the term and prefers “Army sophisticate.” Born in New Jersey, he moved with his family to North Carolina, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania before finally settling in Columbia, Maryland, in 1973. He was in the third grade.

“For a kid that had only known urban settings and army bases, the concept of tot lots, bike paths, and man-made lakes was glorious,” he recalls. “It was a fabulous place to be a child.”

‘Bruce, you chose a different path, and you have been quite successful at it. So shut up.” 

His father, a colonel and an oral surgeon, commuted to bases in New Jersey and Virginia. His mother was a nurse at Howard County General Hospital. He has one sibling, an older brother. Nelson describes his parents as “blue-collar types,” and says he got his intellectual curiosity and sensitivity from his dad and his sense of humor and love of group dynamics from his mom.

Still, he felt separate from them. “I always thought we were four people who just happened to find themselves together, under one roof,” he says. “We were all a little afraid, and that got in the way of us connecting with each other. I felt especially out of their orbit, because they were three straight people, and I was gay.”

As a youngster, he had friends but clicked more easily with adults, especially his Aunt Ruth, who realized early on that he was a different kind of nephew. Nelson would sit for hours with her, watching game shows, reading Erma Bombeck, and giggling. “I was absolutely content doing those things, which is still the case all these years later,” he quips. “But what nephew does that unless he’s really gay?”

Nelson discovered a different type of comfort zone onstage, first at Wilde Lake High School and then at Towson University, where he majored in theater and appeared in more productions than any previous student before graduating in 1988. At Towson, he developed as a performer
and as a person. Nelson, at various points, tried to go straight and was engaged several times to a woman. It was, he says, “We’re on. We’re off. We’re on. We’re off. I’m gay.”

He took courses in psychology, sociology, and anthropology, looking for insight into the human condition and ways of connecting with others. He found exactly that in a Psychology 101 assignment that involved watching videos of best-selling author and motivational speaker Leo “Dr. Love” Buscaglia. “It changed my life,” says Nelson. “His whole message was that our job on earth is to love one another, reach out, and not go it alone. I had always intuited that I was here to connect with others, but he gave voice to that.”

It also raised a profound question for him: “How do I actually do that?”

Theater was the answer.

Nelson honed his craft, playing mostly comedic roles at venues like Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in D.C. and Rep Stage in Columbia and touring regionally with National Players. But it was while working crew for an Arena Stage musical featuring Richard Bauer in 1995 that he “truly got it.”

One night, Nelson watched an actress rush backstage for a costume change, only to find the dresser unaccounted for. Standing nearby, Bauer, a star of the show, didn’t hesitate to grab the dress, get the actress into it, zip her up, and push her onstage. Nelson thought, “Oh, that’s what it’s about. It’s about supporting the people around you. You lean
in, where others would turn the other way.”

It’s a quality that distinguishes Nelson as an actor. Far from a diva, he strives to put others at ease. “He wants to know and help out everybody,” says Amanda “Mandy” Hall, Everyman’s resident stage manager, “and that kind of energy is infectious.”

Kwei-Armah says Nelson’s inclusive humility and emotional intelligence are “examples to every aspiring actor in the game.”

“He is the type of creative person that changes the lives of the people around him,” says Lancisi.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Nelson teaches, and his improv classes at Everyman fill to capacity with aspiring actors ranging in age from 17 to 70. Nelson says about 10 percent of the job involves imparting some sort of skill. The vast majority of teaching, he feels, is about “getting students to realize there’s more to them than they thought. They can be anxious and nervous and still get the job done. They don’t need to be so frightened. I give them reassurance, which I do not give myself.”

“When an audience reacts, it’s very fulfilling, because it suggests I’m on the right track.”

The internal insecurity helps fuel Nelson’s prodigious work ethic. He is constantly memorizing lines, learning their context, and finding new ways of delivering them. He senses that, even after all these years, he may be trying too hard. In fact, his husband, Richard—the couple lives in Ednor Gardens with a tuxedo cat named Steinway—occasionally reminds him, “You don’t have to keep auditioning for the marriage. We’re married.” (Nelson, a donor father, also has a 7-year-old son living in Randallstown.)

When asked if he’s tempted to embark on a film or television career, he smiles wanly. “When I see how much fun
Veep and House of Cards look, I sometimes think that I’d love to do that,” he says. “However, I’ve grown accustomed to having such monumental and showy roles in the theater that I know film and TV probably wouldn’t work for me. Basically, I would want to take over for Kevin Spacey. Otherwise, it would feel like starting over.”

Besides, theater affords potential for intimacy and transcendence on a level Dr. Love would likely recognize. Nelson riffs for a few moments on the origins of theater and how it was initially conceived as a way of summoning the gods, which leads him to reflect on Salieri lobbying a higher power for acceptance and feeling rejected in
Amadeus. “Who hasn’t yearned to be loved at some point and not been loved?” he asks. “With theater . . . ” The word catches in his throat, as if the enormity of it, of what theater means, is too great to articulate. He wipes away a few tears.

When he continues, he isn’t talking about Salieri, he’s talking about Bruce. “I’m working through being accepted as I am,” he says. “When an audience reacts, it’s very fulfilling, because it suggests I’m on the right track. At this point, I have a strong sense of being loved and accepted inside and out, but that need for acceptance never gets completely filled.”

He dabs at his eyes with a tissue. “I sometimes wonder if being accepted as an actor was a way of being accepted as a gay man,” he says.

Then, something dawns on him, something Mandy, Everyman’s stage manager, tells him. “She says I love attention,” says Nelson, shaking his head. “I always want to reject that. It sounds so cheap and selfish.

“But it’s true. It’s true.”