A Class Act

Mark Nash has created a big pair of shoes to fill

by Roberta Nubile

vt_stage0411leadMark Nash has been producing artistic director and the guiding star of Vermont Stage Company for 11 years. Burlington’s only year-round professional theater company performs at FlynnSpace and is the resident professional theater of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

Authentic. Honest. Classy. These are strong words, but words that have described both the presentations and the man behind them at Vermont Stage Company.

Vermont Stage is Burlington’s year-round professional theater company. As artistic director for 11 years, Mark Nash has chosen the plays, hired the actors and taken care of them, acted, directed, built sets, hung lights, raised funds, schmoozed, marketed, welcomed the audience, and along the way built a vibrant theater community.

Blake Robison founded Vermont Stage in 1994, the year Nash returned to his home state of Vermont. A Champlain Valley Union graduate, Nash studied theater at the University of Vermont and the University of Kansas. He interned at the rigorous Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky., his first exposure to professional theater.

The internship left an indelible impression, he says. “It was so naturalistic it blew my mind. I never saw theater like that. It became the kind of theater I was interested in, as all artifice had been stripped away.”

After Louisville, Nash started his own theater company in Chicago, but after nine months, he headed west to earn a master of fine arts at the University of California, Irvine.

He credits an intensive week studying under the acclaimed Polish director Jerzy Grotowski as another major influence on his developing style. “He put us through intense physical and spiritual paces; it was a deep exploration of all of us as actors and human beings and how those poles intersect.”

In his thesis Nash described how Eastern philosophy could be used in actor training. He says that during his time in Irvine, a seed was planted that would “become a core of my whole aesthetic and approach to acting — that is, the embrace of stillness, simplicity, and clarity.”

Paul Ugalde, a Vermont actor and stage combat coach who has worked with Nash on several productions, describes how Nash’s simple approach to acting has guided him over the years.

“He tells us our job as actors is to find the love. I would say, ‘Oh, come on. It can’t be there all the time!’ But whether it is King Lear or comedy, Mark is right: There is always the human need for love in every script I’ve ever worked with.”

Following grad school, Nash acted, directed, wrote plays, and taught theater in Minneapolis and then Seattle, where, in 1991, he met his future wife, Kathy Blume, when he cast her in a play he’d written.

“I was always looking for the thing that would allow me to return home,” he says. That happened in 1994, when he inherited the house where he grew up in Charlotte. He and Blume married and spent their honeymoon driving Nash’s pickup cross-country to their new home in Vermont. They still live in that house.

To make ends meet, Nash waited tables at Sweetwaters and Trattoria Delia, taught acting, directed with Northern Stage, and ran an actors’ retreat for two summers with Blume out of their home.

The actors’ retreat, meant to offer city actors a place to replenish, was “a culmination of all I’d learned, and encompassed a body-mind-spirit approach to acting,” says Nash. “But despite working our butts off, we just broke even, as the market just wasn’t there.”

By then, Nash was making his mark on the Vermont theater scene, evidenced by positive reviews from the press. He also caught the attention of Robison at Vermont Stage. They met when Nash went to see the company’s inaugural production of The Glass Menagerie at UVM.

Nash noticed on the stage a picture of himself originally used as a prop in a UVM production of the play he’d been in. He introduced himself to Robison as the man in the picture, and the two theater aficionados connected. In short order, Robison hired Nash to act and direct at Vermont Stage.

Robison, now the producing artistic director of Round House Theatre in Washington, D.C., calls Nash “the real deal. Mark could have a career anywhere he wants; but Vermont is his home. So we were happy to sign him up and gain from his expertise and connections.”

Nash’s work with Vermont Stage was pivotal in his transition from being a waiter to full-time employment as a theater artist.

“One summer I left waitering to act for Vermont Stage, and when I returned there was no job waiting for me,” he recalls. “I realized I could piece together paid theater work in Vermont as teacher, director, and acting coach.”

Blume pursued her acting career in New York City, and over the next two years, the couple had a long-distance marriage.

During that time, Nash directed the acclaimed Mad River Rising for Vermont Stage, which toured the state the summer of 1999. “The last production at UVM was maybe early ’99,” says Nash.

Having decided to leave his post as director of the company, Robison was beginning a transition out of Vermont. He wanted Nash to be his successor.

“When I left after the first five years,” says Robison, “I handed the company to Vermont playwright Dana Yeaton, who agreed to serve as interim director until we hired someone full time. I think we always knew that Mark would be the right guy for the job.”

At the end of ’99, tired of their long-distance relationship, Nash joined Blume in New York to teach at Long Island University and direct at the Atlantic Theater acting school.

When Robison offered him the job in early 2000, Nash, finally reunited with Blume and establishing himself in New York, wasn’t interested.

“I was not looking for another upheaval,” he says, “and since I never really had the ambition to run a theater company, it wasn’t hard to turn him down.”

Robison persisted, and Blume was influential in changing Nash’s mind.

“Most people in this business would jump at the chance,” says Nash, “so when Kathy heard about it, she got how juicy an opportunity it was, as did several of my other friends in the theater world, and between her enthusiasm for the potential of the job and Blake’s assurance I wouldn’t have to move back to Vermont full time, I agreed.”

Things changed, though, with Vermont Stage’s move, in the fall of 2000, from the UVM theater department and the full support it offered, to the newly established FlynnSpace. Nash found it necessary to move back to Vermont do his job well. Blume stayed in New York another three years, commuting to Vermont on a regular basis to act in shows.

It would be a rebirth for the company, as Vermont Stage became the resident professional theater at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, and opened the FlynnSpace with the world premiere of Midwives, a play by Dana Yeaton based on the bestselling novel by Vermonter Chris Bohjalian.

“It was a new play, a new theater, and the whole structure had shifted radically,” says Nash. “It was year-round, stand-alone theater — no one had done that here.”

From Midwives to the current season, Vermont Stage has produced five to seven shows per year, and Nash was the driving force behind every show. (Blume confirms that he did this without any vacation.) Last year’s budget was just under $406,000.

“I don’t know anyone who could have pulled off what he pulled off,” says Blume. “I don’t know anyone with his stamina.

“When we did Copenhagen, Mark was playing Heisenberg. It was an incredibly complex show, with an enormous quantity of lines. He’d hired a technical director from Ithaca who never showed up.

“Mark being Mark— he’s not comfortable asking for help — would go to work in the morning to run the company, go to rehearsal in afternoon, deal with an incredibly complex play, build the set, and haul hundreds of pounds of sand.

“He did that day after day. People do that kind of thing in an iron-man competition in short bursts, and he did it for weeks on end. And he’s done the same thing in one version or another over and over.”

When asked where he draws strength, Nash unhesitatingly says, “It’s Kathy: When I would question why we were struggling financially, Kathy would say, ‘Look, we are not making widgets; we’re making art, and art is hard.’

“I want to reiterate that I had no aspirations to be an AD,” he continues. “I am naturally a leader, but I don’t like that kind of responsibility — I take things too personally — and I never had a burning artistic vision; it was always more of a social vision.”

“It was so important to Mark that the artists who worked on the shows were respected, taken care of, and communicated with clearly so they could access their gifts to share with others,” says Heidi Tappan, past board chair at Vermont Stage.

“Mark as a person is deeply caring about people, community, humanity, and the world at large. For him, theater is more profound than entertainment. To him, it has a huge impact on our social culture and in the world.”

This raises the question of why, in June, Nash will be leaving Vermont Stage. A search for his replacement continues.

“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response,” he says. “I don’t have enough energy to give the company what it needs to keep going. I don’t want that diminishing energy to hurt me or the company. A person with new energy could bring the company to a new level.”

He has no definite plans for what comes next. Vermont will continue to be home, he says. “What I can say is that I have started getting a little bit of freelance writing work.” Beyond that, only time will tell. •