Theatre of Western Springs Spotlight: Stephanie Williams

Stephanie Williams | Submitted by the Theatre of Western Springs
Stephanie Williams | Submitted by the Theatre of Western Springs

Get to know the community of Western Springs with our Theatre of Western Springs Spotlight feature!

This week, we meet Stephanie Williams of Clarendon Hills. She joined the adult theatre in 2000, after 16 years at the children’s theatre.

Q. Why did you join TWS?

A. When I was in 4th grade, Carolyn Thomas (now Davidoff) was the artistic director of CTWS. She had a relationship with my teacher at Prospect School in Clarendon Hills and would come to our classroom several times a year to lead activities with us and bring costumes or props from plays. I will never forget the mane she brought in from the production of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” It had pieces attached with velcro that could be removed to make the mane look less full when needed. I found this fascinating.

We also performed plays in our classroom several times a year. In addition, three times a year, she would invite the whole class to her house for dinner, and then we would go see the children’s theatre production that was playing at the time. One of the first roles I remember playing in class was “Mrs. Whatsit” in “A Wrinkle in Time.” I caught the bug badly and took it home with me. I used to hang blankets from the wooden beams that lined our basement ceiling and create a stage area, bringing furniture to dress the set. I would then recruit my younger twin brothers to stage a play with me. One of my favorite things to do was to have them dress up in my Mom’s old dresses and wigs. I thought it was hilarious, although I have a feeling they felt slightly different.

By coincidence, I ended up having the same teacher when I was in sixth grade. Again, we had the same activities and plays in the classroom and trips to TWS. It was then that Carolyn Thomas came to our class and told us about this fantastic place where you go to camp for a week or two and spend the whole time rehearsing and putting on a play. This heaven on earth was called “Avon.” It was founded and run by the late, wonderful TWS Active Laureates, Marion and Woody Baker. I needed no further convincing and that summer made my trip there. I played the Tin Man in “The Ozma of Oz.” and found it so great that I got to perform it on stage at the junior high school. I felt so grown up!

The next fall, I joined the Children’s Theatre of Western Springs. I remember playing in “The Magicians Nephew” and Bomber in “The Hobbit.” Although I took a break from theatre in high school and college, I found myself on stage once again when I was asked to play the role of “Mother Ginger” in the Grand Rapids Ballet’s performance of “The Nutcracker.” And the passion was reignited. When I moved back to Chicago from Michigan, I signed up for Studio and the rest is history. I love the theatre and everything about it. I love to act, design sound, stage manage and work backstage. I love the people that are involved as well. I feel like I’ve found people with similar interests.

Q. Go back in time. When did you discover you had an interest in theatre/drama?

A. I liked to perform from a very young age. My grandparents had an upstairs hallway that overlooked the living room downstairs. Every time I would come over, I would write and perform little plays to a captive audience of my parents, grandparents and anyone else I could wrangle. I loved to perform. I loved playing dress up. I took piano lessons for years and loved playing at recitals. I took ballet and enjoyed being on stage as a chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins.” I think that was the first experience I can remember being on stage. I was probably about six.

I even turned my basement into a roller rink and would pretend to perform roller dancing to a fake audience. I also transformed areas of the basement into a stage by hanging blankets from the ceiling frames. When video cameras came out I was in heaven. I would spend hours making fake commercials or imitating ones on TV. I would recruit friends and we would do music videos with puppets, lip sync, create talk shows, skits, etc.

Q. At TWS, do you work on crews, backstage and/or front of house?

A. I work on and enjoy all areas of TWS. I love to act and learn from each experience. I love to stage manage, assistant stage manage and design sound. I also enjoy being part of crews such as make-up, props, costumes and painting. I even spent a few years designing and putting together the programs for the plays. I get involved in a little bit of everything.

Q. At TWS, do you act on stage?

A. I love to act on stage when I am lucky enough to be chosen. I have been in “A Winter’s Tale,” “Top Girls,” “The Elephant Man,” “Summer & Smoke” and “Amadeus.” Also, I have been in several Directors’ Workshops over the years. My favorite role was as Katarina in “Amadeus.” It was so much fun to take a complete non-speaking role and create a memorable character with it. To this day, when I tell people I had no lines in that role, they can’t believe it because they remember it so well. I also loved the costumes and the confidence and seductiveness of the character. She was a woman who knew how to use her wiles. I got to wear the most beautiful costumes and even had to challenge myself to go out on stage in just a corset and a slip. For me, that was terrifying yet so very empowering.

My most challenging role, and also, I believe, my best performance was the last time I was cast in 2010. It was a Directors’ Workshop called “Waltzing De Niro.” I played the best friend of a woman who was trying to make me believe that she was dating Robert De Niro. My character had great wit, some physical comedy, and a suspicious mind. I was given some fantastic direction in that show. Also I had grown a lot as a woman and was able to really relax and lose my own personality to become someone else. It was a great feeling. I had so many people come up to me after the show and not just give me the obligatory “great job,” but I had person after person come to me and say how wonderful I was and that it was the best role they had ever seen me in. People expanded on how much I had grown as an actor and how much they enjoyed my performance. It was such a wonderful feeling to know that I had finally started to let myself go and immerse myself in a role.

Q. What do you love about TWS? What is it about TWS that motivates you?

A. I love so many things about TWS. I believe some of it is a fondness that you can only feel in the heart for a positive place or experience you had as a child. Like an affection for a book, old movie or song. I think that is the start. What follows is so much opportunity. There is such a diversity of personality, ages, professions and everything else there, yet we all have that passion for the theatre in common. We have all found that “thing” that connects us to each other that didn’t necessarily connect us in the outside world.

I love the quality of productions, the remarkable dedication of volunteers, the opportunities to learn new things from acting, technical skills, designing, managing, marketing… well, you name it. If you are interested, it’s there to explore. The closest friends I have are people I have met through TWS, and yet there are some very painful losses of good friends as well. But I wouldn’t trade any of it, because I am blessed with wonderful people in my life. I had the chance to know some wonderful people that were taken much too soon.

Q. TWS has flourished for 85 years. Are there traditions at TWS that you value?

A. I think volunteerism and the focus on continuing education are wonderful traditions. I think it is wonderful that TWS always keeps the memory of Mary Cattell alive and recognizes long dedicated actives by naming them Active Laureates. I also love that the community really rallies around each other when one of us is in crisis. All of our differences are put aside, and you always know that people are there for you.

Q. Tell about something at TWS that was, is, or will be a really big thrill for you.

A. One of my biggest thrills was designing sound for “Around the World in 80 Days.” I am very passionate about music, and I feel so strongly that the right music or sounds can evoke exactly the mood you want from your audience. I had the opportunity to use musical selections from all over the world, and I had a lot of freedom from the director to go with my instincts. It sounds like the silliest little thing, but there was a scene where an arrow was shot from behind the stage (an imaginary arrow), and I found the absolute perfect sound effect. The production style was a bit campy, and very funny. I set up the sound to travel around the theatre in a way that caused the audience to look back and follow the invisible arrow from the back of the theatre to the stage where it struck. It was as if you could actually see the arrow travel across the theatre. What a tremendous thrill. It was probably a good ten years ago, but I am still filled with a childlike glee whenever I remember that moment. It was so cool!

Q. List three things you have given TWS.

A. My heart, my dedication and as much time as I have to give depending on what is going on in my life.

Q. List three things TWS has given you.

A. Self confidence, amazing friends and experiences that I couldn’t have received anywhere else.

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