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King Henry VIII Returns to Life

Behind this regal persona is a man of many faces

(photo by Amy Davis) Anne Boleyn (Heather Howard O'Shaugnessy) and King Henry VIII (Fred Nelson).
     It’s opening weekend at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, when the magical 16th century English village of Revel Grove awakens for its annual harvest festival — attended as always by the magnanimous Henry VIII, portrayed by Glen Burnie’s own Fred ­Nelson.
     Heads turn as the entourage approaches. King Henry VIII, courtiers in tow, has come to the countryside to visit the faire. 
      His Majesty is resplendent in glorious red and a feather-flourished Tudor hat. Behind him, her somber dress fading into the background, hovers his beleaguered Queen Catherine of Aragon.
     “I want to have fun!” proclaims His Majesty. “Therefore, we shall perform a masque, a theater piece.” In the blink of an eye, Good King Henry becomes Satan, dark lord of the underworld. Cardinal Wolsey, the toadying man at his side, transforms into his bumbling sidekick, that little minion Pug. Together they perform a scene from Ben Jonson’s 17th century play The Devil Is an Ass.
The Man Inside the King
     Fred Nelson never does just one thing at a time. He’s the proverbial Jack-of-all-trades, balancing multiple jobs, plying his skills as an actor, director, TV editor and producer. 
     Like so many of us, Nelson works nine to five on weekdays. Yet the beast within screams for the excitement, the merriment and the buzz of live theater. This time of year, thanks to a performance audition gone right, Nelson channels his inner imp to the Maryland ­RennFest in Crownsville, where he slips into the period role of King Henry VIII.
     For Nelson, now 54, it all started on the island of Guam.
     As a military son, he’d grown up in faraway lands. He came of age in Guam during an extended residence of more than two decades.
     “I was a young man living on a small island,” Nelson says. “My attention span was short. Nothing I did during those years prepared me for what I’m doing now.” 
     Yet in a way, everything did. 
     While attending the University of Guam, Nelson took theater courses and dabbled in community theater. On nights and weekends, he worked as a radio disc jockey; he claims he was “horrible” on the air. But then he discovered the production room, where he could work with sound effects, pump up the drama, then edit and turn out a polished piece. Soon he was laying out voice tracks for radio and TV commercials.
     “Because I’d done theater,” Nelson says, “I’d developed an innate sense of what worked — what sold.” 
     Nelson made a name for himself in Guam. So much so that in 1998, prior to his move to Northern Virginia, Guam’s Lt. Gov. Madeleine Bordallo (now the U.S. Congresswoman representing the territory) presented him with the Ancient Order of the Chamorri. Nelson is now a legitimate cultural ambassador of Guam.
     Once settled in Manassas, he became an editor for a K Street lobbying firm in D.C. Since then, he’s moved among jobs for the Census Bureau and the U.S. Courts. He’s also picked up civilian contracts doing voice-overs, TV commercials and videos.
     Through it all, Nelson’s never lost touch with the theater. In 2002, following the wrap of a Shakespearean play in which he’d starred, a woman invited him to an audition. “I had no idea she was Carolyn Spedden, casting director for the Maryland Renaissance Festival,” Nelson says. 
     Within days of the audition came the summons. The Maryland Renaissance Festival had found its new King Henry VIII for the 2003 season. He’s worked the festival ever since.
     In 2005, Nelson relocated to Glen Burnie. “I like the atmosphere here and being close to the fairgrounds for rehearsals,” he says. Since that time, he’s also married Sascha, who nurtures him through long performance days.
King Henry Presides
     All the world’s a stage during the nine-weekend season of the RennFest, when the forests and glens of Crownsville transform into the magical kingdom of Henry VIII.
     Each year, the festival storyline progresses along the timeline and reign of King Henry VIII. 
     This year, says Nelson, it’s 1527. His Majesty has been married for some time to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. The couple has a living daughter, but in Henry’s mind, Mary doesn’t count; he’s aching for a legitimate male heir. 
     Enter fair courtier Anne Boleyn. Henry is smitten. Concluding his marriage is cursed because he’s wed his brother’s wife, he drops the bomb on Catherine, telling her their marriage is to be annulled. Her tragedy makes huge, wonderful drama at RennFest.
     That’s not all. There’s more history to be learned, more Henry to enjoy during extravaganzas like the Royal Feast, the Court’s Court and the Final Joust. In a short theater piece called Love Letters, Henry and new love Anne Boleyn read the letters they exchanged in real life, using original 16th-century pronunciation — a mixture of Irish and Scottish.
The Curtain Never Falls
     Come mid-October, once the Renaissance Festival finishes its season, Nelson keeps commuting to his day job at the U.S. Census Bureau in D.C. and assuaging those rapscallions of his via the magic of community theater.
     In June, he directed Mary Poppins for 2nd Star Productions, which earned Bay Weekly reviewer Jane Elkins’ praise as “the best community musical” she’s ever seen. Nelson regularly wins awards for excellence in community theater.
Whether directing, acting, editing or producing, Fred Nelson, this master multi-tasker, always reaches for the stars. 
    “I like to tell folks that I started out as a bad DJ,” Nelson says, “and worked my way up to Henry VIII.”