Richmond’s Fresh Face of the Arts

    Meet Virginia Rep’s Nathaniel Shaw

    1421
    0

    Nathaniel Shaw might not have chosen a career in theatre if his older brother, Matthew Keuter, hadn’t told him about all the fun the choir and theatre kids were having in junior high school.

    “I joined the choir because he told me to,” Nathaniel says of his brother, who was two-and-a-half years older and finishing junior high. “I started doing musicals and summer camps, and I never stopped. If there was an entry point, that was it – Matthew saying that to me.”

    Today, Nathaniel, thirty-seven, who just moved his family to Richmond from New Jersey, is the artistic director at Virginia Repertory Theatre, occupying the spot that Bruce Miller held since the launch of the original theatre company, Theatre IV, in 1975. In 2012, Virginia Rep was formed with the merger of Barksdale Theatre (established in 1953) and Theatre IV. “It’s a good fit,” says Virginia Rep’s managing director, Phil Whiteway, about bringing Nathaniel in to fill a founding partner’s shoes. “Through the various interviews we conducted with staff and the board, he convinced us he was the top choice and right fit for the job, given his credentials and background, along with his ties to creating new work.”

    Nathaniel Shaw is Virginia Rep’s new artistic director. He and his family, wife Lisa, and sons Benjamin and baby Caleb, recently moved to Richmond from New Jersey.
    Nathaniel Shaw is Virginia Rep’s new artistic director. He and his family, wife Lisa, and sons Benjamin and baby Caleb, recently moved to Richmond from New Jersey.

    Nathaniel is more than a triple threat in the theatre world. He performed in a multitude of roles with various companies during his career, including Will Parker in Oklahoma!, the Emcee in Cabaret, Zach in A Chorus Line, and Riff in West Side Story. In addition to his work in the theatre, he danced for three years with the world-renowned Paul Taylor Dance Company.

    On Broadway, he served as an associate choreographer for the Tony Award-winning musical Once. His directing credits include everything from West Side Story and A Chorus Line to South Pacific and Hair. He made his Richmond debut in the fall of 2015 directing Peter and the Starcatcher for Virginia Rep.

    Prior to his current position, Nathaniel worked as development director with the Tony and Olivier Award-winning Glass Half Full Productions, and was responsible for sourcing new projects. He was also artistic director of the Active Theater in New York for six years.

    The Early Days

    Born in Menlo Park, California, Nathaniel and his family moved to Mesa, Arizona, when he was eight years old. His parents, Cliff Keuter and Elina Mooney, were modern dancers who taught on the dance faculty of Arizona State University. “As a little kid, I told my dad ‘I want to be exactly like you, but not a dancer,’” Nathaniel recalls. “My parents were the most laissez-faire parents in the history of parenting. They gave us all the love and support to do what we wanted. They permitted us to explore when we were curious. They let us find our way.”

    It’s take-your-baby-to-work day at Virginia Rep. Nathaniel and Benjamin clown around in the balcony at November Theatre.
    It’s take-your-baby-to-work day at Virginia Rep. Nathaniel and Benjamin clown around in the balcony at November Theatre.

    Back then, both dance and theatre were the farthest things from his young mind. Growing up, he was obsessed with sports, spending his time playing soccer, basketball, baseball, and tennis. “I thought my destiny was to play point guard for the Lakers,” Nathaniel says with a grin. “But I am about 5-feet-10 and moderately quick, with moderate jumping ability. My best sport was soccer, but my love was basketball.” That’s something he hopes to follow as a fan here in Richmond.

    Matthew Keuter remembers that his younger brother was very competitive at that age. “Nathaniel was very gifted physically. We spent countless hours playing basketball and throwing Frisbees,” he says. “Athletics is the first place his work ethic emerged. He’s a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done kind of person. He’s a hard worker.”

    Unlike most brothers, there was no sibling rivalry between Matthew and Nathaniel. “We are just pals and grew up that way and have stayed that way. We had a great time together,” Matthew says. “Nathaniel is one of the best people I know. He has an incredibly generous spirit.”

    Nathaniel’s love of sports shifted to a passion for the arts in junior high school. He was fifteen when he recognized that dance was a skill he was going to need. “It was my love of musical theatre that got me dancing,” he says.

    He had a natural aptitude for performing, his brother says. “We grew up around performance and the arts, so it wasn’t foreign.”

    Nathaniel caught the theatre bug when he performed in his first musical, Guys and Dolls, in eighth grade. The following year, he played Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Nathaniel says a talented young man named Michael Rosenthaler had been cast as Joseph in the show. “About a month or so before the show, he was in a car accident. I can so clearly remember our junior high drama teacher looking at me and saying ‘Will you do it?’ It was an incredibly dramatic moment in the life of a ninth grader.”

    Nathaniel’s passion for the arts was fueled at University of Northern Colorado where he majored in musical theatre, was cast in a main stage musical every semester, and danced with the school’s touring dance company. One of his most important experiences as an actor was playing the Emcee in Cabaret. “It forced me to really break down barriers and break through inhibitions as a performer,” he says. “It was a necessary step.”

    During his senior year in college, he directed a production of Hair. “That helped me

    Virginia Rep’s Peter and the Starcatcher charmed Central Virginia audiences in 2015. It was Nathaniel’s trial run directing for 
the company.
    Virginia Rep’s Peter and the Starcatcher charmed Central Virginia audiences in 2015. It was Nathaniel’s trial run directing for 
the company.

    understand all of the details that go into creating a show from the other side of the table,” he says.

    He finds directing to be freeing because the focus is “no longer about you,” he says, explaining that as a director, you are not just bringing one character to life on stage like an actor does. “It’s about whether or not the image in front of you is speaking to the audience and communicating the message we have agreed on delivering. You are leading a large collaborative effort.”

    Life in the Big Apple

    In 2001, Nathaniel moved to New York City and worked as a freelance actor/dancer/singer. “Being an actor who is diligently pursuing the business takes a great deal of courage,” he says. “All actors on every level face a hundred times the amount of rejection than they do acceptance. Every so often, they get the reward of doing the work.”

    He freelanced for about three years before the Paul Taylor Dance Company snatched him up for three seasons, from 2004 to 2006. As part of the company, he performed on legendary stages, such as Lincoln Center, and toured nationally and internationally.

    “My dad was in the company in the 1960s,” he says proudly. “We were the only parent-child combo to pass through Paul Taylor Dance Company.”

    Even though he was a skilled dancer, Nathaniel still gravitated toward theatre, not the concert dance world. “What I get excited about is emotionally charged storytelling,” he says. “It can be either a play or musical or anything in between. It can come in the form of Oklahoma! or Hamilton. These stories are relevant to the moment they were written, but their relevance carries on from generation to generation.”

    Nathaniel danced with Paul Taylor Dance Company before opting for the stage for musical theatre and directing.
    Nathaniel danced with Paul Taylor Dance Company before opting for the stage for musical theatre and directing.

    Nathaniel went back to freelance acting after his dance career and was cast in shows across the country, including playing Will Parker at the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City during the state’s centennial celebration. “They were doing everything they could to make it [Oklahoma] a smash hit,” he says. “My agent at the time was saying I had to do it because it was starring Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase [who appeared in ABC’s Nashville] but I was thinking ‘Ugh – do I really want to do that?’”

    During his first week of rehearsals with the other leads, he “realized what a finely crafted, brilliantly structured play it is,” he says. “Many of these iconic musicals are legendary for a reason – because they are beautifully crafted. They are emotionally charged and emotionally accessible stories.” Those are the types of stories he wants to bring to Virginia Rep, everything from classics to new works and world premieres.

    Chance Meeting

    Nathaniel met his wife, Lisa Rumbauskas, a dancer/actress and choreographer, in 2007 when both were appearing in West Side Story at a dinner theatre in Akron, Ohio. “Lisa’s family had teased her about meeting the man of her dreams in Ohio,” Nathaniel says, noting the two were attracted to each other from the very beginning. Unfortunately, Nathaniel seriously sprained his ankle in rehearsal and had to leave the show. “Whatever was there was cut off abruptly,” he says.

    Lisa remembers meeting Nathaniel in the lobby of the hotel where the actors were staying. “He was sitting and I was standing looking down at him – but just barely because I’m so short,” she says. “ I didn’t initially think, ‘Oh, this guy is really handsome or cute.’  I remember thinking very vividly ‘I will remember this moment for the rest of my life.’ It was very certain. I always say to Nathaniel that if past lives exist, I must have recognized him in
    that moment.”

    As fate would have it, the same director who directed West Side Story, Marc Robins, hired the two to dance a pas de deux later that summer in a production of Most Happy Fella in Chicago. “We were the only two people brought in from out of town for that production,” Nathaniel says. “Marc likes to take credit for us being together, and that’s fair enough, I think. He deserves credit for making it happen. The rest is history.”

    Lisa will never forget the couple’s first kiss. It was on July 15, 2007. “We had to kiss during the first rehearsal for the show because we kiss in the show,” she says. “It was very embarrassing. I just kept giggling.”

    The two married in 2011 after surviving a long-distance relationship. “We never went longer than three weeks without seeing each other,” Lisa says. “Now, we do whatever works.”

    She describes her husband as a “really good man who just wants to be the best he can be. He’ll stop at nothing to make that happen,” she says. “He wants the best for us, his family.”

    Nathaniel and Lisa have two children – Benjamin is two-and-a-half, and Caleb is five months old. Benjamin and Nathaniel play like “maniacs,” Lisa says. “Benjamin sees characters from Peter Rabbit, and Nathaniel plays like he sees them, too. Nathaniel is very sensitive to our sons’ feelings. He takes care of them.”

    He is also committed to the team concept of parenting. “When I met him, one of my initial thoughts was that I would like for him to be the father of my children,” Lisa says. “It has proven to be a good decision.”

    Nathaniel likes the fact that when they’re grown, his children will be able to look back at their father and say, “Against very challenging odds, he pursued what he was passionate about and had a career he was passionately invested in,” he says, noting that his days at work can be very long, especially when he’s in rehearsals. “I could be working from nine in the morning to eleven at night with regularity, and that is a challenge for parenting.”

    Through it all, being a father and a husband are his proudest achievements. “The greatest driving force in my life is my family,” he says.

    Richmond Here We Come

    Nathaniel got serious about directing in 2010 after starting The Active Theater Company in New York and becoming confident in the role of director. His entry to Richmond theatre came after his work on the Broadway show Once, which gave him a “Broadway stamp of approval,” he says. “It helped open doors with my freelance directing career.”

    Bruce Miller, who was a huge fan of Once, hired Nathaniel to direct Peter and the Starcatcher for Virginia Rep. Richmond actor Robert Throckmorton, who played Bumbrake and Teacher in the production, loved that Nathaniel’s direction allowed for collaboration. “Directors have such a difficult line to walk,” Throckmorton says. “They have to be super-prepared and specific in what they want. They also have to be highly open and collaborative to take an artist’s point of view. He does both really well.”

    He quickly learned that Nathaniel was committed to the art of telling a story. “There are some pieces that speak to you, and it was clear this resonated with him, and he passed on that passion to us,” he says. “I was in tears in the read-through after he said why it was important to him, and why the play was written. I became invested in it.”

    After his stint directing at Virginia Rep, Nathaniel realized this was the right place for his career and his family. “You couldn’t find two more dedicated leaders than Bruce and Phil,” he says. “Their integrity, their dedication to the community, and their heart have permeated the culture of Virginia Rep. Everyone on the staff who I got to know through Peter, and everyone I am so fortunate to work with, conducts business from those same ideals. I want to be with people who care for each other.”

    He firmly believes that live performance not only has a way of moving people, but also has a way of teaching people. “You are actually living in and sharing space with the storyteller. You are breathing the same air,” he says. “I want Virginia Rep to be that way, and I believe it is. This is a hub of lifelong learning from the youngest of kids all the way through our oldest patrons who have been kept young at heart because of their involvement in the arts.”

    Through its theatre productions for youth, Virginia Rep has been successful in talking to young people about difficult subjects. Nathaniel feels that every young person, whether challenged by economics or a sensory, social, or learning disability, should have an equal opportunity to be impacted by the arts. “Theatre, in addition to entertaining, can create a safe space to engage in challenging conversations that affect young people, ranging from our Hugs and Kisses program, which is our child sexual abuse prevention program, to what a young person has to go through to fit in at school,” he says.

    Nathaniel often considers himself an anomaly in the theatre world. He works in a very social business, for example, but doesn’t drink, and, in fact, has never had a drink. He says his success stems from his penchant for hard work. He’s fond of the phrase “patient persistence” to describe his work ethic.

    “I am doggedly persistent about things, and try to work with the patience necessary to allow things to come to fruition in their appropriate times,” he says, adding, “I think I am a pretty open book. At times, I may be too much of an open book.”

    Richmond families will have a chance to get a read on him as he takes the artistic reins at Virginia Rep.