Learning to act " sans stage
August 5, 2008
ASPEN ” The lack of a proper stage didn’t prevent Shelley Long from dreaming about being an actress. In fact, not having a stage didn’t even prevent Long from engaging in theatrical experiences.
Southside High School, the Fort Wayne, Ind., school that Long attended, had no auditorium. “We did assemblies on the gymnasium floor, and yelled as loud as we could,” recalled Long by phone from her Los Angeles home. So Long found outlets other than formal stage productions to hone her skills as speaker and performer. A specialty was speech competitions; a highlight was writing the Thanksgiving assembly, which taught her something about making the most of a space: “I got up on a ladder and ranted to people what it meant to be thankful,” she said.
“One of the things I got out of the process is, you can have a theatrical experience without a stage,” continued Long, who will give a talk about her performance history, presented by the local group Theater Masters on Thursday, Aug. 7, at a private Aspen residence. (Tickets are being offered to the public; for further information, call 948-9484, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“Speech competitions, readers’ theater ” these can be very valuable. I was doing literature: ‘Gone With the Wind,’ W. Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage,’ ‘My Fair Lady,’ ‘Once Upon a Mattress.’ That experience for me was very theatrical, gave me a great insight into performing.”
Not until her senior year of high school did Long finally find herself on anything like a stage, performing in “I Remember Mama.” The shortage of early stage training didn’t seem to hamper her career. Long earned an Emmy Award and two Golden Globes for her portrayal of the snobby waitress Diane Chambers on “Cheers,” and has also starred in the films “Night Shift,” “Irreconcilable Differences” and “The Money Pit.”
The scant time on stage did nearly cause a panic attack. In the early ’70s, Long took a workshop at Chicago’s famed Second City theater. When she was asked merely to audition for the resident company, she dropped the phone in disbelief; when she aced the audition and was offered a spot at Second City, she told them she’d have to think about it.
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“I had so much respect for the improvisers I’d seen on that stage,” said the 58-year-old. “I wasn’t the best improviser, but I could improvise, be in the moment, within an acting context.”
Long’s history in formal theater isn’t extensive. Her highlight was “The Woolgatherer,” a two-character play from the early ’80s that was witnessed by the casting director of “Cheers.” Long has also done readings of “Love Letters.” But living in Los Angeles has been a drag on her theater opportunities.
“To be honest, the theater community in Los Angeles is not strong,” she said. “They’re still trying to bring it up to another level.”