In a cozy dorm room, a group of Harvard students chat while sipping on sodas. The door bursts open and Nash trips into the room, his steps unsteady and hair disheveled. He’s clad in early-nineties attire and his behavior makes the students suspect he’s drunk. “Can I help you?” one of them asks cautiously.
This scene isn’t lifted from the police blotter: It’s the opening of the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) safety video, which has been shown to first-years annually since its 1990 filming. But HUPD denies responsibility for the kitschy scene. “It was all the kids’ idea,” says Sgt. Brian Lakin.
Although the kids were the brains behind the script, Harvard employees who knew Nash handpicked him to be the psycho on the screen.
“They needed someone to play a really freaky Yale student,” Nash recalls. “And the superintendent of freshman dorms just said, ‘Oh, you have got to get Richard. It’s bizarre to be featured in that way now, though...I can imagine everyone I know at Harvard being like, ‘There’s that idiot 10 years ago.’”
That idiot says the HUPD video did not mark his theatrical debut. During his years as an Adams House resident, Nash received the prestigious Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts, which is awarded to the senior with “the most outstanding artistic talent and achievement.”
What artistic endeavor reaps such a reward? “Well, I remember being naked,” Nash declares as if the statement were a perfect sequitur. “I adapted ‘The Frenzies of Sweeny’ from the long poem by Seamus Heaney. At the end of the performance I was naked in the bottom of the Adams House Pool, on top of a pedestal, illuminated from beneath.” Nash pauses and lets out an amused sigh. “I look up and see my mother, Seamus Heaney and my father all sitting in a row about four feet away,” he says. “When you are hanging there...squatting, naked...you start to wonder if it was such a good idea.”
Whether he won the award despite this performance or as a direct result of it, Nash is grateful for the opportunity he had to pursue cutting-edge theatrics in college. The appreciation was mutual, and Harvard invited him back for the ARTS First Festival in 1998 and later to teach theater in the Freshman Arts Program (FAP). He has since become a favorite character among students and proctors in FAP and has inspired the coinage of such adjectives as “Nashtastic” and “Nashty.”
“It’s hard to understand him at first because he seems scattered and pauses a lot when he speaks,” says FAPper A.J. Wolosenko ’06. “But when you pay attention to him, you realize he knows what he’s talking about.”
When he’s not playing the role of living legend on the Harvard campus, Nash is running Soft Skull Press out of New York City and promoting his upcoming book, Organs of Emotion, a collaboration with visual artist Douglas G. Fitch ’81-’82. He describes the book as “extremely mixed-media. It involves architecture, it involves food, it involves sculpture, painting. It’s the intersection of science and art.” Nash is also developing what he describes as a “huge fucking 1,500-word essay which I hope to turn into a book.”
“People make fun of me for giving Harvard so much credit, but it is truly responsible for giving me an inquisitive mind and so many interesting friends,” Nash says as he puts out his cigarette butt. “I mean, I’m from Ireland...I came to Harvard thinking I was going to go to business school and play rugby. I never thought I would be remembered as an artist.” And he certainly never thought he’d be remembered as a really freaky Yale student.