RESONANCE: An Interview with Nathan Rouse
Actor / Producer, Starving Artist Productions
(“The Birth”, “Faith Healer”)
NR: I’ll answer that in two parts, as an actor and as a professional actor. I suppose the first part I discovered in high school. I’ve often wondered if my pursuit of acting was some symptom of Middle Child Syndrome – the older, sports-involved brother, the younger dancer sister. That said, regardless of the seed that bore the fruit, I nonetheless began getting heavily involved and interested in theater in high school. Remarkably, I skipped trying out for plays my whole freshman year out of – get this – fear and nervousness. No, really. So nothing my freshman year, but starting my sophomore year of high school I was in, or involved in, every show my school did for three years.
When I reached college there was no freshman fear and I went in and auditioned for the first show the school was doing that fall of 1998: Neil Simon’s Rumors. Interestingly, in that show I shared the stage with a senior at the time, Christina Whitehouse, who went on to graduate and then go get a master’s and get married and move to Columbia, SC and is now playing the character of Grace in Starving Artist’s upcoming Faith Healer. Funny how these things come around.
But before I get too far afield, the short answer to when I knew I wanted to be a professional actor came when a dear friend of mine, and a fellow actor, Brooke Overholt, on one particular night just put the question before me that we all want to have asked of us but live in fear of answering, “What do you want?” I wanted to be an actor. That was it. No looking back.
SM: Who has had the greatest influence on your acting?
NR: In the famous-person category and, yes, it’s a stock answer, but it’s a true one, would be Daniel Day-Lewis. His ability to transform so completely into the characters he inhabits is an inspiration to actors everywhere. Or a source of jealousy, for one.
However, due credit goes to a few other people I know personally. First would be Keith Cassidy, my college theater professor and friend. Naturally spending several years under the tutelage of someone in a craft will incite inspiration, but what Keith specifically taught me was the value of story-telling as a performer and, perhaps one of the most valuable tools an actor can have, fearlessness. Keith is himself fearless as an actor and the opportunities I’ve had to see him perform have taught me more than all the theater classes I’ve ever taken.
Secondly would be a gentleman who directed me at the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, Allan Edwards. I had been cast in a touring arm of the Festival. There were four of us in the troupe and we had about 5 or 6 abbreviated versions of Shakespeare’s plays on deck and ready depending on what the venue hosting us had requested. The three weeks we spent with Allan learning, memorizing, rehearsing, living, breathing, eating and sleeping Shakespeare are still some of my fondest memories as an actor. He was able to open the bard up in a way that I’d never seen and, more than that, had a personal philosophy of the actor-as-craftsman that I’d never quite been able to articulate but had, perhaps, always known. Not just as a crash course in Shakespeare and not just for offering a newfound understanding of the craft, but in many ways that period of time, and Allan’s direction, helped chart the course for where I’m at now. Point of fact, it was seeing Allan play Frank in a production of Faith Healer that prompted my interest in the show and, ultimately now, my own portrayal of the character.
SM: How has your faith influenced your craft and affected your ability to connect to characters?
NR: As I progressed through college I anguished over my future. Understand that as a young person of faith at a Southern Baptist college with one foot firmly entrenched in religious academia and one in the world of the stage, the false choice the church can sometimes impose on young people was felt as strongly then as it ever had been. That choice being that professional acting and theater and involvement in the arts were part of the “world” and that to truly know fulfillment as the product of a Christian collegiate experience would necessitate a future in vocational ministry.
Now, was there a group or individual I can specifically point to that imposed this idea? No, there wasn’t. So in that respect I should let the spectre of my youth off the hook. However, anyone who knows the Muse of artistic expression and has had any involvement with the modern evangelical church knows the pressure – or at the least, the raised eyebrows – offered to those who express an interest in the arts as vocation.
My time spent in the fellowship of other believers as well as my understanding of Scripture leads me to an interpretation of Jesus as one who always, regardless of situation, took the people He encountered on their own terms. He didn’t have agendas (save for perhaps their restoration as human beings) and He didn’t coerce them towards a certain point of view. All this to say that I try my best in roles I take, as well as in media I consume, to search for the redemptive elements to the characters. The minute you judge the character, you’ve lost the ability to empathize with them. You’ve lost the ability to bring them, in all of their brokenness, to life. The second you judge a character (or a live person, for that matter), you’ve given up your capacity to ably connect to them.
SM: How do you want your work to influence society/your community?
NR: Simply put, I want my work to resonate. I want to compel people to reflection, to laughter, to heartbreak. I recently had the opportunity to be interviewed by Larry Toppman of The Charlotte Observer and told him that Starving Artist isn’t out to reinvent the wheel, just to tell stories, stories of all kinds. Stories that cause you to think more deeply about what it means to be a human being, to reflect more fully on what it means to be part of a community, and if we can get you to laugh and/or cry while doing all of that, I’ll consider us a success.
SM: Describe your creative process, as an actor. How is it different from the role of Producer?
NR: I hate to disappoint and say there aren’t any real ‘tricks’ I employ as part of my process. Basically, and I’ll use Faith Healer as example, you just live with the character and the text for a while. Obviously there’s the memorizing of the text. In this case, playing Frank and learning his two giant monologues has been an ongoing process of realizing who this character is, what makes him tick, what things he avoids confronting and what he wants more than anything (which can sometimes be the same things). Creative process is more philosophy sometimes than actual action. By that I mean that, at least in this production of Faith Healer, there is no Frank but me. Wrap your head around that. Frank is less a cloak or artifice I put on onstage that it is myself, having absorbed and osmosized (like that word?) the text of Frank’s monologues and all they do, or don’t, say about him, his history and his relationships and channel those into a, hopefully, compelling performance.
Now, despite this being Starving Artist Production’s first full-length production, I’ve played Producer on 5 years of The Birth, so that role isn’t new as much as it’s amplified this time around. I actually enjoy producing. I like making tough decisions and seeing those decisions pay off creatively. Don’t get me wrong, at any given moment there are 50 plates you’re spinning after 10 have already broken on the ground and 10 more need to start spinning. But it’s exhilarating in a different kind of way than being onstage.
I’d still do the former first over the latter, but being the guy who started the company, I’m happy to do both. In order to do work you truly love and believe in, you kind of have to move into producing. I go on my share of commercial auditions (and rejections) and have done enough theater in the region to have gotten a pretty good idea that if all I ever did in life was be in commercials and be in other people’s work, I may as well move on to some other field.
SM: Tell us about your experiences in transitioning from actor to producer.
NR: Producing is an enormous challenge. We’ve gotten spoiled on The Birth; staging a production during a season of the year when people are looking for things to do and having executed it for five years now and developed a pretty strong following with it, it’s not the perfect template anymore for what it means to produce something from scratch.
Now, Faith Healer. This has been a challenge. Because producing is not just getting a play to performance level. It’s also getting butts in seats. And neither of those tasks are exactly a cake-walk, much less both of them together. And it’s still a learning process. We fumbled a little bit with Faith Healer on a few behind-the-scenes areas and had to play some pretty serious catch-up there for a while. Additionally, Faith Healer is the first show we’ve ever spent any substantial funds on in advertising. But people can’t come to something they don’t know is happening.
All told, I’m actually getting very excited about seeing Faith Healer fully realized starting with our opening night this Wednesday, May 4th. But it’s been a long journey to get here. The deepest satisfaction I get from all of this though, is having an audience finally share in the hard work the cast and crew have been churning out for almost two months now. A play doesn’t truly exist until it has an audience and we’re very close to that moment and it’s exciting.
SM: What is most important for people to know about the production of “Faith Healer”?
NR: It’s an extremely compelling play by acclaimed Irish playwright Brian Friel that features three incredibly dynamic performances by a trio of actors from the region and produced here in the Queen City. I love the description that the New York Times gave: “like a tale told late at night in a neighborhood pub.” It’s also got an air of mystery and humanity to it that will interest theater veterans and novices alike.