Thursday, June 7, 2012

What's it like being a professional actor?

One of the incredible perks of performing in a show at Dexter’s Encore Musical Theatre Company is meeting professional actors, or those on their way there.  This spring I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Barbara Scanlon who made a mesmerizing debut at The Encore last September as Margaret Johnson in Light in the Piazza, and is playing the Reverend Mother in our production of Nunsense.  She graciously let me interview her about what it has been like being a professional actress.   Many of us dream about what it would be like doing this day in and day out… well, she’s lived it.

I must admit, I was nervous about meeting her and playing in the same production, especially knowing that she had played the part I’m playing, Sister Amnesia, in a professional theater.  She played the part in a summer stock show in Alabama – they had two weeks of rehearsals and two weeks of shows, even shorter than our run. Evidently, the actors were housed in a bungalow on a farm during the run…and the horses poked their heads in the windows.  Behind-the-scenes in the theater business isn’t always glamorous, but definitely interesting.  Anyway, it turns out that actors are real people and getting to know her has been fun.

Barbara has many experiences.  One of the most recent was that she was on the third national tour of Phantom of the Opera for 8 years.  She joined the tour after it had been running for 7 years.  On the tour, they stopped for a least a month at every destination.  They would take their cars with them and find lodging in each town.  She remembers renting a house in Salt Lake City.   On other tours, they sometimes stopped for only a week at one place and were put up in a hotel.  There, they ventured out a few blocks from the hotel, to find food, but never were there long enough to feel settled.  They basically lived out of their cars and suitcases. 

For the Phantom tour, Barbara was in the ensemble and also the understudy to two parts, Madame Giry and Carlotta.  She told me that she played those parts more than 100 times while on tour.  She describes the tour as like any job.  Everyone gets vacation and time off.  They work at night and have the days off.  They perform 8 shows a week, 2 shows on Saturdays and Sundays, and have Mondays off.  As with any job, she made many of her friends through her work.  One memory she has is that the person who played the Phantom on one tour was someone she had been in the ensemble with years before in Camelot.  It was a nice reunion.

Barbara grew up in Detroit and received her bachelor’s degree in music from Michigan State University.  She was living with her mother and working at an insurance company and doing gigs locally, like singing for the Michigan Opera Theater performing kid’s shows.  A friend convinced her to go to New York.  He returned after a year, but she stayed.  She took a number of theater classes and lessons while in New York.  At that time, it was easier to get an equity card and she was able to do it after one performance in Long Island as Jack’s mother in a kids’ show of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Her first jobs were often summer stock.  She spent a summer in Ohio and Michigan at Fred Kenley’s Theater of the Stars.  She met some now famous actors during that summer.  She remembers watching Ken Berry tap up a storm in George M and said he was very good.  That was also her tap debut… “in the back row”.  Jane Powell starred in My Fair Lady and Anne Blythe was in their production of Kiss Me Kate.  The next summer she performed in Milwaukee at the Melody Top (which became a parking lot the year after).  It was a theater in the round.  She was Glinda, the good witch, in the Wizard of Oz, a plum role.

Barbara also toured overseas.  She was in an American company that performed Evita in Germany, Vienna and Singapore.  She remembers a favorite restaurant in Frankfurt and trying to order food in German.  “The first experiment ordering yielded liver, ugh!”

Barbara was in a Broadway production of Camelot with Robert Goulet. She was in the ensemble and also the understudy for Guenevere   She states that she never got to play opposite him - he wouldn’t agree to it because he said she was “too tall.”  When asked if she was able to interact much with the “big stars”, she said that it depended.  Although Robert Goulet’s wife often sheltered him from the rest of the cast, she remembers one Halloween playing pool with him.  She was also on a Camelot tour (a “suitcase tour” with weekly stops) with Richard Harris, also as the understudy for Guenevere.  This time she was able to play the role opposite him.  She said, though, that at times he would decide that he was tired, and on those nights he’d do a lot of sitting on stage, and the other actors would have to work around him. 

I was curious if she encountered many “groupies” after performances.  She stated that on the Phantom tours, there were often people waiting outside the theaters to see the stars.  She said that in some places, people would follow them around which was a bit creepy.  There were also lots of people hanging out after Camelot, but they were mostly there to see the big name stars.  For awhile she’d wear the show shirts they could purchase, but later began leaving them at home.

As mentioned earlier, many look with awe and envy at professional actors wondering what it would be like, especially if you were doing it for a living.  As a professional, Barb says that she doesn’t sing for fun anymore, but learns music to meet upcoming goals.  She protects her voice by not using it much on performance days so that it is in good shape for the paying audiences.  She still enjoys what she does and the challenge of learning new parts and songs. And what’s it like being on a huge professional stage, like on the Phantom tour, playing to full houses every night?  She acknowledges occasional jitters, like anyone would have, especially when doing a part for the first time.  But the sell-out crowds, they start feeling “normal.”  It’s the shows without huge audiences that feel weird. What is the best part of professional acting?  Her response:  traveling and meeting new people plus having new experiences.

If you want to learn more about Barbara Scanlon, check out her website. If you want to see her perform, check out our last weekend of Nunsense at The Encore…. Shows run through June 10.

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