Theatre Conversation in a Covid World
Marcus Nance’s name is one I’ve heard in the Canadian professional theatre circuit for some time, but I never had the opportunity to see him perform. When he agreed to be interviewed and sent me his bio, I most certainly want to see this gentleman perform in future as his credentials and credits reveal extraordinarily fine work.
American-Canadian bass-baritone Marcus Nance is equally at home in opera, musical theatre, concert, and cabaret. The New York Times described him as “a thrillingly powerful bass-baritone” while the Globe and Mail says he “has a rich voice and strong stage presence”.
Marcus Nance garnered international attention as Malcolm in the world premiere of Atom Egoyan’s opera ‘Elsewhereless’ with Tapestry New Opera Works which earned him a Dora Mavor Moore Award nomination for Most Outstanding Male Performer. For Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, he created the role of Moses in the world premiere of the epic opera ‘Beatrice Chancy’, performing alongside opera superstar Measha Bruggergosman.
His other opera credits include Porgy in excerpts from ‘Porgy and Bess’ with the Nathanial Dett Choral and the Toronto Symphony, Sparafucile in ‘Rigoletto’ with the Tacoma Opera, Compere in ‘Four Saints in Three Acts’ with Chicago Opera Theatre and an array of exciting roles and concerts with Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria, Chautauqua Opera, Vancouver New Music, The National Arts Centre, Shreveport Opera, Ash-Lawn-Highland Summer Festival, Natchez Opera Festival, Orchestra London, Victoria Symphony, North York Symphony, Chautauqua Symphony, Fairbanks Festival Orchestra, Windsor Symphony, the Monterey Bay Symphony, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Hawaii Opera Theatre, London Symphony, and the Monterey Bay Opera.
New York audiences saw Marcus Nance on Broadway as Caiaphas in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, in Baz Luhrman’s Tony Award winning production of ‘La Boheme’, in New York City Centre ENCORES! productions of ‘Kismet’ and ‘Of Thee I Sing’, as Alidoro in ‘Cenerentola’ with New York City Opera Education and in concert at the Metropolitan Room.
Recent projects include Rev. Alltalk in Volcano Theatre’s workshop of the reimagined production of Scott Joplin’s ‘Treemonisha’, Van Helsing in Innerchamber’s concert version of ‘Dracula’, and as Judge Turpin in the Shaw Festival’s production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ where the Toronto Star proclaimed that he “gives the production’s standout performance as the corrupt Judge Turpin: with his stunning singing voice and commanding physical presence, he is horribly convincing as a man who aborts justice and tramples morality…”.
He has spent nine seasons at the prestigious Stratford Festival where his assignments have included the monster in ‘Frankenstein Revived’, Bill Bobstay in ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’, Caiaphas in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, Queequeg in Morris Panych’s ‘Moby Dick’ and Rev. J.D. Montgomery in Gershwin’s ‘My One and Only’. He has also made seen as the Mikado in ‘The Mikado’ for Drayton Entertainment, and Clairborne in Charlottetown Festival’s world premiere of ‘Evangeline’.
Expanding further his creativity and artistic horizons, Marcus Nance has has made his film debut as the Singing Accountant in Mel Brooke’s feature film ‘The Producers ’ starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and his television debut as Rev. Moses in the opera ‘Beatrice Chancey’. He has also appeared in concert at the Cornwall Concert Series, Primavera Concerts, Elora Festival, Toronto’s Jazz Bistro, the Metropolitan Room in New York City, Stratford Summer Music, the Elora Festival, the Toronto Jazz Festival and as a regular guest with the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra.
We conducted our conversation via email, but I had the opportunity to speak with Marcus briefly via Zoom:
In a couple of months, we will be coming up on one year where the doors of live theatre have been shuttered. How have you been faring during this time?
By nature, I am a positive and happy person. So, a year ago when rehearsals at the Stratford Festival abruptly stopped, my goal was to make good use of my time and to not sit around and wallow in self-pity. It was easy at the beginning because I never dreamed that a year later, I would still be waiting to get back into the theatre. So, between that day and now I have had my ups and downs. Days of panic and days of joyful discoveries about life and purpose.
The biggest disappointment was not being able to play the monster in Morris Panych’s production of ‘Frankenstein’ in the new Tom Patterson Theatre at the Stratford Festival. I was so excited to be asked to play this character. It was an opportunity of a lifetime for me. But as the death toll from the Coronavirus began to rise, I got over myself and realized that just being alive at this time in history was a greater gift than any role I could ever be offered. I am heartbroken at all the lives we have lost.
How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?
I have actually stayed busy doing a number of different things.
One: My husband (music director Franklin Brasz) and I always work in the summer. So to have a summer off is highly unusual. We decided to make lemonade out of lemons, and we bought a tiny trailer. We spent the summer and fall camping all over Ontario. I absolutely loved it. I love cooking outside, going on hikes, hanging out on the beach, and drinking gin and tonics all night. I can honestly say that camping saved us and kept us from falling into depression. In the end it has made this a summer to remember. A life highlight.
Two: Many years ago, I tried to get involved in the tv/film world, but an experience of blatant homophobia caused me to flee that world with no intention to ever go back. When COVID hit, my agent wrote me and suggested I be submitted for tv/film as that industry was still able to produce safely. I figured I had nothing to lose so I said yes. To my shock this has kept me busy all year. I never thought it was possible, but the opportunities empowered me and helped to erase the negative experiences I had to deal with earlier in my career. It really made me happy to know that the world is changing for gay people.
Three: I started teaching voice again. I was asked to give masterclasses in Nevada, California, and Colorado. I also rejoined the faculty of Sheridan College and started giving private voice lessons from my home (via Zoom of course). I love working with young artists.
Four: I started modelling again! I contacted a modelling agency I had worked with many years ago and they were thrilled to have me back. I shot two fun campaigns. At 56 years old who would have thought?
Five: Lastly, I was given some incredible opportunities to film performances for online streaming. Highlights being a Christmas concert for Stratford Summer Music filmed at the beautiful Knox Church in downtown Stratford, and filming my cabaret “Voice of a Preacher’s Son” on the Stratford Festival stage for their upcoming series “Up Close and Musical” for stratfest@home
The late Hal Prince described the theatre as an escape for him. Would you say that Covid has been an escape for you or would you describe this near year long absence from the theatre as something else?
COVID, an escape? No! Covid didn’t allow me to escape because it gave me too much free time to think. I was consumed with BLM and the racism that was being exposed all around me. I was consumed with the racist US president and with those that supported him. I was consumed with watching people die while others were protes7ng masks. Had I been performing eight shows a week at the Stratford Festival, I would have had a place to escape from the world. I would have put my energy into performing and laughing in the wings with my friends. So COVID was not an escape for me.
I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return until 2022?
That sounds about right. My gut is telling me that the world needs another year to get everything in order. The new strains of COVID, the lack of enough vaccine, the COVID deniers… yes, we need another year to fix all this and allow ourselves and our audiences the 7me needed to allow everyone to feel comfortable coming back to the theatre.
I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that yes theatre should not only entertain but, more importantly, it should transform both the actor and the audience. How has Covid transformed you in your understanding of the theatre and where it is headed in a post Covid world?
I have more appreciation for what I do. Not that I didn’t appreciate art before but having been in the business for over 30 years, one does start to take it for granted… feeling that it will always be there. I now know that that’s not true. Anything can be lost to us at any 7me. I have spent a lot of hours on YouTube as of late, watching ballet dancers, opera singers, orchestral performers and theatre performers and I can’t help but feel the pain of all these amazing people who suddenly lost their jobs because of COVID. All the work that goes into perfecting their crafts and suddenly they have nowhere to share that talent. I don’t think anyone of these people will take their art for granted ever again.
The late Zoe Caldwell spoke about how actors should feel danger in the work. It’s a solid and swell thing to have if the actor/artist and the audience both feel it. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will somehow influence your work when you return to the theatre?
COVID is dangerous, so yes, I have felt a sense of danger for me and for others.
The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. Has this time of Covid made you sensitive to our world and has it made some impact on your life in such a way that you will bring this back with you to the theatre?
This time of COVID has forced us to sit still and to listen. I am sensitive by nature, but my heart is more open than it ever was to the world and to those in need of being heard or acknowledged.
Again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form?
I will answer this by saying that I have always been curious about what it means to “follow one’s own path” and COVID has forced me to do that. To be creative, to try new things, to work toward the impossible to see if it’s actually possible. In the last year I feel that I have done these things and I have discovered so much about myself.
This pandemic is not over and this next year will most definitely test us. Can we continue to strive and grow? Do we have it in us to stay healthy and hopeful for another year? I think so and I hope so.
To learn more about Marcus, visit his website: www.marcusnance.com.