Reflections on finding peace and magic in the middle of…


The Thespian Artiste

Pudding. Can’t have any.


In her book Yes,Please Amy Phoeler writes a chapter about nominations. Not presidential nominations, award nominations. Specifically, Emmy nominations. In the chapter titled “Gimme That Pudding,” She uses “pudding” as a code word for those awards- SAGS, Emmys, Oscars, Tonys, Grammys, etc.

In Yes, Please, Amy (I call her Amy because I think she is my long-lost best friend) talks about a year when she was nominated for an Emmy but didn’t win:

“The following year I was breast-feeding a six-week-old Abel. I was too tired to think of bits but my hormones were telling me to just jump onstage and grab the award before they announced the winner. Luckily I had enough oxytocin floating around in my body that I didn’t care or notice who won. (Edie Falco.) Jimmy Fallon hosted and crushed. I sat in the front row and heckled the after-party with what Tina referred to as my impressive ‘temporary rack.’ I broke my toe on the banquette I was dancing on. That’s right. ON. I acted like the blue-collar party machine I had been raised to be.”


I love her description of the appetite for pudding- you didn’t have a craving, you don’t even know you want pudding. Until suddenly it’s there in front of you, and everyone else seems to be having some. But you’re not allowed. Then suddenly all you want is a big ass bowl of the creamy, yummy, sweet pudding.

In my world, there are a couple of bowls of pudding, and this week one of them released this year’s nominations. I didn’t get one. All of my regular social circle did (If they were eligible).

This particular bowl of pudding is the community theatre flavor. It’s kind of weird, like tapioca pudding. Made up of lots of regular folks who work regular jobs and do theatre as a hobby, it’s meant to be a great refuge for the world-weary artist. Quite a number of us have theatre degrees or experience in the professional regional theatres, but also there are lots of folks who don’t have credentials but bring lots of  talent and/or passion to the proverbial boards.

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I consider myself an artist, a creative type who is, essentially, not competitive. After years in my educational theatre world, in a large Texan metropolitan area, I became disenchanted with the concept of student actors and technicians competing against others for accolades. In the educational theatre arena, kids come from all different walks of life. Some start way ahead of the game because their families have abundant education and resources and can put little Sally or Sam in dance, voice, and actor training when they are small. In my particular school, however, parents were often struggling just to afford a roof and shoes for the kids. Dance lessons and participation in a student musical that cost $300-$500 was not in their universe. Not even close. We participated for several years in my other big bowl of pudding, a competition in which high school musicals were pitted against each other for trophies and bragging rights. Invariably, the acting, production, and overall gold shinies went to the big schools, the mammoth ones with thousands (I am not exaggerating) of kids in the student bodies, hundreds of kids in the fine arts departments, huge parent booster organizations, and budgets of upwards of $20,000. Those schools also had very well connected directors. Insiders, ya know? We did get technical nominations four out of five years, and I was over the moon when I received my one nomination for directing.

But after it was all over, I felt so disappointed for my students. And yes, for myself. I knew how hard we had worked: the many hours of teaching a dance chorus in which no member had ever had a day in a dance class, the late nights sewing costumes myself because there was no one else to do it, the remarkable voice teacher who worked without pay, the kids who could only rehearse on certain days because of the limitations of their family’s gas budget. Nominations and medals don’t account for that stuff.

I withdrew from any further involvement in the competition. I wanted to just focus on growth, on art, on teaching, on joy, without worrying about trophies.

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I believe community theatre should be the same way. We aren’t in it for the money, heaven knows. We are in it for love of the work. For love of our cast and crew mates. For love of our towns. The directors who are going to do their best work are going to do it, whether they get a trophy or not. Same for the actors, or the ones wielding needle and thread or hammer and nail.

In educational or community ensembles, when we creative theatre types pit ourselves against each other, relationships are damaged. The beauty of the work becomes tarnished. Confidence and the courage to take risks is eroded. Yes, ticket sales matter. Absolutely, the director has to do what’s best for the play. No, everyone doesn’t always make the cast list. But after weeks, even months, of work calls and late rehearsals, postshow photos with proud family members in the lobby, banged up knees and tired throats, the gleam of pride in a show well produced shouldn’t have to be validated by a trophy. The people who weren’t invited to the planning table shouldn’t be left outside the nomination circle (the people who are invited to the planning table shouldn’t be eligible for awards, either). Amy says: “You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 19:  Actor Jon Hamm and actress Amy Poehler attends the 15th Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards with presenting sponsor Lacoste at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 19, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for CDG)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA – FEBRUARY 19: Actor Jon Hamm and actress Amy Poehler attends the 15th Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards with presenting sponsor Lacoste at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 19, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for CDG)

Amy and Jon Hamm have hosted a “Losers Party,” at which the attendees who have won Emmys have to donate to charity to get in, but the losers get in free. My husband suggests that we do a big “Losers Toast” after our event this year, and the winners have to buy the losers drinks. And I say the nominees who lose can buy those of us who are just there for the ride drinks. Hey! I think I am onto something. I know which gal is getting the most plastered that night.


Note- I highly recommend Amy’s book. It’s a treasure. Rolling Stone thinks so, too, and here’s a link to the book on amazon:

On Golden Pond

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This week, I began my journey to Golden Pond. I had seen the audition dates months ago, and in a rare case of wanting to do a show badly enough to make sure I remembered the dates, I put the audition dates on my calendar. Circumstances out of my control took me out of town on the weekend of the audition dates, so I told myself that I clearly was not meant to do the show, that I had never worked with this director, so he probably wouldn’t cast me anyway, that my high school reunion conflicted with one of the show dates so I would just go to my reunion instead, that the 45 minute drive to the theatre was too much trouble.

Then I found out auditions had been postponed for a week.

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I spent several days reciting all the reasons above and skipped the first night of auditions. On Monday, I posted on Facebook about my struggle and asked for advice: audition or high school reunion? The overwhelming response was “Audition!” So I did. Most of my friends are theatre folks, they totally get how doing a show can trump just about anything, and my high school and college friends know that I have always been a performer first, so they probably weren’t too surprised!

Auditions are hard for me. I don’t get stage fright on opening night, but at auditions I can barely breathe and I keep having to dash to the ladies’ room. Auditions are scary because you’re being judged, you may not have seen the script, you’re sometimes partnered with folks who are not helping you be your best, and if it’s an open audition, everybody there is watching.

But I did pretty well, I thought. I remembered my Shurtleff guideposts, thought through the relationship/objective/obstacle/tactic mantra, and tried to use the breath like my teacher said to. If I ever felt disconnected from the character, Chelsea, I just visualized my mom. That did the trick.

On Tuesday, I tried not to strain to hear the ring of my phone. It didn’t ring the entire day at work, nor on the drive home. When it finally did ring, I missed the call! I called the stage manager back, and she asked if I could come for a call back.

Last night’s call back was nerve wracking: me and one other lovely lady, both reading with the actress who had been cast as Ethel, the mother. My competition was pretty, tall and willowy with a sharp pixie cut and a cute dress. I recited my mantra while she did her reading, then went on stage.

Magic happens on stage. True magic. If you’re an actor, you know that sensation. Suddenly, the story takes over. If it’s a good script, the playwright’s words dig deep and a well of emotion springs forth. Sometimes laughter, sometimes tears. If you’re lucky enough to be on stage with actors who know how to connect with their scene partners, it’s exhilarating. I was lucky.

Last night, after I got the call that I had been cast, I got a Facebook message from my stage father saying he was looking forward to the show. He and I used to work together teaching theatre, and it was a rough relationship. I am both excited and nervous about that- this play may be instrumental in closing that chapter.And I just got off the phone with my stage mommy, a local actress I have wanted to share the stage with for quite some time. She wanted to let me know how excited she is that we are going to be working together. It’s always nice to work with folks who are giving.

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I am looking forward to working on this script. My relationship with my own father was not fraught with the antagonism and misunderstandings that Norman and Chelsea face. But my mother’s relationship with her own father was. She was ever the little girl, trying to be pretty and thin enough to please him, still chasing softballs to earn his praise until she just couldn’t physically play any more. I think this play will help me get into my poor, damaged, addicted, deceased mom’s head and heart just a little.

I bet I’ll cry more than once. And I think I will learn something about myself. I think Ethel’s words to embittered Chelsea will resonate deeply for me:

“Don’t you think that everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret about something?  It doesn’t have to ruin your life.”

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Plays can heal. Relationships can be mended. Hearts can be opened. Family can be made. Right, fellow Thayers and Thespians? I love what actress Juliet Binoche says about the power of theatre to create connections:”Choosing to be in the theatre was a way to put my roots down somewhere with other people. It was a way to choose a new family.”

What’s coming? I don’t know. Late rehearsals, exhaustion, sweat, tears, bright lights, these I know will happen. But there’s a whole world of exploration, revelation, and love to come.

Somewhere between Laurie and Aunt Eller

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Anyone out there seen the classic and hilarious film, “Waiting for Guffman?” It is the perfect spoof of the unique world of community theatre. Travel agents, a Dairy Queen cashier, and a dentist all come together to create a piece of performance art for the delight of local citizens. In community theatre, a bunch of oddballs can become minor celebrities, recognized at the Piggly Wiggly like local versions of Patti Lupone or Hugh Jackman.: “Didn’t I see you in…?” “Why, yes! yes, I did play Rosie in Bye, Bye, Birdie! It was so much fun, thank you for coming to support us!”

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Rosie Alvarez, Bye Bye Birdie, Ace Theatre, 2006

I love community theatre. It’s chock-a-block full of regular folks who love theatre, but for whatever reason, don’t make it a profession. For some (like me), marriage and stability were a better option than the gamble of New York, Chicago, or L.A. For others, they discover their creative side later in life and volunteering at their local community theatre is the most accessible route to artistic expression. For others, the community theatre becomes a surrogate family, a place to let your quirky imagination out to play without the judgement of straitlaced cubicle mates.

I have spent most of my adult life in rehearsal at the community theatre house for one musical or another. In my 30’s, I had the chance to play dream roles like Marian the Librarian, Sarah Brown, Julie Jordan, Nellie Forbush, and Annie Oakley. I have sung the great ballads, from “Moonshine Lullaby” (Annie Get Your Gun) to “How Could I Know” (Secret Garden). I’ve performed Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin, and Sondheim.

Moving into my 40’s, the roles began to be harder to come by, though I have had the utter joy of playing The Chaperone (Drowsy Chaperone) and Joanne (Company). Community theatres like to play it safe. They have aging audiences, and they are afraid of alienating them. Chestnuts by Rodgers/Hammerstein or Lerner/Loewe are proven ticket sellers. I get that, I really do. But younger audiences (and by younger, I mean 55 on down- not exactly spring chickens) like to see shows written sometime after 1980. I know- it’s radical to imagine doing a show that’s got thirty years on it, instead of sixty!

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The Drowsy Chaperone, Stage Right Theatre, 2013

Interesting roles for women in their 40’s and 50’s are being written. Roles full of interesting character, gripping dilemmas, heartache and humor, and problems that don’t always find resolution in a wedding march. Dammit, there are great roles in musical theatre for women who are somewhere between Laurie and Aunt Eller: no longer the ingenue, but not ready for the granny wig.

Of course, all musical theatre aficionados recognize Mama Rose, Miss Mona, Adelaide, and Miss Hannigan. Gypsy, Best Little Whorehouse, Guys and Dolls, and Annie are community theatre staples. Wonderful shows. Tried and true. Worn and exhausted, some might say. Cliche, even.

Hollywood has long had a problem with this, constantly forcing women in their 40’s to play the discarded wives, or heaven help us, the mothers to their forty-something male counterparts. But the stage has always been willing to take risks on women in their middle age, when their talent is ripe, their life experience rich, and their voice in its prime.

So as a forty-something actress/singer who longs to play great roles, maybe even alongside actresses in her own age bracket, I present the following list of musicals for the local community theatres to take a look at. They are great shows, they will sell tickets, they will capture new audiences, and they will excite your theatre ensembles. As an added bonus, they feature major roles for women in the middle:

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Light in the Piazza: Margaret Johnson is a mother visiting Italy with her developmentally delayed daughter. Her marriage is dying as her daughter falls in love with a young Italian dreamer. The vocal score is exquisite, the emotional journey heart wrenching.

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Kiss Me, Kate: Lilli Vanessi is an aging star. She gets to sing “I Hate Men” as Kate, and “So In Love” as Lilli. It’s Cole Porter and Shakespeare combined. The 1999 revival ran for two years and received numerous Tony nominations and several awards. It’s a crowd pleaser!

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Mamma Mia has three (!!!) fantastic roles for women in their 40’s. They don’t have to be movie star gorgeous with size 2 figures! They still get to be fun and sexy! With a score built upon the songbook of Abba, it’s got a guaranteed fanbase.

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Ragtime is just the most beautiful musical. And it’s got fantastic roles for all sorts: age, color, body type, vocal range; it’s all there. Including a plum role, Mother, a woman who discovers that her sheltered life is not fulfilling and takes the plunge into uncharted territory.

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Nine to Five is not necessarily a masterpiece of the Broadway cannon, but with the popularity of the movie and name recognition among those over forty, its catchy numbers and physical comedy are sure to be popular.

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Next to Normal’s Diana Goodman is bipolar. Not exactly the feel-good premise that community theatres often go for. But this story is contemporary, relevant, and resonant. The music, a rock score, reverberates long after the notes have faded. For a theatre that takes risks, this one is a powerful choice.

I did a little reading on roles for women over 40, here are a couple of articles/blogs I found that had good stuff to say:

Sing Out, Louise?

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A few weeks ago, I went to a Bette Midler concert. It was everything I hoped it would be. The Divine Miss M is still in full voice, wears fabulous costumes, tells filthy jokes, and even appears as Winifred! Nearly at the end of the concert comes the big one, the one I have been waiting for all night. She warns everyone not to sing along because there is room for only one diva in the arena (though we got to sing along at the chorus). She starts singing, “Some say love…it is a flower…” and I am transported. But in the rapture is an equal measure of grief. Gut wrenching, heart swelling, breath halting grief.


When I was in the eighth grade, I sang my very first solo in front of an audience: “The Rose.” It was for my school’s talent show. I remember I was terrified: my parents and grandparents were there, the cafetorium lights were dark, the spotlight was blinding, and it felt like I couldn’t breathe. Then I heard the piano intro (you all know it, too: da-da-da-duh, da-da-da-duh) and I opened my mouth and sang. It was magical (well, for me, anyway).

I was in a new school and I was pretty shy, so I hadn’t made a whole lot of friends. But after this, suddenly people wanted to sit by me on the bus, and they would ask me to sing us home. Singing “Hopelessly Devoted to You” as we rounded corners dropping off crazy middle school students, I began to understand who I was meant to be: the singer.

I sang all through high school, competing for slots in choirs, musicals, and talent shows. I had a really beautiful voice, a clear Julie Andrews-styled soprano with a soaring range. I dreamt of being the next Barbra Streisand, or maybe a singer in New York. In college, I started as a voice major. I soon discovered that I was not meant to be a classical music major- I needed to sing show tunes and jazz standards. Musical theatre was really where I belonged.

But then I fell in love and got married, started a family, and kept singing when I could, mostly in community theatre shows, sometimes in churches, occasionally in choirs. I sang in lots of weddings. I sang “The Rose” for my grandfather’s wedding, then again at his funeral.

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I had a repertoire I sang to my kids when I put them to bed: “All the Pretty Little Horses,” “I Love you, fill-in-the-blank” from the musical Bye Bye Birdie, “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Goodnight, My Someone.” I think they liked it.

I don’t really sing much anymore. Though it is mostly healed now, I lost my voice for over a year, due to spinal surgery that paralyzed one of my vocal cords. Now I have a prosthetic one, so I can sing. But still, I don’t. Earlier this week, I wanted to change my profile picture on Facebook to a photo of me singing. I wanted to have a constant reminder to myself and others that that is who I am. I couldn’t find a picture of myself singing. Because I just don’t anymore.

I used to be asked to do singing gigs, but that has not happened in a long time. I don’t have little ones to sing to sleep. I don’t even sing in the car, because I am never alone in the car anymore!

What do you do when you find yourself mid-journey and a little lost? When you either need to go back and rediscover who you are or forge a new identity?

Phony Baloney!


Last night I learned that an opening in the sort of school I have always dreamed of teaching in is about to be posted. It’s a private prep school where the students have been raised to excel, where the artistic strictures are looser (the kids get to do musicals like “A Chorus Line” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”), and the Arts are not treated like step children. Their Theatre faculty consists of one MS teacher and three HS teachers. A team! Their web page shows images of productions that look lively and innovative. I was so excited! I spent the evening imagining myself applying and interviewing, accepting the position, relocating…then I crashed to earth.

I think I am such a fraud in this profession! Sure, I started doing Theatre in high school, but I didn’t major in it in college, I didn’t step on a stage during my baby making years, I sort of fell into this position.

In 2000 I was seeing this brilliant therapist who was helping me get through some stuff. One of the questions she asked me that day (because I was, as always, expressing my dissatisfaction with my career- at that time I was a second grade teacher) was whether I wanted to teach at all. I answered that I did because I wanted my schedule to stay compatible with my kids’. So her next question was “If you’re going to stay in teaching, what’s the one thing you want to teach more than anything else?” My answer: “Theatre.” Where the heck did that come from? I had only renewed my love for theatrical performance within the last five years, performing in four musicals. I only had one college Theatre class, the only one that was offered, an appreciation and history class. I had not ever once had an acting class.

About a month later, I was interviewing for an English position at one of the district’s junior high campuses and the principal mentioned that he had just lost his Theatre teacher. I was hired for the position before I left that day.I commenced to study for the certification exam and passed it handily on the first try.

My friends Sylvia and Margy have long said that when one truly and deeply desires something, one must speak it aloud to the Universe, believing fully that the gift of your heart’s desire will come to you. I have always wondered about that. With no more than a valid teacher certificate and a verbal wish, I found myself plopped in the middle of a junior high Theatre classroom, complete with small stage, costume and prop storage, and pubescent students full of energy, wiggles, and attitude!

My early years in that Theatre classroom consisted of a lot of trial and error: I accidentally took two ineligible actors to my first UIL OAP because no one explained eligibility to me, I had seventh and eighth graders reading “The Crucible,” and I spent way too much time in the text book.

I have ended up being okay at what I do, but I always want to be better, so I went to UH and got a Master’s Degree in Theatre. What? I have an M.A in Theatre?

While I was getting my M.A. I just kept expecting the professors to look quizzically at me and remind me that the Education classes were in another building and would I please leave the Theatre classes for the real Theatre folks (for the record, none of my profs ever even hinted at such a thing). On the first day of class one of my classmates was asking people how many times they’d been to U.I.L.State One Act over the meet- and-greet pastry buffet, for goodness’ sake! I was just finishing year three of high school teaching, I had not even advanced out of Zone once yet!

Somehow, I still always feel like an impostor. I go to events where there are a lot of Theatre teachers and I wonder if they can see the sign that I feel like is flashing over my head: NOT ONE OF US! I wonder if my students sense that most of the time I feel like I am reaching for wisdom to share with them, hoping that what I ask them to do on stage will actually work, and expecting any one of them to lead a coup and assume responsibility for instruction.

When I get home, I have to try to sound like I know what’s up in Theatre with my husband and eldest daughter, who are so ridiculously talented I feel like an utter charlatan when I am with them. Their theatrical instincts are so good, and they know how to dig to get to the characters’ truths (my son is a rock musician and stage combatant, my younger daughter is more fitness and dance buff, I am none of those things so I feel less intimidated by them.)

Maybe one of the hallmarks of middle adulthood is that we realize how much we don’t know, how much we are just muddling through each day trying to do what we’re paid to do without screwing up too badly, how much we hope no one else realizes how clueless and lost we actually are. When I was a young adult in college and into my twenties, I was so sure that I knew what was best, that my contemporary and freshly minted knowledge trumped experience, and that the old folks over 40 had no clue. No that I am over 40, I absolutely know that I have no clue.

I don’t know if I will work up the nerve to apply for this position. It’s junior high, it means relocation to Austin, and it’s scary. I fear getting called for an interview, I fear not being called just as much.

What I do know is whatever I do, I will most likely be faking it until I make it, whether it’s teaching, designing, or working in an office.

Will the Real Theatre Teacher in the room please stand up? Oh wait, I think that’s me.

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