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Thespians by Night

Their day jobs pay the bills as they pursue their passion for performing

By Cheryl Clemens

4:20 PM EDT, June 4, 2012

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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.”

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.”

 

A collaborative experience

While Wendy Baird was onstage evenings at Red Branch Theatre in “Next to Normal,” Columbia resident Jennifer Cullotta portrayed her daughter Natalie. But daylight hours found Cullotta an hour south on the campus of George Mason University in Arlington, Va., where she is working on her master’s degree in arts management. In between, she works part time in Clarksville at the winter office of Medomak Family Camp of Maine.

“It can be a painful schedule, and there were semesters that I had to give up performing,” she says. “But my goal is to become involved in theater management and administration so I can remain involved in theater and continue to perform but still have a consistent income.”

No one understands this plan better than Stephanie Williams, who purchased Drama Learning Center (DLC) in Columbia in 2006 and helped start Red Branch Theatre Company in 2008.

“Theater is my day job as well, which means there are a lot of 12-hour days,” says Williams, who directs and occasionally still acts. “I’m on the business staff during the day, and we go right into rehearsals at night.

“Even I don’t know how I do it sometimes,” she sighed, referring to her schedule. But once she’s in the theater working with her team, she, like Baird, becomes energized.

“I tell students at DLC that theater is a lot like a team sport because everyone has to work together,” she added.

Culotta agrees. “Audiences see the actors, but there are also directors and costumes and sets and lights,” she says. “It’s an emotional experience for everyone involved in this collaborative art form to be able to bring something to fruition for an audience. Theater is an important cultural experience. All the way back to the Greeks, it’s been a safe way to explore issues in society and experience emotions you might not normally allow yourself to experience.”

Williams adds that there’s no shortage of theater opportunities for local audiences.

“In Howard County we have a really active arts community,” she says. “There’s the annual Celebration of the Arts; we have school theater programs and high schools that are doing amazing productions.”

And, as Culotta pointed out, with so many regional theaters, the range in ticket prices makes theater accessible to everyone.

“You don’t have to drive to New York or pay $100 or more for a ticket to see a great show,” she says. “There’s plenty of great stuff to see really close by.”

Many local actors have traveled everywhere from Tysons Corner, Va., to Baltimore City to Annapolis for roles — which means being cast in a theater close to home can be a real treat.

“Red Branch Theatre is one mile from my house, so when rehearsals are over at 10, I’m home by 10:05,” says Baird. “It makes the schedule way more tolerable.”

 

Toby’s to Broadway

Two years ago, Jessica Lauren Ball of Guilford was cast as Cinderella at Toby’s in Columbia. Her boyfriend, Matthew Schleigh, won the role of Prince Charming.

“It was like a dream come true, because when you’re in love with the person you’re onstage with, you can just let your real emotions show,” she recalled. “It wasn’t even like working.”

It was a stark contrast to the occasional administrative job she takes.

“Doing something mindless all day like filing just reinforces to me how important it is to be creative,” she says. “It helps me focus on obtaining my goal someday of just being able to act.”

Former Clarksville resident Lauren Sambataro achieved that goal — but it took many years of hard work to get there.

Sambataro always loved to dance, and she started performing locally in productions at Toby’s when she was just 14. But it wasn’t until she was a student at River Hill High that she realized she could make a career out of it. She majored in dance at Fordham University, then moved into an apartment in New York City and began auditioning.

Work came sporadically. Twice she spent nine months traveling the country with the road tour of “Evita” and then “Moving Out.” But in between were long stretches where she worked as a restaurant host and behind the front desk of an athletic club.

Last spring it all paid off when she was hired for a swing role in “Mamma Mia!” at the Winter Garden — the famous Broadway theater that hosted such greats as Bob Hope, Gypsy Rose Lee and the Ziegfeld Follies. As swing, she had to learn nine different female roles so she’d be able to step into any in case of an absence.

“There’s so much history on that stage, and I get to work with such creative people,” she says. “I feel so lucky, but I also worked my butt off to get here.”

And what’s her favorite part about performing on Broadway? “The audience,” she says. “They love the music, and every night they are on their feet.”

It’s that intimate connection with the audience that makes the many jobs and crazy schedule all worthwhile for Beck.

“No matter what’s going on outside of the theater — what you did earlier that day or what you have to do when you leave — it all disappears as soon as you step on that stage,” she says. “You shed every piece of that hectic life, and nothing exists anymore except falling into your character.”

It’s a trade-off actors are more than happy to make.

“It’s long hours and low pay, but we all feel lucky that we get to do this every night,” Williams says.