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Wednesday, 07 May 2014

Treading the Boards

By Chlele Gummer

It wasn't until I retired from teaching that I began performing as an actress. First, I took a beginning acting class at the local junior college.

One day, the instructor gave us strips of paper each with a different scenario on it from which we created a pantomime. Mine directed me to be an 18-year-old boy who was inspecting weights at a sports shop.

I was wearing a tee shirt at the time so I rolled a pack of cigarettes in one sleeve and walked like I thought a young man would walk. You can imagine how easy it was to illustrate a sports shop by trying the single weights.

I was surprised when the class guessed that I was portraying an 18-year-old boy since I was 60 with gray hair and female. I knew then that I could do this business of acting.

One spring the junior college offered a class in children's drama which attracted my eye. We prepared Aladdin's Lamp. Seamstresses made our costumes and set design personnel built our portable sets. We carried the sets in a separate van as we performed at 12 elementary schools.

Our performance was about 45 minutes long so we could do two performances during one visit. I played the grand vizier, a man's role which no other student was interested in.

I had fun performing with these young people, no one over 20 years old. They easily included me. Our coach was very helpful with her direction and the voice exercises she put us through.

The children in our audiences enjoyed the color and action of the fairy tale as well as having a special time out from classes.

Since I felt successful with my acting, I decided to become serious and take private instruction. A class was advertised to prepare one for an audition by an experienced coach. The challenges he gave us thrilled me.

I loved the walking exercise where he would dictate how we should walk, "like a duck," "like a stallion,” “feel yourself become tall, taller, as tall as you can be."

Then we played cooperative games where we'd stand in a line and the first person would start a sentence with "the" and each person added a word, any word that made sense. The idea was to improve your response time so there'd be little hesitation.

The coach helped us with our memorized monologues that we would use at the county-wide audition which was attended by many directors. He would set the emotional tone by saying something like, "You have just broken up with your boyfriend," and then we'd do our monologue.

I was amazed at how authentic someone's presentation could be with that type of direction.

The general audition was held in the Woodland Opera House, a 19th century building which had been rebuilt and was used for many purposes. When my name was called, I stepped out to the center of the stage, said my name, and began with the comedic monologue about someone choosing paint for a bedroom and followed that with the dramatic monologue from Three Women by Edward Albee, where the old lady is expressing the surprise of waking up and wondering what still worked.

We handed in a stack of resumes and head shots, which I had professionally done for this event, and then left hoping for some response.

Several weeks later, I received a call from a director of a theater close by. He wanted me to play Melba in a musical comedy he wrote using popular songs with new lyrics.

The name of the production was Vampire Cowboys. Melba was a vampire who ran a hair salon open from 9 to 5 at night. We entered coming up onto the stage from a room below singing Working from Nine to Five.

I had to sing a solo as well as a duet, challenging me to my depths. Memorizing lines and acting came easy to me; singing with accompaniment offered me a trial by fire. Another challenge speaking lines clearly while wearing Vampire teeth.

The other actors were quite accomplished, able to sing well and one was an Equity actor who had to do commercials in San Francisco from time to time. They were very supportive of me and my struggles.

All in all, everyone had a fun time with this off the wall play which ran for four weekends.


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Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


What fun! And how brave you are!

I agree with Florence, you are an example for the rest of us, to get up and go do something we enjoy but always have an excuse to put off for another day...
I think you get a gold star!
Good luck with your acting career.

How admirable to go challenge yourself to learn something new. We are never too old to learn!

I've been acting for 30 years or so. I walked into an audition for "The Odd Couple," knowing full well that I could ROCK a Pigeon Sister! They couldn't get enough men to do the show, so they chose another, but asked me to come back the next year for another English accent piece. For a while, I thought accent was all there was to it, but I have learned so much over the years. Season before last, I played Maude in "Harold and Maude," and it was a joy from beginning to end. I will be 65 in another month, and have no plans to stop. I also costume and direct, and I love my theater family almost as much as my kids!

Very inspirational! Thank you so much for sharing and enjoy your new calling.

I wish I was involved in acting now; the story is about a time 15 years ago. I'm glad you enjoyed it and to hear that it is inspirational warms my heart.

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