Growing up, Tana Hicken always wanted to be an actress, but no one knew it until she won a part in her high school musical, cast appropriately as a character named Ingenue. That first role launched an unstoppable career, and today there is no doubt that acting is her passion.
Just look at her 35 years in regional theater, her latest appearance coming in Picnic, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play opening tomorrow at Center Stage. Hicken has appeared in five shows at Center Stage between 1977 and 1985, and this performance marks her return to the Baltimore playhouse after almost two decades.
She has won two Helen Hayes Awards, which recognize excellence in professional theater in the Washington area. This year she was honored with her 18th nomination for the prestigious award, making her one of the most-nominated actresses in the award's history.
But it hasn't always been easy. In a profession where most gravitate to New York and Los Angeles, Hicken chose to stay in Baltimore, where she and her husband, Donald, who heads the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts, have lived for 28 years.
When she was starting out, Hicken lived in New York and had an agent, like most actors trying to earn their chops. She won a role in a soap opera this way, and having never seen the show, decided to check it out. Her reaction to the role many actors would have leapt at: "I will never do that."
"My agent thought, 'Here is a renegade purposely wrecking her career.' But I was not interested in celebrity," she says. "I was interested in work, the integrity of work, the community." And that is the kind of acting she has devoted her life to ever since, almost exclusively in regional theater.
Yet, it's been 19 years since she last appeared at Center Stage (in the title role in Hedda Gabler) and three since she acted in Everyman Theatre's production of Watch on the Rhine. For the past two decades, Hicken has worked largely in Washington at the Shakespeare Theatre and at Arena Stage, where she was a member of their resident acting company for 14 seasons, all the while commuting from Baltimore.
"I would have preferred to work here, but it was not my choice," Hicken says. "The only place where you can make a living wage as an actor in Baltimore is Center Stage," she explains, "and the prevailing thought is that to be from New York is better." So much so, she says, that it is surprisingly difficult for local actors to make a living in Baltimore.
Although this homecoming is bittersweet, she's glad to be back.
"I'm happy with it and having a lot of fun with it. All of the other actors are very wonderful," she says of her co-stars.
Picnic, written by William Inge in 1953, is set in a sleepy Kansas town on a sweltering Labor Day. Its citizens, including Hicken's character, Helen Potts, long to escape the ennui of daily life. When a wanderer makes his way to town, Mrs. Potts takes him in, and everyone's lives are thrown into chaos.
"She seems an unlikely character at first, but she's somewhat magical," says Hicken of Helen. "She rings true in her wisdom and her sadness. And her wisdom comes from her sadness."
And perhaps this assessment extends to Hicken's personality as well. A crusader for local artists and a tireless advocate for involving students in the theater, Hicken was just about ready to give up the hand-to-mouth struggle to find work in her hometown, but her years of mentoring area drama students told her it was a fight worth fighting.
"I was ready to stop," she says. "I was frustrated. But then I looked at the students at the [School for the Arts], and I thought, 'There are so few roles for them. It's important that people like me don't stop. Let's be proud of our local actors.'"
Hicken may be weary from her struggle, but out of her uphill battle comes a pearl of wisdom, and no regret.
Says Hicken, "My father was a painter, and his credo was: 'Find something you love to do, and dedicate your life to it.' And I have."
"Picnic" previews tomorrow through Tuesday and runs May 19-June 20 in the Head Theater at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $10 to $55. Call 410-332-0033, or visit www.centerstage.org.
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