Given the growing theater scene in the metropolitan area, professional actors can make a pretty good living here. But there is steady competition and there are down times between jobs.
Two veteran Kansas City actors have managed to snare big roles while also stretching their employability by tapping other artistic talents – and it seems they’ve been moonlighting their whole careers.
More people know Peggy Friesen for her work as an actor, as she’s appeared on nearly every stage in Kansas City in such plays as Wit and Frozen. But her first artistic venture was as a young girl playing the harp.
“I came from a very musical family,” says Friesen, who grew up in Kansas City. “We all played piano, put on concerts – it was pretty crazy. And my sister and I played harp. I stuck with it (and) she went on to the cello.
“So I was a musician first. And when I got to Stephens College, the instructor there wasn’t very challenging, and I got interested in other things, including theater.”
A French Twist
She was scheduled to attend a student trip to the Sorbonne in Paris but when the political tumult there in the Summer of 1968 forced that trip’s cancellation, it opened Friesen’s calendar.
“I had nothing to do, so I drove over to Lawrence to see if there were any classes to take,” she recalls. “The only classes available were theater courses. I said, ‘Well I’m interested in theater.’ So I worked backstage all summer in the KU theater department and I was hooked ever since.”
Acting took over for about a decade while she rented our her harp. But she eventually picked it up again, and has ever since juggled musical gigs with acting jobs. And in one case, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s A Christmas Carol, she does both.
“I’ve been doing that for 26 years. It’s keyboard and harp accompaniment. Over on the side of the stage, if you look close you can see me. I also act; I always have.
“I’ve played Mrs. Cratchit, then Ghost of Christmas Past, then Mrs. Fezziwig, then Ghost of Christmas Past again, then I was Belle for a while,” she says. “So I’ve played about every role but Tiny Tim. But when I’m not onstage acting in a character, I’m playing the harp.”
Mind Over Matter
Asked if she believes the harp and the acting work different parts of her brain, Friesen immediately says, “Definitely.”
“I don’t know what it is but I have difficulty memorizing harp music – any kind of music,” she adds. “But I have no trouble memorizing dialogue. As I get older and more experienced with both mediums, I’m finding more similarities than there used to be.”
Cheryl Weaver, known for her acting work in such productions as The Rep’s August: Osage County last season, has wanted to act since seeing the Rodgers and Hammerstein television musical Cinderella at the age of ten. But before realizing that dream, she employed sewing skills in college that she learned at the hand of her grandmother.
“You’re looking around always for those work study jobs, and there was one available making costumes, and I said, ‘Oh, I know how to sew’,” Weaver recalls. "It turned out to be very fortuitous because I learned a lot from the famous Chez Haehl. He was fabulous.He had been a cutter in the Garment District in New York, and he worked Broadway a little bit as a costume assistant. So he knew his stuff.
“He was old and grizzled and had that cigarette stuck between his teeth. His basic tenet was (and he always said this to us lowly costume students), ‘If it’s too big, take it in; if it’s too small, add a piece’. There was my education in costume design.”
Off the Rack
BINGO: The Winning Musical, currently at American Heartland Theatre, credits Weaver for costumes, though she says she didn’t exactly build the wardrobe from scratch.
“For BINGO, we’re restricted to modern dress for women who shop at places like Target and Wal-Mart,” Weaver says. “Essentially I shopped this show, more or less
“You bring in lots of choices (in case) one color doesn’t look right or one outfit doesn’t fit; I have to guess on that though I have their measurements . We aren’t building these clothes, we aren’t sewing these clothes – I mean, I do take them in and let them out in my Chez Hael way - but you gotta have some choices.”
Whole in the Head
Weaver also shares her personal take on the theoretical uses of left versus right brain.
“An actor uses whole brain, if they’re doing it right, I think,” she says. “There’s that tenet of drawing on the right side of the brain that uses that creativity. But the actual skill is almost a mathematical thing, so that’s an area I probably don’t use as much as an artist.
“It’s just different. It’s a different form of art.”
Both Friesen and Weaver say that if forced to choose between their two skills in the arts, they'd pick acting.
BINGO: The Winning Musical, starring Debra Bluford, runs through August 19th at American Heartland Theatre and Peggy Friesen will appear in The Mousetrap with Kansas City Actors Theatre next month. The Artists in Their Own Words series is funded by the Missouri Arts Council, a stage agency.