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An Interview With...Sheila Sheffield
STARTING OUT

How did you get started in theater?
In the 4th grade we were doing a production of Cinderella.  Our teacher decided to let the class vote on who would be Cinderella (way to wiggle out of that one, Mrs. Tackett).  I won.  I was ecstatic.  Then Mrs. T. took me aside and said, "You know, it doesn't take a lot of talent to play a role like Cinderella.  But it takes more talent and would be a lot more fun to play one of the stepsisters."  Yep, I fell for that line.  But all the laughs from the audience were enough to convince me she had been right, and it would be years and years before I thought I could do anything other than a character role.

What hooked you? Was it your first school play-movie-first time seeing a Broadway Show?  What inspired you to be where you are today?
We moved around a great deal when I was a child, and my only friends were my 3 brotherswe were always creating dopey characters and stupid skits.  My father loved to blast big band music, Frank Sinatra, and show tunes from the stereo, and we all would sing along.  Music was a part of my life since I drew my first breath, and somehow performing seemed to spring naturally from that.

What was the first play you ever saw?  Ever performed in?
I grew up in Florida and visited New York for the first time when I was 14 and part of a teenage choir that had a few performance dates in the area.  I saw two theatrical productions during that week that have forever stayed with me: "La Traviata" at the Met (the old Metwe stood in the Family Circle up near the ceiling for 4 hoursI was enchanted); and "The Sound of Music" on Broadway (with Nancy Dussault).

Did you study acting?  If not, how did you get into it?
My high school was very small and brand new-we were the first graduating class.  We didn't put on any plays at all, except for a pastiche production of "The Mikado" in 10th grade. I did do a lot of theater in college, though.  Then I got married and lived in Chicago (took some improv classes at Second City) and had two children.  When we moved to Bayside, Queens in 1980, I thought to myself, here I am in New York, I should take some acting classes.  I was working part time in the Empire State Building, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts was just around the corner.  I enrolled in the Night Division and was there for two years, getting an Associate Degree.  It was the best thing I ever did for me.


GETTING IN

What was your first audition?
My first real audition was early in my freshman year of college, when my roommate and I auditioned for "Taming of the Shrew."  I walked into the theater to find two men grappling on the floor and rolling around the room (turned out they were rehearsing a scene from "The Caretaker").  One of them stood up, dusted himself off, and introduced himself as the director.  Oh God, what had I gotten myself into?  My roommate and I read and fled.  A few days later my then boyfriend announced my first theatrical accomplishment by saying to me, "I have tragic news.  For me anyway.  You got the lead...the lead!!...in "Taming of the Shrew." I was so dumb it took me another 6 months to dump the guy.

How do you choose what play you will audition for?  The piece itself, the director, theater, you were pre-cast, etc.
All of the abovealthough the play is always the most important thing.  I am usually willing to take a chance on an unknown theater or director if there are enough other factors to make it worthwhile.

Speaking of pre-casting, tell us how you really feel about the subject.
Pre-casting is a fact of life, whether it be the local community theater or Long Island theater or Broadway. I have benefited from it, and I have been bitterly disappointed because of it.  What's inexcusable about it is when an audition notice does not mention that certain parts are already cast.

What types of parts do you normally play?  Do you feel typecast?
I used to feel I was typecast, but as I look at the variety of roles I've played over the last 7 or 8 years, I'd have to say that's no longer true.  One good thing about getting older is that although the number of parts available shrinks, the variety in the roles available widens.  (I can't really think of any other good thing about getting older.)


CHARACTERIZATION

What is your approach to developing your character?
First I read the play over and over and over--out loud as much as possible.  If the play deals with a subject I don't know much about, I study up on it.  Still, most character development takes place during the rehearsal process.  Everyone on stage with you becomes a part of who your character is, and all the delicious shades and nuances start to develop when you can trust and be challenged by your fellow actors and the director.

Of all the characters you have portrayed, who is your favorite?
I have to take the same old stance a mother takes when asked which of her children is her favorite:  I don't have a favorite.

What roles offered you the greatest challenge and why?  How well do you think you met the challenge?
Annie Wilkes in "Misery" was probably the biggest challenge.  It was so difficult to get to whatever truth lay beneath the madness.  Like most actors, I always feel as though I could have and should have done a better job, worked harder, taken more chances. I think I have too strong a need to be safe.  I have to keep working against that.

What role do you wish you could have a second shot at and get it right this time?
When I was at AADA, I played the role of Eliza Gant in "Look Homeward, Angel."  She is supposed to be 57, and I was only 33 at the time.  I knew I was way too young to really understand the character, but I absolutely loved playing her.  I would love to give her a go again when I am the right age.  Which, of course, is YEARS AND YEARS AND YEARS away.

What roles or types of roles would you most like to play in the future?
Anything!  Everything!  The more variety, the better.


MOTIVATION

How do you feel when you perform?
That I am where I belong.

What motivates you to keep on doing what you're doing?
The pleasure, the fulfillment, the knowledge that the more I do the better I will become and that you are never too old to be an actor.

During opening night jitters each one of us has said, "Why do I do this to myself?"  Why do you do it?
Because if I didn't do it, I'd be saying to myself, "Why aren't you doing that to yourself, you coward?"


SHARING

Did you ever miss an entrance, drop enough lines for it to be noticeable, crack up on stage?
We were doing a production of "The Actor's Nightmare" (how appropriate) in a little hole-in-the-wall theater space on 22nd Street or somewhere. The theater was about the size of a closet and the dressing room was way around the corner and down a hallway in an even smaller closet.  Everything was so informal and unorganized that I had no idea the performance had even started.  So I missed my first entrance in an offoffoffoff Broadway show.

What was your worst theater experience?
My two least favorite theatrical experiences occurred when I was directing and had to deal with actors whose egos were a whole lot larger than their talent.


OTHERS

Why do you perform at the theaters you do?
Ummmmmmmmmbecause they cast me?

Do you think regional theater will continue to grow on L.I.?
There's no reason why it shouldn't flourish.  There is enough talent on Long Island to keep all of its theaters running-but that message still needs to get across to the people who buy tickets.

Who are some of the actors you've most admired or who have been particularly rewarding to work with?
I have to say that in the dozen or so shows I've done in Long Island Theater over the past 9 years, I have never had a bad experience with any of the casts I've worked with.  Some of the plays may have been better than others, some of the parts more memorable, but I've always had a great time during rehearsals and performances and have a lot of admiration for many of the actors and techies I've worked with.

Who's the best (in your opinion) that you've done a show with?
Not gonna go there.

Who is your favorite performer? favorite L.I. performer?
See above response about refusing to name favorites.


LIFE ISSUES

How do you maintain your career and do theater?
It is only possible with the support of my employer (that's why I had to quit my last job) and the support of my husband.

Why do you spend so much time toiling in L.I. Theater?
Because I live on Long Island.  Otherwise, I'd be toiling somewhere else.

Do you find that your family supports your love of theater?
Yes, 100%, always, forever, parents, husband, children, in-laws, everyone.  I'm very, very fortunate that way.

How has performing enriched your life?
I am a much happier person when I'm performing than when I'm not, which those who have to live with me understand even better than I.


FUN

What brings you the greatest joy?
My family.  Acting.  Singing.  Eating.  Sex.

What really irks you?
People who constantly complain.

If you won LOTTO tomorrow you would...
be absolutely mystified because I've never bought a lottery ticket.

Is it true that you'd really rather be rich than good looking?
THAT'S A BALD-FACED LIE!!!! WHO TOLD YOU THAT????!!!

What's your favorite word?
Home.

Assuming that there is a heaven, what do you want to hear when you get there?
Choir rehearsal in 10 minutes!!!


FUTURE PLANS

Given your choice of parts in plays, which play and role is your heart's desire?
Mary Tyrone. Sally Durant.