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Spotlight: Melinda MacDonald - Jennifer Olson
Posted: Thu, Dec 20 2007, 9:41 AM

Melinda MacDonald: Because She Can


In interviewing Melinda, I found many parallels to my own life and acting career. She was born in raised in a suburb outside of Milwaukee; I was raised in a suburb outside of Minneapolis. We agree on issues such as identity theft, we both have a house full of pets and we have similar reasons why we make Kansas City our home. Our similarity on these points made finding out more about Melinda a lot of fun. She is an actress, a singer, and a voice teacher and was a stuntwoman at Universal Studios when living in LA.

When did you start in theater and why?

You want the long or the short version? The short version is -- because I got cast in a show in high school. Here's the long version.

First a little background -- When I was growing up, my mother subtly encouraged me to look at life through a wide angled lens -- to ask questions, to pursue an interest, to meet someone new, or to learn something new. The question was never "Could I do it?" The assumption was that of course I could do it if I tried. She provided me with opportunities to explore what interested me, whether it was basketball or swim team or piano or art classes. And that approach to life started when I was very young.

Music has always been a part of my life. For as long as I can remember, classical music was always being played in our house. I started piano lessons in the first grade and continued into high school. My grandfather loved classical music, especially opera and shared his love of opera with me. At the age of eight, I started attending symphony concerts and opera and LOVED it! During grade school and junior high, I sang in the Milwaukee Symphony's Children's Chorus. I attended The National Music Camp, Interlochen, for five summers, majoring in piano, minoring in art and then switched my major to painting and sculpture when I discovered my love of visual art.

I was fortunate to attend a wonderful high school, highly academically ranked on a national scale with a strong athletic and fine arts program. The drama department was highly regarded, presenting professional quality shows through out the school year, and having achieved national and international recognition for presentations at National Drama conventions and at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.

Now the story -- In the early spring of my sophomore year, my best friend and I were meeting, as usual, to walk home from school. She told me that she was thinking about auditioning for the school musical; explaining the first step in the weeklong process was to sing the Star Spangled Banner. Did I want to wait for her or go ahead and audition, too? Sounded easy enough, so I auditioned. And the next day, I was called back to learn some music and sing once again. The following day, I was called back, this time to dance. The next day, I was called back to read for various parts. By the end of the week, much to my surprise and delight, I was cast as the female lead.

I didn't have any experience as a stage actress, though if you asked my family, they'd laugh and say I was always a little actress in the making. There are several old photographs of me proving their claims, dressed as a "fancy lady" or sitting at the base of the stairs with the most horrible frown, protesting the required nap. I wanted the photograph to be taken so later there would be proof of what a great "frowner" I was. In grade school, I would sneak off to listen to the few Barbara Streisand records my mother had in her collection. I listened to them incessantly, lip synching to her, listening to her phrases, her intonation, pretending I was this incredible singer. During my childhood, when attending church, I was expected to keep still, "eyes forward, knees together", no fidgeting or wiggling around in the pew. To keep myself occupied, I played mental games while sitting still. (I don't think this is what my mother had in mind.) I studied people, imagining what they were feeling, what they were thinking, trying to envision the exact view they were seeing out of their eyeballs, and then of course, inventing elaborate, private stories about the choir members high above me.

My high school theater experience became extremely important to me, and I must credit my drama teacher, Ms.Barbara Gensler. She was an itty-bitty woman with a commanding voice, a sense of style that didn't quit, a no nonsense attitude and was tremendously passionate about theater. If you didn't work, you were gone. She was dedicated and expected the same dedication from her students. She meant business. And through it all, we had fun. She was the reason behind this incredible reputation that our high school had earned. Barbara is still teaching, threatening to retire each year. She is a legend in her own time.

Barbara pushed me; as she had other students before me who went on to have wonderful careers in theater. She was committed to molding me into an actress, role by role -- a lead in one show, a supporting role in the next, a drama followed by a comedy and then into a musical. We did scene work, dialects, character studies and all her dedicated work showed in her productions.

At the beginning of my senior year, Barbara discovered during a casual conversation with my guidance counselor that I was thinking about going into art history to become a curator and was no longer going to do theater. As the story goes, she literally turned on her heels, found me in my French class, walked into the middle of the class, and physically hauled me out of my seat, down to her office. When we reached her office, she sat me on a stool in the middle of the room and began lecturing me about my level of talent, my responsibility to share it with others, and the career potential I had ahead of me. Was I willing to throw it all away? This woman cared. My entire senior year, she created opportunities for me to learn, starting in the Fall when she cast me as "Annie Sullivan" in The Miracle Worker. We went on to win state awards with that show. The year ended with Gypsy, with me playing "Mama Rose." Gypsy won "Best of Theater" in Milwaukee Schools, which was a great thrill. We moved our production downtown to the famous Pabst Theater where we performed Gypsy to packed houses. At the time, little did I suspect that years later, I would perform on the same stage as a professional.

It was during The Miracle Worker that I decided I'd give theater a try, but only if I could study at one of the best schools. Our plan: I would audition at the best school to study drama, and if I were accepted, I would study to become an actress. If I were not accepted, I would go on to major in art history at one of my other college choices. At the time, Carnegie-Mellon University was considered one of the best drama programs. I auditioned, got in and went on to become an actress. I've always said I wanted to do good work with good people where our work could affect a community. I love the collaboration that theater requires. It's not just one person who makes it all happen, no matter what the role.

Some of my favorite shows here in KC have been truly collaborative efforts for example, All Night Strut at The American Heartland Theater. Two men, two women with an amazing orchestra presenting two hours of fantastic music with incredible arrangements and intricate harmonies from the 1930s and 1940s. We sang and danced so much that by the second number, I could feel the sweat dripping down my back. We hit the stage pumped and ready and didn't stop till it was over. I loved doing that show, felt incredibly proud of my work and proceeded to get one of the most luke warm reviews. You asked how I feel about others evaluating my performances. That review taught me something. It's one person's opinion. Sure it stings when a reviewer makes disparaging comments about your work. My trusted colleague's opinions matter much more to me than a critic's. And the opinion about my work that matters the most is mine.

BecauseHeCan was about a couple that had their identities sabotaged. What are your feelings about identity theft and sabotage?

I must confess I was somewhat surprised when audience members would talk to me after seeing the play about how preposterous the situation was. They were under the impression that this kind of intrusion into people's lives via the computer was impossible, yet this kind of computer sabotage continues to occur, unfortunately. Start reading the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. There are articles about people being prosecuted for doing exactly what occurred in BecauseHeCan with increasing frequency. It can happen and does happen.

I think identity theft and sabotage happen all the time, and NOT necessarily on a computer. It happens when someone says something unfounded about another person to another person and sends a rumor into action. To quote BecauseHeCan "...and the damage is done." Gossip is just another form of identity theft and sabotage.

What motivates me, as a performer is to continue to do good work, to continue to learn, to grow to be a better performer. Performers are taught, "less is more." I keep trying to be true to the work (whether it is a song or a play) and to do it as honestly and as clearly as possible, to be specific with choices instead of generalized. Sometimes that's tremendously difficult because we want to reach into our bag of tricks and pull out another performance, to muck it up with "more" instead of "less." I continue to try to strip away the pretense and do the work as honestly as possible.

What aspect of performance gives you the most personal satisfaction?

The silence; the silence that comes at the end of a song BEFORE the applause. That moment when the audience is released from the spell of the music and they descend back into the present. That's the only way I know how to describe it. And the same is true in a play, when you can feel an audience so still, so quiet, so rapt in the moment that you have created together. It's this perfect moment and then it's gone.

What role or performance are you the most proud of and why?

I can't narrow my answer to a single role or performance. I have felt pride about different shows and for varying reasons. Sorry.

Why should readers come to see Cabaret Swings?

BECAUSE IT IS GOING TO BE AWESOME! First of all, it's at the Quality Hill Playhouse. QHP is a wonderful venue to hear music, an intimate and relaxed atmosphere with a casual elegance. At the helm of each wonderful evening is the producer/emcee/pianist extraordinaire, all combined in one person, J. Kent Barnhart. Kent continues to do a marvelous job presenting music, matching talent with style and song while subtly educating his audiences and delighting them with his stories and antidotes. Kent's adept comic timing is priceless and his sincerity will touch your heart. In every program, you will be moved to laughter or tears by the music and stories.

For Cabaret Swings, Kent has assembled a wonderful group of singers who I am honored to say are my friends. We have all sung together many times before and have had a wonderful time. Alison Sneegas Borberg is a beautiful soprano with great depth and style, a marvelous musician who brings so much feeling to her songs as a soloist, but then can shift gears in the group numbers, bringing such sensitivity to the music to feel it as one. Karen Errington Fritts has an absolutely incredible alto voice, full and rich, big, brassy and dare I say sassy. Give her a comic solo and she'll make your sides hurt with laughter. James Wright could sing the most boring, dull song ever written and you'd beg for him to sing it again just to hear his voice. I love James' voice -- smooth, warm, easy, and effortless. James can melt your heart with a ballad, make you teary with a soulful hymn and keep you laughing with his comedic abilities.

Each of these performers is an amazing soloist who can entertain and dazzle an audience in their own right. Put us together as a group, singing swing music, with the astute guidance of J.Kent Barnhart, you've got a heck of a show. I think this show is gonna sell out nightly, so get your tickets now!

For you, what is the difference in singing for an audience and acting for an audience?

Acting and singing are very similar, except one has music and one doesn't. A song is a monologue set to music. The music acts as a foundation on which the monologue is set. If the music is well written, it highlights the feelings that are being expressed in the lyrics. The combination can be tremendously exciting. The basic approach to the work is the same but the execution of the work changes based on the venue. I sing very differently when in the intimate setting of the Quality Hill Playhouse than when I have been a soloist with Kansas City Symphony singing in the Music Hall.

I love to sing, but I also love to sink my teeth into a good, meaty drama or get to play in a farcical comedy whenever the opportunity arises. Funny, I always wanted to do Shaw, Ibsen and Shakespeare but the majority of my work since I have been in Kansas City has been musicals. I miss doing the classics. I wish there were more of an opportunity for actors in Kansas City to do the classics like Chekhov, Brecht, Williams, and of course, one of my favorites, Noel Coward.

How long have you lived in Kansas City? Why is Kansas City your home?

I've lived in Kansas City for about eight, nine years, having moved from Los Angeles and before that Chicago.

Hmmm, why is KC my home? For several reasons. I have a wonderful life here -- a great house in Westwood, Missouri, two loving retrievers, a sweet cat, and a perennial garden that I've been growing for as long as I've been here. And like my garden, my roots are growing deeper each year. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a solid group of friends who feel like family to me. We have been together through life altering events. I am a part of a fantastic church community, an active member of The Junior League of Kansas City and feel very much apart of the city's arts' community.

Many times I have wanted to leave KC, looking for the impetus to return to Chicago or draw me to the East coast where there is a broader range of opportunities for actors and singers but when faced with the decision to leave, to say goodbye to friendships and this supportive community, I find I cannot leave. And therefore, here I am happily puttering in my garden or around my house with my pups and cat, feeling incredibly blessed to have such lovely life.

After interviewing Melinda for this article it just reinforced my belief that everyone in theatre should make an effort to deviate from the usual theatres we haunt and get out and meet the other performers in Kansas City. If you have never seen a show at Just Off Broadway, City Theatre of Independence, Gladstone Theatre in the Park, Olathe Community Theatre, The Missouri Repertory Theatre, UMKC Theatre Department, or any of the other dozens of theatres in this town, get out and see some of these shows. It is our responsibility as a theatre community to support theatres in Kansas City, if we don't who else will. I am as guilty as everyone else about not getting to shows around town, but this interview with Melinda is a good reminder to get out and meet more people in the theatre community, and see more theatre.

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