Thespians By Night

Detail shot of Glinda the Good Witch's headpiece, with Heather Beck of Ellicott city preparing for her performance at Toby's Dinner Theatre. (By Jen Rynda / June 4, 2012)

As president of Insight 180, Wendy Baird spends most of her days in her office on Main Street in Ellicott City, crafting strategic marketing plans for area businesses.

But few of her branding clients could ever guess how she spends her evenings.

For a while, Baird dabbled in witchcraft. Then there was her farm girl stage and a period where she went into business with a serial killer. Most recently, her evenings were spent struggling with hallucinations.

That’s right. She’s Wendy Baird by day, but at night you can find her at local theaters portraying roles that range from a witch in “Into the Woods” and Laurie in “Oklahoma” to Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and Diana in the recent Red Branch Theater production of “Next to Normal.”

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Baird is one of a rare breed who feels most at home when she’s onstage making an audience laugh or cry or want to sing along with her. It goes beyond an interest or a hobby. For Baird and those like her, acting is a passion, and they go to great lengths to schedule school and jobs around those few magical hours every evening when they are in rehearsal or performing.

“I work all day until around 5, grab something to eat and then head to the theater for rehearsals from 7 to 10,” says the Columbia resident. “It’s hectic and it sounds exhausting, but, really, it’s energizing.”

From having full-time careers to a jumble of part-time jobs, local actors do whatever they can to support themselves in their true vocation — acting

“Theater is something that brings me joy and others too,” Baird says. “If you were going to work hard for something, what could be better than something like that?”


Craziness is welcome

Outside of New York City it can be daunting to make a living as a stage actor. Although there are about 100 theaters in the Baltimore-Washington area, few are able to pay a living wage. Some theaters only pay actors a small stipend, and ensemble performers can make as little as $22 per performance. The scale increases with the importance of the role, with some leads requiring membership in the performer’s union — Actors’ Equity Association — and a required weekly salary of about $550.

“It can be ridiculously hard to support yourself in theater, and probably only about half are able to live on what they make in the theater,” says Toby Orenstein, founder of Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia and Baltimore. “The rest take on all types of jobs to sustain that passion. They find a way to make it work because they love what they do, but it can make for a very interesting life.”

Dinner theaters, like Toby’s, are able to offer actors the opportunity to wait tables before performances for extra cash.

“In a really good week you can make about $800 waiting tables,” says Orenstein, who earlier this year was named the Maryland Arts Advocate of the Year by Maryland Citizens for the Arts.

Ellicott City actress Heather Beck says she waits tables at Toby’s every chance she gets. “It gives me a chance to warm up before I go onstage, and when I check in with the tables at intermission, it’s a good opportunity to get feedback,” says Beck, who is currently starring at Toby’s in Columbia as Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz.”

“It’s funny, though, because at intermission I come out in costume and sometimes people I just waited on 90 minutes ago don’t recognize me. They’ll say, ‘What happened to our waitress?’”

Because $800 weeks are no guarantee, Beck also works as a sign language interpreter, performs children’s shows during the day, and still finds time to run three booths at Antiques Depot in Ellicott City, where she specializes in theatrical items and vintage clothing.

“It can get crazy,” admits Beck, who met her fiancé, director Shawn Kettering, at Toby’s. “I’ll tell you I make an awful lot of lists and schedules to keep track of everything. But, honestly, I don’t know what I’d do with myself if my schedule was not so full, and fortunately I like all my jobs. I guess craziness is welcome in my life.”


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