When I was in my final years of college, and for several seasons after, I spent my summers with the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. The outdoor theatre is a wonderful replica of Shakespeare's Globe, and informs the actor tremendously as to how the text should be approached. I tended to play roles with lots of soliloquies. It was evident from the beginning that I had to speak directly to the audience. Anything else would have been a lie. Perhaps my favorite role was Richard III. At the top of the show the director, Howard Jensen, had placed me behind an enormous banner, which I tore down leaving me face-to-face with 900 people in full daylight. It was an amazing feeling seeing them all so clearly. It's something most actors are unaccustomed to. The audience became a character in the play, an ever-changing acting partner. My goal was to enlist them, to seduce them-- to convince them that I had a more effective and, yes, more entertaining way of dealing with life than they did. To persuade them, in short, that evil works. In the final act, Richard, having killed or alienated everyone in his court, has only the audience to turn to. However, as the sun went down, the audience slowly disappeared into the darkness, robbing me of my only remaining confidante. By the end of the play, just as Shakespeare intended, Richard III was alone.
I got my start dancing with the Kenley Players in Ohio. John Kenley was the producer and he had three large venues in Columbus, Dayton, and Warren. We would rehearse for a week and play each theatre for a week. Mr. Kenley loved giving Ohio dancers their professional debuts. One of my first shows was Anything Goes starring Ann Miller and Bobby Van. As a young dancer, it was a great education to watch Ann and Bobby in rehearsal. Both were approachable, which made the experience all the nicer. Of course, dancing on stage with them was amazing. Mr. Kenley hired a diverse group of show business stars to headline his productions. Where else could a young dancer share the stage with names such as Cyd Charisse, Carol Lawrence, Juliet Prowse -- even the sex symbol Mamie Van Doren? I was fortunate to have danced with them all and only wish that today's young dancers could have the same experience and fun.
I was fortunate there was summer stock at my college, Moorhead State University in Minnesota. The Straw Hat Players paid a small salary -- a couple hundred bucks for the summer. We did eight productions in 10 weeks, working 12-16 hour days, seven days a week. I worked every summer through my college years and after. I was never happier because it was an amazing training ground where out of necessity you learned all aspects of theater. In the old tried and true tradition of summer stock, we built, dressed, and painted the sets. When you weren't acting, you were doing lights, sound, props, costumes, hair, crew, plus ushering. Once a week there was "Strike Night" which was pure torture -- it meant tearing down the massive set (sometimes we had multiple sets and the designs were amazing) and putting up the new one. Strike would start after the show on Saturday, around 11pm., and ended 14 hours later after repainting the stage floor so the cast for the next show could begin rehearsing at 1pm. It was an invaluable experience and entrenched in me a deep respect for absolutely everyone working in theater.
Growing up in Eagan, Minnesota I did a lot of summer theater while I was in high school =- all directed by Dennis Swanson, who did all our high school plays. Mom and Dad were very supportive. They were musical. Mom played piano and sang; dad played guitar. There was an added pleasure in doing such shows as Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and The Music Man, because I talked Dad into doing them. We always had fun, even though I was mostly in the ensemble. Peter Pan was my favorite because I was Peter! I got to fly! I also had lines in The Music Man, portraying Zaneeta Shinn. At 16, I played the oldest daughter, Martha Cratchit, in A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie. Hurrah! I got my Equity card!
My first summer stock experience was for a touring production of My Fair Lady starring Michael Allinson and Susan Watson. I was one of eight ensemble members who played the buskers, aristocrats at the ball and Ascot, and Professor Higgins' housekeeping staff. There were no separate singing and dancing choruses. We sang, danced, executed cartwheels and handsprings, and spoke in British and cockney accents. We traveled New England, staying in cabins and old hotels, playing everywhere from the Cape Cod Melody Tent to the Guilford Playhouse in Laconia, New Hampshire. It was a terrific cast and a great first show for my entry into live theater. The locales and smiling audience faces were the icing on the cake -- even with the mosquitoes. I was in heaven!