Unlike a lot of actors, Everyman Theatre’s Bruce Randolph Nelson doesn’t have a “bucket list” of roles he’s hoping to play. Instead, Nelson says he “falls in love” with whomever he’s portraying. Maybe that’s why Nelson, one of Baltimore’s most prolific actors, makes every role his own. Before the Sept. 6 opening of Everyman’s production of “M. Butterfly” — which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year — Jmore spoke with Nelson about the play, how he prepared for the role of Rene Gallimard and how he came to meet the man on whom his character is based.
1. What’s ‘M. Butterfly’ about?
The play was inspired by Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and loosely based on the story of a real French diplomat in the 1960s who falls in love with a Chinese opera star. The twist is that the diplomat, [Gallimard] thinks the opera star is a woman, but he is really a man. They have a 20-year relationship without Rene ever knowing the opera star’s actual gender.
2. Tell us about your meeting with Bernard Boursicot, on whom Gallimard is loosely based.
Our artistic director [Vincent Lancisi] and his wife were on a tour in France and they asked their driver about his background. He said he used to be a driver for a man who had a play written about him. When Vincent asked him what play it was, he told him, “M. Butterfly.” Vinny said, “You mean Bernard Boursicot? I’m directing that show in the fall!” So in June, with help from a generous Everyman donor, they flew me to Paris where I was able to meet him. I was able to hear the story from the actual guy!
3. Did meeting him change your feelings about how you should play the role?
Not really. I wanted to do research and read a book about his life, but I don’t think it really changed the role for me. To me, the story was about a gay man who couldn’t live openly as a gay man. That’s something I can relate to since I’ve experienced it. I just had to tap into my own history. I was engaged to a woman. It was during the ‘80s and the idea of coming out as a gay man was just too much. And it’s a story about unrequited love. That’s universal. Meeting Bernard was a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. It was part of the mix.
4. There’s nudity in the play?
I’m not nude in the play. It’s the Chinese opera star who is. There had to be some consideration of that in the audition process. The actors have to know in advance. Of course, there’s the titillation factor. I mean, are we ever able to see ourselves naked on the stage? But of course, we do it in a beautiful artistic way.
5. ‘M. Butterfly’ is now 30 years old. How does it hold up?
I think it still resonates. These days, it’s gender fluidity that’s resonant. There’s the power struggle of West over East, man over woman, that still exists. People will come away having seen a love story unlike any other. It’s really about how far a person is willing to go to deny who they are when it’s right in front of them.
From Sept. 6-Oct. 8, “M. Butterfly” will be presented at Everyman Theatre.
Top photo: Resident Company member Bruce Randolph Nelson in Everyman Theatre’s 2013 production of “Red.” (ClintonBPhotography)
Also see: Fall Arts Preview: Getting ‘Intimate’
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