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Onstage for the first time, amateur actors put hardships on hold

In “Legally Blonde,” professional actors help amateurs from the Boley Centers find their voices
Sharika Reeves, 35, performs “Ireland” while playing the part of Paulette during rehearsal for a production of the musical "Legally Blonde, Jr." the musical. She is part of a collaboration between Destination Theatre and Boley Centers in which professional actors are paired with differently abled actors.
Sharika Reeves, 35, performs “Ireland” while playing the part of Paulette during rehearsal for a production of the musical "Legally Blonde, Jr." the musical. She is part of a collaboration between Destination Theatre and Boley Centers in which professional actors are paired with differently abled actors. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jun. 2|Updated Jun. 3

GULFPORT — They climbed out of the van and stood outside the theater, staring.

The leading lady snapped a photo. Another actor pumped her fist. The leading man hung his head.

Most days, a driver took them from their group homes to Boley Centers in south St. Petersburg, where they attended classes on recovery, anger management, self-esteem.

Tuesday morning, they got dropped off at the Catherine Hickman Theatre.

Many of them never had been to a theater. Now they were about to take the stage.

“Welcome!” the director called, bursting through the doors. Five professional actors followed, giving high-fives.

“Woo-hoo!” shouted the costume designer. “You’re finally here!”

As the director led a dozen Boley clients down the left aisle, their eyes widened.

“Oh no!” an actress groaned. The stage was twice the size of the patio where they’d practiced at Boley for the last month. How would she ever make it across during her solo?

“Legally Blonde, Jr.” opened in two days.

Professional actors welcome Boley Centers' clients at the Catherine Hickman Theatre in Gulfport Tuesday.  For many, it was their first time at a theater.
Professional actors welcome Boley Centers' clients at the Catherine Hickman Theatre in Gulfport Tuesday. For many, it was their first time at a theater. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Cory Phelps and Amy Duffy were young thespians, launching careers in Atlanta, when COVID-19 canceled everything. So the couple started Destination Theatre — and took the show on the road.

Last summer, a small troupe performed the musical “How I Became a Pirate” on 30 makeshift, outdoor stages from Michigan through Florida: retirement communities, rehab centers, nursing homes.

Cory, 28, graduated from Osceola High School. His cousin is a client at Boley. So he asked to bring the production there.

More than 70 people packed the picnic tables: adults with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, addiction, learning disabilities. “That was our favorite audience,” Corey said.

Counselors had never heard their clients laugh so much. The audience was so inspired, they later put on a talent show. People who seldom spoke during group therapy played guitar, rapped, recited poems.

“They had so much enthusiasm, they wanted to do their own play,” said Boley CEO Kevin Marone.

Staff were uneasy. What if it overwhelmed people already struggling? What if they failed?

The CEO pressed on.

“We had to learn to let it go when someone was having a bad day, or had to go to the doctor, or forgot what scene we were in,” director Cory Phelps said. “It became more about the process than the product.”
“We had to learn to let it go when someone was having a bad day, or had to go to the doctor, or forgot what scene we were in,” director Cory Phelps said. “It became more about the process than the product.” [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“Alright, how is everybody feeling?” asked Amy, the music director.

“Tired.”

“Nervous.”

“Thirsty.”

Amy handed out water, then sat behind a keyboard. House lights went down. Footlights came up. The actors climbed on stage, shielding their eyes.

“OK, who knows the words best?” Amy asked.

A woman wearing a leopard print blouse half-raised her hand and said softly, “I’ve been working real hard.”

Sharika Reeves, 35, was who Cory and Amy worried about most. Insecure, painfully anxious, she had worked at a day care and loved being around kids. But depression crippled her. She had spent a month in a psychiatric hospital.

After a couple years at Boley, she had moved from a group home into her own apartment. Five days a week, she took classes.

She still hated weekends, being alone in her home, and her head.

She wasn’t sure she wanted to perform — or would be able to. But at the audition, she sang “Happy Birthday” confidently. Didn’t stumble over the scene Cory gave her. And to her surprise, he picked her to be Paulette, the hair salon owner.

“She’s my alter ego,” Sharika said. “Sassy, confident, all the things I want to be.”

When she pulled on that leopard print blouse, she became Paulette. “They even got me doing the bend and snap!” she laughed. “Sharika would never do that!”

During the opening number Tuesday, she was the only client who knew every line, sang every lyric.

“Omigod! Omigod, you guys!”

Sharika Reeves, 35, in leopard print, performs “Ireland” while playing the part of Paulette alongside Dawn Smith, 42, playing Elle Woods.
Sharika Reeves, 35, in leopard print, performs “Ireland” while playing the part of Paulette alongside Dawn Smith, 42, playing Elle Woods. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Cory and Amy came up with the concept: Instead of relying on clients to carry the show, they paired them with professionals.

Actors from Atlanta play five parts. Stage managers from the University of South Florida help with sets and props. Each saw how much trauma some people endure.

One actor had flashbacks when she put on a jail inmate costume. Another teared up when she got to wear a graduation gown. And a man in the ensemble got so shaken about going onstage he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital — but came back dancing the next day.

“We had to learn to let it go when someone was having a bad day, or had to go to the doctor, or forgot what scene we were in,” Cory said. “It became more about the process than the product.”

Local businesses and community organizations donated $35,000 for the show. Boley’s CEO plans to tout the concept. Any angst, he said, has been eclipsed by excitement.

“Our biggest worry now,” said Boley spokesperson Kathryn Juarez, “is when it’s over.”

Dawn Smith, 42, practices her lines while being fitted with a wig. 
She played Elle Woods, the star of "Legally Blonde."
Dawn Smith, 42, practices her lines while being fitted with a wig. She played Elle Woods, the star of "Legally Blonde." [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

A “Frat Boy” forgot to join the party scene. “Elle Woods” twisted her ankle. And her love interest kept wringing his hands, asking for lines.

“I don’t want to be on stage this long,” said Tim McGuire, 52, playing leading man Emmett. He recently lost his auto repair business and marriage, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I feel goofy.”

“But you’re doing great!” actress Vonetta Raines, 44, told him.

In “Legally Blonde,” Elle’s sorority sisters help her get into Harvard Law School to win back her boyfriend. A group home, Vonetta said, was probably like a sorority house, where everyone supports each other. Most of the time.

She’d come to Boley recently to recover from alcohol and cocaine and deal with her bipolar disorder. Soon her family would watch her play fitness guru Brooke Wyndham, see how far she’s come.

Dawn Smith, 42, couldn’t wait for her parents to see her as the lead. Pushing through depression, migraines and PTSD to perform had built confidence, she said. “I just hope I can pull it off.”

It took almost three hours to run the hour-long show. During lunch in the lobby, actors shared what they had learned.

“Teamwork,” Dawn said.

“Commitment,” said Sharika.

Then a stagehand, who hadn’t spoken all day, raised his hand. “I found a family,” he said. “I don’t have any family. But now I have all of you.”

Vonetta Raines, 44, (second from right) and Sharika Reeves, 35 (right) perform during rehearsal, anticipating their debut a few days away.
Vonetta Raines, 44, (second from right) and Sharika Reeves, 35 (right) perform during rehearsal, anticipating their debut a few days away. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

If you go

Actors from Destination Theatre and Boley Centers will perform Legally Blonde, Jr. on Thursday, June 2 at 7 p.m. and Friday, June 3 at 2:30 and 7 p.m. Shows will be at the Catherine Hickman Theater, 5501 27th Ave. S, Gulfport, FL. Admission is free, donations are appreciated. For more information, go to: www.destinationtheatre.org.

About this series

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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