She was born in 1908, a different era than most of us can imagine without the help of film and good histories. She had dual citizenship (British/American) until she was 18. She was probably more Scottish at her core than American but was more direct than the British tend to be; they are direct, although you must read through their words to understand. At some point in her childhood or adolescence, she decided that drama, the theatre, acting, directing, the whole thespianic journey, was for her. She started acting in a major southern city at her prestigious preparatory school, graduated to the local amateur theatre, did summer stock around the country, even did a couple of plays on Broadway, then WWII happened. She joined the Red Cross and went to Europe to help out, both as an aid to recovering troops and as an entertainer (she called them skits). When she returned, she met my dad, married, adopted me, looked for other theatres, wherever my dad moved (US Navy), kept on acting, all the while accumulating programs, photos, and reviews of plays in which she appeared. At some point, and I don’t really know when, she started directing. In the late ’50s, we were posted to the tiny Meditteranean island of Malta, where there was a theatre company managed by twin British sisters (they eventually became “Dames of the British Empire”). She auditioned for Chekhov’s The Chalk Garden and became the female lead (now, for all her dual citizenship, she was an American stationed there with a Navy officer, so her transition to a British stage company, “amateur” though they might have been, was sort of remarkable – and besides, when the British folks use the word “amateur,” they simply mean it is an avocation, something is done for passion but done with utter commitment). She went on to do several others and actually directed Twelfth Night (Shakespeare for the non-literati in my imaginary readership) while we were there. This was the theatre in which this amateur group staged most of its performances, although it also did an annual summer performance al fresco on the steps of San Anton palace leading up from the gardens (also used as a nice setting for A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream the previous year) (second photo down).
Manoel Theatre, Malta
When we returned to the States, she got back into it in our new city, then we moved to a small southern town. Within a year of arriving, she was fit to be tied (as she used to say). She started the local little theatre. I don’t entirely remember how it began but within a couple of years (or maybe immediately) she was managing, producing, and directing an entirely voluntary, amateur little theatre company through four plays and a musical every year. All of the plays ran Thursday through Saturday night, all of them starting at Broadway time (8:15 PM) with occasional matinees on Saturdays. On occasion, she would take the company on the road to college campuses and do a sparse version of the play (she didn’t take the sets with her). During the five weeks between plays, she would audition the people that came (she had some regulars, but they were open auditions), build the sets, rehearse five (or more) nights a week starting roughly at 7:30 (family dinner was at 7), helped build the sets (usually directed their building, sizing, painting, erection), worked through lighting, blocked out movements, got the music right (live “pit band” for musicals). Oh, and she had to “dress” the sets, which usually meant that several pieces of furniture, etc. went missing from our house for long periods of time, sometimes repeatedly, and the rest of the stuff she had to source from somewhere while maintaining zero inventory of production furniture (although the sets were used and reused, of course). Somehow, she corraled all of these volunteers into a generally error-free set of performances five weeks later. She was less successful getting her teenaged sons to help, although we did in our half-assed way when pressed). Now, to do this she was also reading an entire season of likely plays, blocking out the next play down the calendar from her current play, getting tough with people who weren’t meeting their obligations (although she never lost any of the folks she got tough with, so she did it without shaming or humiliating them), and cooking exceptionally good evening meals (preparing breakfast and lunch for us during school and summer as well) for her two kids and her husband, who had his own job, post-Navy. And she created and managed the non-profit organization into which ticket was collected. She received a small honorarium per season and the revenue helped buy lights, set materials, pay a carpenter (this became necessary later on), print programs (she took care of those too), place ads, etc.
She ran this little theatre for 25 years at this pace until her death about 25 years ago. She was 82 and had been wrestling with vascular disease for at least the last ten of those years. To top it all off, she was reasonably sane for a member of the theatre community (with apologies to all the reasonably sane members of the theatre community – you know what I mean).
I’ve had a good life and probably have several more decades to go, but my mother was a force of nature, a phenomenon, a whirling dervish who appeared calm and collected virtually all the time.
Here’s to my mother, a critical actor in many dramatis personae, including my own and all the people who worked with her!