Nancy Payne Curtis ‘78 has been a one-woman show for 44 years. Her career teaching theater to students at First Colonial High School’s Patriot Playhouse in Virginia Beach, Va., is the realization of a lifelong passion for the performing arts. A student of dance and piano from an early age, Curtis enrolled at Bridgewater College to pursue a music degree. However, a chance encounter with Ralph MacPhail Jr. ’65, Professor of Communication Studies, Theatre and English, Emeritus, her first year changed the trajectory of her life.
“‘Be at Cole Hall at 7 p.m. tonight.’ That’s what he told me while I passed him on campus,” Curtis says. “He was a little man with a waxed handlebar mustache. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but Ralph would soon become one of the most influential teachers I’d ever had. The lessons I learned from him at Bridgewater College shaped my life.”
When Curtis arrived at Cole Hall that night, she found The Pinion Players, Bridgewater College’s student-run theater organization sponsored by MacPhail and his assistant, Hope Power Jopson, wife of Professor of Biology, Emeritus, and coach Harry G.M. “Doc” Jopson. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was the show in production, and Curtis was assigned to run the spotlight.
Her degree path in music changed to add a second major in English, along with a minor in philosophy and religion and every course she could take in theater. The Miser and Our Town were among Curtis’ favorite productions at Bridgewater. She also directed If Men Played Cards as Women Do.
Curtis credits MacPhail and Hope Jopson for her solid theater foundation, specifically their style of teaching that embraces students as collaborators working toward a common goal.
“He didn’t work over us,” Curtis says of MacPhail. “He worked with us. There wasn’t a thing Ralph asked us to do that he wouldn’t have done himself. And I carried that example with me to my own classroom.”
In 1981, Curtis took a position as theater teacher at First Colonial High School. As the director of the school’s Patriot Playhouse, Curtis collaborated with students and staff on an estimated 200 productions. She retired in May 2022.
Curtis recalls a time when a particularly shy student had to sing in front of a small group of people. The student began to cry. Curtis hugged him and provided positive reinforcement and emotional support that allowed him to finish the performance. Years later, that student contacted Curtis to let her know how much that moment meant to him: He had become a professional singer.
“Theater is family,” she says. “The time you put into a production creates a bond that forever connects you to the people you were with. To this day, I remain in contact with many of my former students.”
Among her former students is award-winning Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo. Curtis worked with him on a production of West Side Story at The Patriot Playhouse.
“He was a natural athlete and always very polite and charming,” Curtis says. “After we finished the production, I remember Mark asking me if I thought he was good enough to make acting his career. I told him yes, if he chose to be.”
Curtis, adjunct professor with the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, spends her free time watching any production she can, from Cirque du Soleil to Hadestown. Her passion for the arts—particularly theater—is rooted in its connection to the human experience.
“You can’t understand a culture without its art,” Curtis says. “It’s a reflection of the time where it was produced and the people who produced it. We continue to tell the same stories again and again so we don’t lose the essence of who we are. You can find your power in art. It gives you the ability to change others and to change yourself and to change the world. Art can do all that, especially theater.”
By David Pulgar