La Nina, A Triple Threat
Not every Protocol Officer is a triple threat. Nina Harris, however, is a triple threat because, as they say in show business, she can act, sing, and dance. She began performing as an international folk dancer at the age of 13 and performed “at a gazillion Octoberfests.” Explains Harris, “After living in Munich, my father returned to the states to work as a NASA engineer. He and my mother also taught German and Austrian folk dances for over 50 years.” Harris’ parents started one of the first German dance groups in the country specializing in schuplattling, which she describes as “a national ethic dance of Bavaria. The men wear lederhosen, which are leather pants with suspenders, and the women wear a dirndl, or a peasant dress. Picture ‘The Sound of Music.’” Harris later joined the University of Maryland’s International Folk Dance Group, which broadened her repertoire.
Harris began working at Goddard after college. One day, Dr. Jaylee Mead
, a co-founder of Goddard’s Music and Drama (MAD) productions with her husband Dr. Gil Mead, stopped by her office and said, “I hear you’re a dancer.” Just like that, Harris was recruited for MAD productions. She first appeared as a dancer in their 1979 production of “Bells Are Ringing.” Thirty years later, Harris is still performing with MAD. “I got the theater bug,” she says. “I got intrigued watching the leads. I wanted to be an actress too.” She began taking voice lessons. Soon she got her first supporting role in “Mame” in the early 80s. In 1988, she landed her first lead role as Charity in MAD’s production of “Sweet Charity” and has been acting ever since.
She has acted in dozens of productions over the years. Her two favorite roles were as Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” and as Charity in “Sweet Charity.” Explains Harris, “They are both classic Broadway theater. I liked that both characters were funny and had a lot of heart.” Her most challenging role was that of Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.” Says Harris, “Fanny Brice was a demanding role vocally because she was on stage all the time, in almost every scene, and she had numerous songs to sing.” In fact, Harris developed laryngitis so severe that she was only able to perform in three of her eight shows. Remembers Harris, “Luckily, when my voice suddenly gave out, the other Fanny, the Office of Communications’ Erica Drezek, was in the audience and took over without the audience knowing the difference.”
Although Harris enjoys singing and dancing, she prefers acting. “It is the most fun because I get to explore the inner me. I get to build and develop a character from nothing,” she explains.
Harris says, “Community theater is a great creative outlet.” Her favorite places to perform are with MAD at Goddard and at the Bowie Community Theater, because she lives in Bowie.
She does not have a photographic memory; she learns her lines the old-fashioned way, she memorizes them. Explains Harris, “When you are learning dance steps, you are using motor memory. But when you memorize lines, it is done through repetition and practice. I read the lines over and over again just as I did to learn my spelling words in school.” An actor’s worst nightmare is forgetting the lines. Harris says that you have to improvise if you or your scene partner forgets lines. “Not only do you have to know your own lines,” furthers Harris, “you also have to know those of your scene partner.” She believes that you have to train and exercise your brain to learn the lines much as you train your body by going to the gym. “The mind is a muscle you need to use to keep fit,” she concludes.
Her ability to memorize has served her well during theater emergencies. Several years ago, a cast member had to drop out of a lead role in “Dancing at Lughnasa” a mere two weeks before opening night. Although Harris was the choreographer and not even in the cast, the director asked Harris to assume the role because she was the only person who could learn the part in such a short amount of time. Needless to say, Harris came through.
As for why, after thirty years, Harris remains motivated, she says, “Community theater is a labor of love because none of us are paid. What is wonderful about it is that you develop camaraderie and a close knit family among your theater friends who, in the case of MAD, are also your work colleagues.” Harris concludes, “Theater has given me a tremendous sense of self-confidence, self-esteem, and a sense of belonging. We share the same passion and support each other in a mutual endeavor that brings all of us, including the audience, joy and a sense of accomplishment.”
Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.