Nancy Marshall with her grade 12s in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, 2002.
I met Nancy Marshall when I was twelve years old and in the seventh grade at Sacred Heart School of Halifax. She graced SHSH’s presence every January to direct the Senior High School’s musical and everyone who met her adored her instantaneously. This particular January of 1997, I was the most impressionable kid you could ever meet. Too tall too quickly, wild curls I could barely manage, a black watch kilt far too long to be cool but that gave me a weird looking pot belly whenever I tried to roll it shorter, my knee socks were always falling down and I walked around with my eyes full of stars, my heart open wide and all the shyness in the world making me awkward and liable to trip over things. I knew even then that Nancy was a professional theatre artist. She had worked with Jim Petrie at the Halifax Feast Dinner Theatre and Jim Petrie was in Neptune Theatre’s production of Les Misérables in 1994, which was pretty much the best thing I had ever seen in Halifax at this point, which meant that I knew it was a big deal and a huge honour that she was coming to our school and working with us on our show. It also meant that our musicals, our all-female musicals, had a reputation for being impressive and terrific.
I had grown up seeing the High School shows she directed while still in elementary school, so I already knew the caliber of performance that she was able to elicit from a group of teenagers. They seemed to evolve in depth and complexity with every year that passed. That January of 1997 I was a little intimidated as I stood in a room filled with girls I idolized who were older, more talented and knowledgeable than me waiting for the first rehearsal to begin. I immediately realized that there was no need for fear or shyness with Nancy. She welcomed everyone into our musical like it was the warmest and most supportive family that ever existed. Her smile, her energy and her zest for performance was absolutely infectious and she made our rehearsals the most joyful moments I had in my thirteen years at the school. She spun a magic web that we were all a part of for three or four months each year and I think that all of us, as young as we were, were aware of what a special and beautiful gift that time in our lives was.
I had already been bitten by the bug, as they say, before I met Nancy, but she was the person who made me feel the most confident in my talents and abilities as a performer. Nancy had the ability to see everyone, to really see them, she knew every single girl’s strength and she made sure that every decision she made as a director played to making sure that every single person onstage was given the best opportunity to shine. I saw some performances at Sacred Heart School that I will never forget, performances that even after having seen and reviewed hundreds of professional shows remain just as powerful and outstanding in my memory as they were when I was watching Nancy shaping them in rehearsal. Kristina Lieberson as Dolly Levi and Catherine Murtha as Cornelius Hackl in Hello Dolly (1998), Daphne Harold as Sky Masterson and Erin McDonald as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls (2000), Lauren Messervey as Dolly Tate in Annie Get Your Gun (2001), Nancy turned bookworms into show girls, Student Council kids into gangsters and basket ball players into character actors like it was the easiest and most obvious thing in the world. We had no fear. We were all playing, pretending, we knew that if we wandered too far off the mark, Nancy would bring us back. “Go big. Go big”, I remember her telling us, “I’ll tell you when you’ve gone too far. I’ll be so happy and excited when I can tell you to pull it back a bit!” You can’t mess up, as an actor, when you’re working with someone like Nancy Marshall and your imagination takes care of you.
As an actor I learned the best lessons from Nancy, ones I have never forgotten and will carry with me, tucked close to my heart, for the rest of my life. She was wise and so generous with her expertise, her time and her unfaltering kindness. She taught me about professionalism. She treated us like we were professional actors and she expected that we treat ourselves and each other as professionals too. This meant that we each did our very best and we served the best interests of the musical. It meant that we (usually) put “who hates who today and why”, “oh my god, I’m totally hung-over” and even “holy crap, I’m going to fail my math test”, on the backburner when we were in rehearsal. We learned to focus as a collective. We learned to make unselfish choices because we owed that much to our cast mates. We knew never to give each other notes. We had some ego bruising and bashing sometimes as can only be expected, but Nancy tried her best to keep us humble and friends. She was on each of our sides, so I think it was easier then to be on one another’s sides too.
I was given a lot of opportunity to stretch myself as an actor at Sacred Heart., one of the things I valued so much about being in an all-girls cast. I played an opera singing “floozy” in No, No, Nanette, an 80 year old missionary in Guys and Dolls and a murderous brother in Joseph the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I was always playing against my dorky and awkward stereotype and the confidence I got from Nancy in rehearsal translated not only to my experience onstage by into my daily life and the way that I carried myself on an ongoing basis during those so integral and impressionable years.
Yet, the biggest lesson that Nancy taught me was when I was in Grade 11 in Annie Get Your Gun. I’d had a bad audition that year and was already in rehearsal every weekend from 10-6 as part of Neptune’s Youth Performance Company, so my brain, my life and my grades likely would have exploded if I had gotten a lead part anyway. Yet, at sixteen, I wasn’t concerned with any of that and was disappointed in being cast as Mac, the guy no one remembers in Annie Get Your Gun. Despite my disappointment, however, I threw every fibre of my being into fleshing out a character for Mac and eventually I came to absolutely love him. I wrote my back story, I found intentions in every scene, higher stakes on a story arc and relationships with other characters to make him more interesting than “generic ensemble member with a few lines.” The deeper I dove into Mac, the more stage time Nancy would find for me. When I discovered funny or interesting moments that fit what we were doing, she encouraged me and kept them in the show. She never told me, “There are no small parts only small actors” she never had to. I learned from example that when you give 100% to your role, regardless of how many lines you have, you enrich your experience within the show and the production as a whole. At the Opening Night “Gala” my friends D’Arcy and Caitlin’s dad came up to me and said, “I just loved your part in the play! I knew from the moment you walked on stage, ‘There’s an interesting guy!’ I wanted to know more about him!” That was one of my proudest acting moments at Sacred Heart.
When I think of Nancy I think of all the patience of a Saint she had teaching us, a stage filled with 12-18 year olds, the choreography for the huge group numbers. I think of her smile that hit as soon as we walked through the doorway, she always seemed genuinely thrilled to see each one of us. Her laughter, which was often, sang out so joyously. I think fondly of the very rare time, usually on Tech/Dress, which usually ended at 11:00pm on a Saturday night, when someone or some people would do something idiotic and she would snap, just for a second, a yell like a mother with 45 kids who are all girls and all teenagers, and then in the very next moment, she’d laugh at herself for it so sheepishly… it became almost a tech/dress tradition. And of course, my fondest memories of Nancy are of six beautiful Opening Nights, when Nancy would gather us all together in a circle in the back hallway that we used as backstage because our Little Theatre only really had wings and a stage, and she would give us our last few words of encouragement, a pure belief that everything was going to be great and everyone out there was going to love us. We would pass a squeeze around the circle to diffuse our nerves and the last thing she would always say before we took our Opening places was this particular quote that I will always remember, which we repeated after her, “I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. I believe that myth is more potent than history. I believe that dreams are more powerful than facts. I believe that hope always triumphs over experience. I believe that that laughter is the only cure for grief and I believe that love is stronger than death.” (Robert Fulghum)
One year, I think it was when we did Guys and Dolls but it may have been Annie Get Your Gun, Nancy was called away on an urgent family matter and so she wasn’t there for our Opening Night ritual. She, in classic Nancy style, sent us a card of well wishes and all the love and encouragement in the world through our Musical Director and Accompanist, but it was us, the kids, who, almost magnetically, just before curtain flocked together into our circle and held hands. We started passing the squeezes. “Who is going to say the quotes?” someone asked. And one of the youngest, and certainly smallest kids in the cast, who had a memory that retained, it seemed, everything it heard, piped up that she knew it word for word. And with that we made sure to continue Nancy’s tradition. She instilled that in each and every one of us; that pride in who we were and what we did.
Nancy left Sacred Heart School around the same time I graduated, in 2002, and remarkably, it has been ten years or more since the casts of the shows she directed were all in the same room together. We are all over the world now doing a plethora of exciting and exceptional things, being women of the world, leaders of the future and making our alma mater proud. Yet, I am sure that we have all taken something very meaningful with us from Nancy, something that is still very much at the core of who we have grown to become. We are still those same girls who will carry forth her tradition, even in her absence, and who will pull together for the love of the show. Surely, with all the love that we have for Nancy Marshall, there is no question in my mind that love must be stronger than death.