Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?
Suzanne Mayes (Suzanne): I am what many call a “Unicorn” in LA: a true native Angeleno.
(SB): I am also a native Angeleno, both born and raised here, and no one has ever called me “Unicorn.” Not sure where that term came from as it must be new, but it certainly applies to me!
(Suzanne): It’s funny, because being a native Angeleno, I grew up in a city saturated by the industry, with kids who were child actors and the children of A-list celebrities, producers, and writers. But although I was active in school performances and loved singing (especially in choirs), pursuing acting as a career was the furthest thing from my mind.
I was a true Space Camp nerd who had dreams of becoming an astronaut. Interestingly enough – and perhaps the universe knew better than I did – I chose a college that was known for its sciences, but also, coincidentally, theatre: Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. During my freshman year while I was a Midshipman in the Navy ROTC program (I was a hardcore Top Gun fan, what can I say…), I auditioned for a Scotch’n’Soda student-run theatre group production of Into the Woods and was cast as Cinderella’s Stepmother. One show by Sondheim and that was it. I was hooked.
I eventually dropped out of ROTC and performed in every single Scotch’n’Soda musical production made while I was there. A quick fun fact about Scotch’n’Soda: their alumni include Stephen Schwartz, who penned and directed an early draft of Pippin while still a student there!) My junior year, I was lucky enough to study abroad in the south of France, and had the privilege to study Voice under the international opera star, Marion Sylvestre, and sing with the adult chorale at the prestigious National Music Conservatory of Avignon.
After graduating from CMU with double degrees in Professional Writing and French, I wanted another adventure overseas, so I took a position teaching English to kids in Taipei, Taiwan. Apparently, they noticed during our teachers’ orientation that I loved to perform and sing, and the English school I worked for hired me to be a host for a live TV show on TVBS (their version of NBC) as a sort of “edutainment” section of the show. I sang with a dancing pig I had to introduce as “my special friend, Perry the Pig” on every episode. It was campy, hilarious, and so much fun! A few months later, I accepted an opportunity to be part of a musical tour for the Disney World of English products and travelled all over Taiwan, performing in gorgeous 2,000 seat theatres for little kids. It was such a special time.
I came home to Los Angeles the next year and put my theatre and singing aside. For ten whole years I pursued another path in Hollywood – first working for literary agents, then in development on movies such as Coach Carter and Dreamer and on TV shows like One Tree Hill and What I Like About You before working for one of the major studios, Universal Pictures. Somewhere in that chunk of time, a few of my Scotch’n’Soda theatre friends from college moved out to LA and we had the brilliant idea to put together a musical again, like the old days, and I played the role of Sally Brown in Snoopy The Musical!!! which I also produced as a fundraiser for Downtown Dog Rescue. I am so proud that our production raised thousands of dollars for the animal rescue, and that “fun reunion” of mine made some real magic happen.
And of course, once back on stage, I was hooked again. Theatre has a way of doing that to you! I dove headfirst into a lot of local community theatre and 99-seat Equity shows, including two back-to-back productions of Gypsy (both Richard Israel’s LA Weekly-nominated run and then as Dainty June in Conejo Players’ production in Thousand Oaks), High Street’s Seussical as Gertrude McFuzz, and Oklahoma as Gertie at The Met Theatre.
I even got to work with one of my theatre idols, the fabulous Kay Cole (as in the original Chorus Line as Maggie) in a new musical called Reunion at the (now defunct) NoHo Arts Center Theatre.
I then joined The Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks as a Company Member and participated in several productions a year, including their Dead Pilots Society”for which I was nominated for a Valley Theatre Award for Best Supporting Actress in the pilot Under Andrea written and directed by Emmy-winners Ken Levine and David Isaacs (known for some little tv shows called M*A*S*H and Cheers.) My last full musical run was playing Sarah in Company at The Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica.
(SB): I remember that production and loved the way in which Kristin Towers-Rowles directed it. Here’s my review from March 2017 about that stellar production.
And just last year, I joined Group Rep Theatre in North Hollywood. But I have taken some time most recently to focus on my TV career, so my stage performances lately have been mostly smaller readings and on- night shows. The theatre, though, has always been where I feed my soul and find my family, and it is heart-breaking to see the impact of this pandemic on our theatre community.
(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?
(Suzanne): As a newer member of Group Rep (GRT), I had been dipping my feet into play readings and one-night cabaret style performances, but my focus during the early part of this year was on TV’s pilot season, which for me means a lot of co-star auditions. So, I wasn’t in any of GRT’s mainstage productions at the time everything shut down. However, they did have their closing weekend of their dramatic play, In My Mind’s Eye and I am so glad I was able to see that gem of a show before everything went dark. But the other productions that were just revving up for rehearsals are all in limbo now.
I was fortunate to see a dear friend’s wonderful production of The Wild Party at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre for their final tech rehearsal and I was there when the cast stood on stage for bows and their board of directors came out to tell them all the sad news that they would not be opening that weekend. My heart broke for every single one of them who had poured their hearts and souls into their show that was ready to open the next day. I truly hope that they get their run when things start up again.
(SB): I was scheduled to see that production on opening night. Now I am also looking forward to seeing it when it can finally be brought back to the Morgan-Wixson stage. But what future productions on your schedule were affected by the shutdown?
(Suzanne): I was really looking forward to auditioning for Group Rep’s Spring / Summer musical production of Applause which is a show that is so rarely performed and has such fun music. I know our board has been in discussions about reworking the schedule, and I think there is a chance Applause may be pushed into 2021’s season, but I don’t know. And it’s so difficult now because none of us know when things will be open again; and once they are, will people be willing to go to the theatre? Is it going to be even harder to sell seats to shows? Will people be afraid to sit in a theatre audience after all this? I know every business and industry is having to re-think and re-plan their business models, and I think the world needs live theatre. But I don’t know how it’s going to happen for the smaller theatres who are struggling right now to stay afloat.
(SB): I wonder about that as well. As a theatre reviewer, I am not sure when I will feel safe about sitting in a crowded theater unless I can wear a mask and be at least 6’ from any other person. But for a small house, that will really cut into their ticket sales if they have to abide by those spacing restrictions, as well as provide masks and hand sanitizer for all patrons. And will the actors have to perform with face masks on, which I guess could work if they are doing Greek plays. It’s so up in the air right now, and I am doing my best to stay hopeful. But I don’t see how small theaters will be able to survive - and it scares me too.
(Suzanne): I truly hope we can weather this storm.
(SB): But for now, like all of us survivors in the theatre world, how are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?
(Suzanne): I have done a few of the self-taped auditions and monologue challenges being presented by several casting directors who are taking the time to get to know fresh faces, which I think is really cool. Also, a small group of talented ladies from my theatre company have been meeting almost weekly on Zoom to do private readings of plays. It’s been a fun way to reconnect and to look at material we weren’t previously familiar with that are female-driven, hoping we discover an amazing gem that we can present to the theatre company down the road for a future season’s production. And then there is my regular weekly acting class, which has shifted to Zoom, so I have been keeping up with that group as well to keep my craft in shape and stay ready for when things pick back up again.
(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?
(Suzanne): Stay home if you are non-essential and have the ability to do so, and wash your hands often. I think there is this huge pressure to be super uber-productive as an actor right now, but honestly, we are in a pandemic – this is *not* normal life. It’s okay to feel icky and not have the energy to do the self-tapes and so forth. They are there if you want those activities and are someone who needs constant projects, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking the time to do what is best for *you* and to care for yourself. Please, please go easy on yourself. And be kind. We can all be kinder to our neighbors. Check in on those who are struggling. Please reach out to a friend if you yourself are struggling. To steal Sondheim’s words, “You are not alone. No one is alone.”
I am including some links to donate to some local theatres close to my heart. If you are able to donate, it would greatly help them out:
Lastly, I send out a special thank you to all of our First Responders – especially all those in healthcare and those who are making sure we have food in our supermarkets, and to all the parents and teachers out there who are home-schooling their kids on top of everything else -- you are all heroes!
This article first appeared on Broadway World.