Bruce Nelson

Bruce Nelson, here protraying Gidger in "The Violet Hour" at Rep Stage, will receive a Howie Award for Outstanding Artist at the 16th annual Celebration of the Arts on March 23 at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre. (Submitted photo / March 19, 2013)

When Bruce Nelson accepts his Howie Award as Outstanding Artist, it won't be the first time he has walked across the stage at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre. This actor, who estimates he has appeared in around 12 Rep Stage productions on various stages at the college, is no stranger to receiving audience applause there.

And there will be much to applaud during the 16th annual Celebration of the Arts on Saturday, March 23. As a major fund-raising event for the sponsoring Howard County Arts Council, this year's gala is expected to raise $75,000 to $80,000, according to Coleen West, the arts council's executive director.

The gala program bestows Howie Awards for longtime achievement in several categories, has a Rising Stars competition for young performers, and includes entertainment by local performers.

"We're really excited to be on the stage for this gala," says Misako Aoki-Oda, whose Columbia-based Misako Ballet Company will perform a piece titled "A Dance for Sonata #1" as part of that evening's entertainment. Five members of her company are collaborating on this piece with dancer Lester Holmes, choreographer Eva Anderson and pianist Brant Challacombe, all of whom are active participants in the Howard County arts scene. Challacombe also will accompany several of the Rising Stars during their numbers elsewhere in the evening.

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Emcee for the event is Richard W. Story, senior vice president for marketing at JPB Enterprises, Inc.

Howie Award recipients such as Nelson won't have to sing — or dance — for their supper at the gala, but only have to take a bow, make a short speech, bask in the applause and otherwise enjoy the evening.

Nelson's fellow Howie winners are Shawn Costello for Outstanding Arts Educator, Kevin Kelehan for Outstanding Business or Community Supporter, and husband-and-wife Pat and Steve Teller for the Legacy in the Arts Award.

"It's surprising in that I'm not far enough along to have a retrospective kind of award," says Nelson, 47, who lives in Baltimore City. "It's a tremendous honor and underscores my feeling that staying local works."

Bruce Nelson definitely qualifies as a local kid who makes good. This New Jersey native moved to Columbia as a child, graduated from Wilde Lake High School and then from Towson University.

He acknowledges that he really came into his own as an actor with Rep Stage roles in plays including "The Mystery of Irma Vep," "Travels With My Aunt," "The Dazzle," "The Violet Hour," "The Goat," "Hysteria" and "Faith Healer."

"Rep Stage helped with building my career and my acting technique. The shows got such nice notices and I got plum roles," he says.

Nelson singles out one of his frequent directors, Kasi Campbell, for helping him develop as an actor at Rep Stage. He observes that working regularly with a particular company enables "you to develop a shorthand with the people you're working with and have a real connected feeling."

Initially known as a comedian, Nelson has become more versatile with his roles. He's currently a company member at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore, where he has continued to expand his comic and dramatic range.

Nelson also has been gaining recognition for lead roles at Center Stage in Baltimore, where he portrayed Edgar Allan Poe in a play last fall; and where he'll appear this fall in the Captain Spaulding role associated with Groucho Marx in the 1928 musical comedy "Animal Crackers."

In the Baltimore-Washington corridor, Nelson has performed with other companies including Woolly Mammoth, Folger Theatre, Olney Theater Center, Baltimore Shakespeare Festival and Signature Theatre.

Nelson recently formed a business called Stage Presence to assist business leaders in improving their presentation skills. He teaches at Stevenson University, and formerly taught at schools including Howard Community College; and he formerly worked as a theater teacher in Howard County with Project Access and All-County Improv.

Doing 'what has to be done'

If Bruce Nelson is a middle-aged actor still building his legacy, the Howie winners in this year's Legacy in the Arts category have been around a lot longer. Indeed, Pat and Steve Teller have been involved in theater for 42 years. It all began when Steve had a government job in Germany and Pat auditioned for "The Subject Was Roses" at the Frankfort Army Playhouse. She acted and did jobs at the front of the theater, he worked backstage, and it led to subsequent on-stage roles together.

Flash forward to life in Maryland and the couple appeared as actors with companies including Laurel Stagecrafters and the Gingerbread Players.

These Elkridge residents have been active with theater in Howard County for the last 27 years, including a long stint with the Columbia Community Players. They eventually appeared less often as actors and more often in house management capacities, with Pat typically handling reservations and ticketing, and Steve doing everything from building sets to hanging lights.