General 2-15-2006

A Journey Into Theater: Sally Wingert

Carol Logan describes how our own Sally Wingert, a highly valued asset on the Twin Cities theater scene, entered her career by way of community theater. Here's the story.

mad dancers
mad dancers
children's hour
Children's Hour
christmas carol
Sally Wingert

From October 7 to October 30, 2005, Twin Cities theater-goers had the unusual opportunity of witnessing Sally Wingert transform herself into a nineteenth-century mystical Hasidic rebbe in Mixed Blood Theatre’s production of The Mad Dancers by Yehuda Hyman. This play was the winner of the 2000 Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays Award.

Guthrie Theater season ticket holders, as well as occasional attendees at Guthrie productions, have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Wingert in many such varied roles over the past 20 years. She took her first curtain call on the Guthrie’s stage as Madame Aubrey (and a nun) twenty years ago in the 1985-86 production of Cyrano. And on December 24, 2005 she gave her final performance as Mrs. Cratchit (and Forrest) at the old Guthrie Theater on Vineland Place in Minneapolis in A Christmas Carol, the seasonal favorite that has been running there for over 30 years.

But what most theater-goers wouldn’t know about is the path that led her to the stage in the first place. Prior to 1985, Wingert worked as a professional actor for four years at the Actor’s Theater of St. Paul, “where I got my greatest initial training,” she said.

“I was lucky enough to get my Actors’ Equity card in 1981, and to immediately get a job at the Actor’s Theater of St. Paul. You have to take a leap of faith to join AE,” she said, since once you join you can no longer act in unpaid community theater productions.

Like many professional actors, Wingert’s career began in community theater. She graduated in 1976 from Robbinsdale High School and for the next five years acted in the following community theaters and other organizations, many of which no longer exist:
• The New Hope Outdoor Musical Theater, which was managed by Tom Dunn.
• The Playwrights’ Center, also directed by Tom Dunn, where she took part in staged readings, then located in the Walker Church in South Minneapolis.
• The Theater of Involvement, which had a space on the University of Minnesota campus in the basement of a church. She sang and danced there as an 18-year-old chorus member in the chamber musical production of Celebration, a show by Fantasticks authors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.
• The New Coffee House Theater, located in the Hillel Center on the university campus.
• At Random
• The Mill City Theater
• The Brass Tacks Theater
• The Women’s Theater Project

Wingert’s strongest and most formative community theater memories are from her three productions at The Theater in the Round Players (TRP): Steam Bath, Otherwise Engaged, and The Children’s Hour.

“TRP does fabulous theater,” she said. “It is the starting point for many actors, giving them opportunities to go on to become professional actors. It did that for me.”

In the 1977 comedy Steam Bath she emerged from a cake and danced. Jack Reuler, who had just started the Mixed Blood Theater, played the lead, and Mike Arndt directed. But her strongest memories from TRP are of a scene from Otherwise Engaged, when she had to take off her shirt and do the whole scene topless – and braless.

“I was incredibly nervous,” she said. “At the first preview they had invited a group of male juveniles from a chemical dependency treatment center. I was terrified, not knowing how they would react. A drink was thrown on my shirt [by another actor] as a pretext for my taking off my shirt. There was a rumble among the 17-18-year-old boys. Then they calmed down and paid attention.”

There was a post-play discussion afterwards, but she couldn’t go to it. She heard afterwards that the boys had said, “It took a lot of guts for her to do that in front of us.” She didn’t know about the topless scene when she auditioned for the part, but she found out when they offered her the job. “I took a risk to do something so outside of me. It took a lot of soul-searching to say yes to doing topless, but it made me realize that it’s not just ‘all about me.’ There are reasons you do things,” she said.

Her other strong TRP memory is from her participation in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. “I grew a lot,” she said. Jon Cranney was the director and he went on to become the artistic director at the Children’s Theater Company.

“Jon cast me in his first production at Children’s Theater, so TRP was a springboard for my professional career.”

And so this is some of “the rest of the story” of how Sally Wingert went from her first acting role in ninth grade– as a playing card in Alice in Wonderland— through two years as a student at the University of Minnesota and a few years acting at numerous area community theaters, to being one of the most admired, versatile and respected professional actors in the Twin Cities theater world.

As encouragement and advice to young actors just starting out, she recommends: “See everything that you possibly can. Usher for theaters that you can’t afford a ticket to. Audition for all kinds of plays. Learn to work outside your comfort zone. Pay attention to what others are doing in rehearsal. Your peers are the best teachers. Support other artists. This can be a lonely world without the help of the theater community. You’ll rarely be bored.”