BY PAULA MINAERT — We all know that Hyattsville is part of the Gateway Arts District. What isn’t as well known is that along with writers, dancers, jewelers and other artists, Hyattsville also has actors. And they practice their craft on the stages of theaters all over the Washington metropolitan area. Here is a look at some of them.
Jennifer Mendenhall and Michael Kramer, husband and wife, are both actors. She is a company member at Woolly Mammoth and has performed at Studio Theatre, Arena Stage, Theatre J and the Shakespeare Theater, among others, and won a Helen Hayes Award in her role as Lemon in Aunt Dan & Lemon. Michael Kramer has acted at Ford’s Theatre, African Continuum Theatre, The Roundhouse Theater, Olney Summer Theater, and the Kennedy Center – again, a partial list.
Mendenhall calls acting “a union of geometry and psychology. It’s dedicated to expressing the human condition – that’s psychology – and to the physical manifestation of it. That’s where the geometry comes in.”
Kramer is fascinated with theater’s connection to story and myth (and religion). “Theater explores the deepest issues of life but in a less restrictive way, without an institution around it. The best theater doesn’t make pronouncements but simply says, ‘I’m just showing you what is.’”
They describe themselves as very lucky, because their day job allows them to pay the bills, raise their children and continue to do theater. They are an audiobook narrating team, working from sound studios in their house. They’ve recorded the books of popular fantasy writer Robert Jordan, to take just one example, and their names can be found on the backs of many audiobooks at the Hyattsville library. (Jennifer goes by the name of Kate Reading).
“It’s the best of all possible worlds,” said Mendenhall. Her next show is Clybourne Park at Woolly Mammoth Theater, July 18 to August 14.
Peggy Yates’s parents were a singing team and had a career in the 1940s and 1950s. After their nine children started coming, her father developed a children’s theater company, which still operates. Everyone in the family was part of it.
“We traveled and performed in schools and theaters in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts. We did adaptations of children’s stories that were musicals. So theater is in my blood.”
She came to this area to tour with the National Players, which is affiliated with Catholic University, and got a graduate degree there. She also met her husband in the theater, in Much Ado About Nothing, and, she said, history was made.
Yates divides her time now between doing theater, teaching acting at the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus, directing shows with middle and high school students, and teaching speech at Prince George’s Community College.
“I keep very busy. It’s a constant negotiation between theater work and teaching and getting my kids where they need to go. It’s a balancing act but we all do it.”
She is currently in The Apple Cart, by George Bernard Shaw, at the Washington Stage Guild. It runs Thursdays through Sundays until May 22.
Shawn Perry has been performing since he was five years old, when, as he put it, it was discovered he could carry a tune. He started by singing in church, in a men and boys’ choir at St. Catherine Labouré in Wheaton, and has been singing ever since.
“I guess everyone has that first theatrical experience that gives them that bug that never goes away. When I played Ebenezer Scrooge in eighth grade, it was the first time I’d ever gotten applause. It’s an intoxicating thing.”
He majored in speech and drama at Catholic University and performed there, but stopped being in shows when his children started arriving. As with many actors, he had to take a day job. He did sing in a coffeehouse group called Works in Progress in the 1990s, and has sung in the St. Jerome’s folk group for more than 30 years.
When Perry’s youngest child was 14, Maureen Roult (see below) told him the chorus of the Washington Savoyards needed members. He auditioned and sang in their production of Iolanthe. That’s when he fell in love with performing all over again, and began working in community theaters all over the region: the Victorian Lyric Opera Company in Rockville, the Little Theater of Alexandria, the Prince George’s Little Theater, the U Street Atlas Theater in D.C. and theaters in Laurel and Bowie.
“Some places I get paid a little bit. Most places I don’t. I do it for love of it and enjoy the heck out of it,” he said. “My wife will tell you whenever I’m in a show I’m a much more alive person than when I’m not. I seem to be more alert, attentive to everything, and generally happier and more enthusiastic about life. I think that’s pretty good. I didn’t notice it, but she did.”
Perry played Big Tim Sullivan and other roles in Rags, which just closed at the Theater Lab.
Maureen Roult says she got into performing almost by accident. She hadn’t done any theater in college, focusing more on dancing. Then she saw a local company’s productions of some Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, and ended up auditioning and getting into the chorus. It was the Victorian Lyric Opera Company. Since then, she’s been in all 13 of the G&S operettas and has performed with about 20 community theater companies in the area.
All this is in addition to her day job, which is at the Department of Defense – a very different world, she admits.
“After sitting at a computer all day, it’s nice to get up and do something different. Theater is a nice break. A lot of people I work with have hobbies that have nothing to do with work – quilting or Irish step dancing.”
Roult has a lot of fun with her hobby. She likes meeting new people and making new friends. Some of her favorite roles were Pitti-Sing in The Mikado and Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance. She especially enjoys Gilbert and Sullivan because, she says, she can play dress-up. She also likes working backstage, having moved sets, done costuming and acted as assistant stage manager. She often finds herself between scenes hemming someone’s dress or repairing a rip. It’s a way to learn new skills, she says.
As well as Gilbert and Sullivan, she has acted in Bye, Bye, Birdie (Mae Peterson, a non-singing role) and The Sound of Music and is currently in Burial at Thebes, a modern adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone. It’s her first tragedy.
“It’s all for fun. I don’t see myself making any money from it; I need my day job to support my theater habit.”
Burial at Thebes is playing weekends at the Greenbelt Arts Center until May 21.