ELLSWORTH — He has been called many names: Malvolio, Captain Von Trapp, Odysseus, Policeman. But Ellsworth High School grad and budding actor Nate Stephenson has many more names and roles to try out on his way to becoming a professional thespian.
“One of the cool things about acting is that you are always learning and you are always adapting,” said the 20-year-old, a junior at Bates College. “That’s what I’m still trying to wrap my head around.”
Learning new roles and skills has been a recurring theme for Stephenson at Bates. Last fall, he played an Irish convict named Ketch in the college’s production of “Our Country’s Good,” which is about a penal colony in Australia.
“I was the only one who had an Irish accent,” said Stephenson, who picked up the accent’s diphthongs and vowel pronunciations by listening to a course taught by dialect coach and theater professor David Allen Stearn on CD.
“It’s something I’ll remember throughout my acting career,” Stephenson said, softening his vowels, dropping his ‘g’s and hardening his consonants as he slipped back into the brogue. “In case I audition and they ask me to pull it out.”
In another Bates production, “The Pillowman,” Stephenson played a writer named Katurian, whose violent short stories are acted out in real life. Detained in an interrogation room, Katurian is beaten and intimidated by police. For those scenes, Stephenson had to pick up a few rules of stage combat.
“It’s all about how to trick the audience to make it look like you’re getting beaten up and thrown around, when in reality you have complete control,” he said.
For example, instead of pulling out Stephenson’s hair, the actor playing the cop places his fist on top of Stephenson’s head. Stephenson then covers the fist with his hands, pushing down on it while making a show of struggling against the cop. But in reality the actor playing the cop has no control over Stephenson.
“There’s no actual pulling,” he said. “It’s all about playing off what the audience expects to see.”
Stephenson hasn’t always spoken in brogue and got beaten up. For his first play, “Voices of the Middle School,” the 11-year-old Stephenson played a middle-schooler trying to ask a girl out on a date. That first role didn’t immediately spark a passion for theater in Stephenson, who said he just enjoyed hanging out with his friends. But it did get him into the habit of acting.
He attended The Grand’s summer theater camp for five years, and joined the show choir and theater program at Ellsworth High School. There, under the tutelage of Jasmine Ireland, Stephenson’s habit became a passion.
“That’s when I really started to get into it,” said Stephenson, whose mother teaches English at Mount Desert Island High School, and whose father teaches math at George Stevens Academy. “The theater department there is very strong. Jasmine Ireland brings a lot of passion to that program; she helps you understand what it means to tell a story on the stage.”
That training led Stephenson to pursue a theater education not just at Bates, but around the world.
“I just love travel,” said the former Ellsworth American paperboy, who went to Budapest with Bates professors to study European theater and film for five weeks in 2015. A theater and French double major, he also is studying in Nantes, France, this semester, and he hopes he can study in Moscow this summer.
“It’s important to see what’s out there and get an idea of the world outside of Maine,” he said.
All that training paid off in productions like “The Pillowman,” where Stephenson memorized two-page monologues and managed the tricky task of being a character and a storyteller on stage. For that role, he was nominated by the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival to compete at the New York-and-north regional competition for the prestigious Irene Ryan Scholarship.
“It’s an honor just to be nominated,” he said. “Unfortunately I’m going to study abroad so I won’t be able to go. There’s always next year.”
Though his goal is to pursue theater as a profession, Stephenson might not end up on the performing side. Last summer, he practiced stagecraft as an apprentice at Williamstown Theatre Festival. He often had to work through the night taking down sets and putting together new ones for plays that would be performed the next day. It was a hard summer, but Stephenson said he gained an appreciation for all the work that goes into production.
He also brushed shoulders with stars such as Meryl Streep and Peter Dinklage, and he got to work on the wardrobe of Wendell Pierce, who played Detective “Bunk” Moreland on the HBO show “The Wire.” And Stephenson also made quite a few friends along the way.
“I made so many connections,” he said. “I could probably couch surf across New York City and sleep on a different couch every night if I wanted to.”
Whether he ends up doing so in New York City or in Chicago — which Stephenson has heard is a good place for a young actor to start out — is anybody’s guess. But wherever he goes, he hopes to do his hometown proud.
“Even in little Ellsworth, Maine, there’s still valuable talent,” he said. “Anybody who’s in high school right now and who wants to pursue a career in acting, it can be done. I don’t really have a career yet, but you can make good strides.”