I can’t remember a time when I was NOT hooked on performing. My Mama played ‘Let’s pretend’ with my sister and me in the kitchen back when I was four and five years old and I loved it. I was cast as the third good fairy in The Sleeping Beauty in third grade; that was my first real ‘role’.
That was also my first experience of the tragedy of the actor’s life: I was sure when they held auditions that I would be the lead….but I was chosen to play only the third good fairy, not even the first fairy!…I had only one line…and then I got the mumps and missed the performance altogether. Sigh.
On a much happier note, I remember playing one of the two leads in the sixth grade in a wacky musical put on by the music teacher and one of the English teachers at my elementary school – Forestville Elementary in District Heights, MD. They were wonderfully creative! They wrote a hilarious script about two siblings, a boy and girl, who meet a spaceman whose ship crash lands in their backyard. The songs were all cherry picked from various famous musicals. My big number was a duet with my ‘brother’, singing “Whenever I Feel Afraid” from The King and I. The grownups (played by the taller sixth graders) had a group number from Bye, Bye, Birdie: “What’s the Matter with Kids Today”…You get the idea. Songs from a bunch of different musicals. It was a blast….
In the tenth grade, at H.H. Arnold High School in Wiesbaden, Germany (where my dad was stationed as an Air Force Lt. Colonel, and so my family lived in that lovely city for four years) I was cast as Emily Brent in Ten Little Indians and when the audience hissed – actually hissed! – at my character because she was so mean and unlikable, and applauded when I died…well, I was hooked.
The next year, I played Rebecca Nurse in The Crucible, and after that, I was a goner. Theatre was it for me.
I was lucky enough to have a devoted and unconventional drama teacher at Suitland Senior High School in Maryland, once my family returned from Europe. Mrs. Sugarman let us choose one acts and even full length plays and produce them completely ourselves. One young friend who was on the cusp of coming out, chose to direct/produce The Glass Menagerie and play Tom. He cast me as Amanda Wingfield at 17 and I was fearless and marvelous – or so I was told! – likely because no one had told me I was not right for the role and decades too young to begin to understand the woman. It was exhilarating.
As a class, we did a production of M* A* S* H and another of I Never Saw Another Butterfly in which we goyishe kids (including one or two very plump kids) played Jewish victims of the Holocaust with all of the passion inside of us and learned indelible lessons about our shared humanity.
That teacher planted the seed that I could actually be an actor as my living and not just do it on the side. I credit Mrs. Sugarman with emboldening me to choose to major in Drama (and French), and to choose Catholic University as my school – this was when Father Hartke was still walking the halls, and the CUA Drama Department was still quite the big deal in DC. Our shows ran for two full weeks – Tuesday through Sunday! – and we got reviewed in The Washington Post and the Evening Star. I played the governess in Stephen D. my senior year and thus worked with our professional guest star, the marvelous actor, Jarlath Conroy. My fate was thus sealed. (Not incidentally, some of my fellow students at CUA during my years there were Bill Largess, John Lescault, Cam Magee, Paul Morella, Brigid Cleary and so many more who are still in the biz.)
An actor’s life for me. And I’ve never regretted it.