When all the World’s a Stage

... at least part of the time

Shannon Willis Scruggs is executive director of the SC Bar Foundation by day and an actress on the local stage by night.

Photography by Jeff Amberg

Some things are meant to be. Just ask Lou Clyde. Taking her daughter to an audition for a production of “Cinderella,” Lou decided on the spur of the moment to try out for a role in the play herself. “My daughter had a friend whose mother was auditioning for the part of the evil stepmother, and even though I’d never acted, I thought, ‘I can do that,’” she says with a laugh. She was right, and she was offered the part. “I think they liked my ad-lib section of the audition, when we were asked to tell the daughters to do their chores. I’ve got two girls of my own, and I know how to make them listen. I guess it showed.”

That was 10 years ago. Since then, Lou has performed in more than a dozen shows at Town Theatre, The Chapin Theatre Company and Workshop Theatre. Since that first audition, when the only song she knew well enough not to trip over the words was “Happy Birthday,” she’s become confident singing on stage. She’s also become a master juggler, balancing not just family and acting responsibilities, but also those that go along with her full-time job as director of Customer Insights and Analysis for SCANA.

“Finding the balance is really tough,” she says. “Work has to come first, but the acting is very intense so you can’t back away from it once you’ve made the commitment.” For Lou, every minute counts, including time in the car, where she learns her lines by listening to audio recordings she makes of them. “People see me talking while driving alone and think I’m nuts.” Still, no matter how much time it takes, Lou has found a second home on the stage. “You do it for love … and I love it,” she says.

Lou isn’t alone. Throughout the Columbia area, lawyers, doctors, marketers and other professionals are spending their evenings and weekends not at home, but rehearsing and performing in bands and theater productions. Nightly rehearsals for plays, which tend to run well into the night, begin about eight weeks prior to opening, becoming more intense as opening night looms. Once open, the plays will be performed a dozen or so times over the course of three or four weeks. “I admire them and their families,” says Sandra Willis, executive director of Town Theatre. “I could never do what they do. The time commitment is a real sacrifice. Our actors, directors and production staff give up so much to share their talents with us.”

Still, the actors adore what they’re able to do and are grateful for the support of their families. “There’s no doubt about it, you’ve got to have an understanding spouse,” says attorney, husband, father-of-three and actor Harrison Saunders, who has been performing since he was about 18 and was cast in a Workshop Theatre production. “I loved it, and it snowballed from there,” he says. In fact, after receiving a degree in theater from USC, Harrison left Columbia for New York to pursue a career as an actor. After two years in the Big Apple, he decided to return to South Carolina for law school.

“To make your career as an actor, you need to have a kind of driving passion for it that can fuel you through the emotional merry-go-round,” he explains. “I love theater, but I missed working in it with people I knew. That social side was very important to me. I decided that my best bet was to make my living doing something else and continue acting in local productions.” In addition to traditional plays, Harrison has taken on more challenging productions — specifically playing artist Mark Rothko in a recent Trustus Theatre production of “Red,” which detailed the story of the artist’s life. “Portraying an actual person is a unique challenge,” he explains. “But what an experience.”

Like most performers, Harrison has found that time on stage has enriched his life tremendously. “Not only have the actual acting skills come in handy in the courtroom, but also no matter how exhausted I am, the people I’m around during a show are so talented and creative that it recharges my battery.”

Shannon Willis Scruggs’s family ties to acting are particularly deep: Sandra Willis, her mother, is the executive director of Town Theatre. But it was Shannon who got her mother into the theater, not the other way around. Shannon, who is the executive director of the South Carolina Bar Foundation, has been performing since she joined the church choir as a child.

“The choir director told my mother that I should be on stage, so she took me to Town Theatre,” recalls Shannon. “I auditioned for ‘Annie’ and was offered a part in the ensemble as an orphan. In 30 years, I’ve never looked back.” Although she took a break from the stage during her years at Wofford, after graduation she was ready to act again. She’s glad she didn’t give it up, because she’s found that the benefits have affected her both personally and professionally. “I can pinpoint the skills I’ve learned on the stage that have helped me with almost every aspect of my job,” she explains. “And there’s nothing like being on stage.”

These days, Shannon spends as much time directing as she does acting. “I still love acting, but as a director, there’s something joyful about turning the show over to the actors and watching them succeed,” she says. “With all the bad things going on in the world, it’s a nice way to spend a couple of hours.” She’s also keeping the family tradition going: her daughter, Kendall, is a regular on Town Theatre’s stage.

Like Shannon, photographer Brian Dressler got an early start as a performer, but instead of acting, Brian chose music. “My father played in the marching band and was a music major at Northwestern University in Chicago, and my grandfather was a vocal instructor there, so we grew up pretty much surrounded by music,” he says. “My brothers, sisters and I sang in the church choir, and I started playing the clarinet in third grade.”

But it was his voice that got him noticed. A member of the family’s church happened to own Chicago’s largest youth talent agency. When he heard Brian one Sunday morning, he encouraged him to audition for commercials as a jingle singer. He did, and soon he found himself part of an ensemble that recorded commercial jingles for Pop-Tarts, Armour Hot Dogs and Franco-American Spaghetti-Os. “It was a great gig, especially when we got out of school early to record,” he recalls. “Unfortunately, when my voice changed, I was toast.”

As much as Brian enjoyed singing, it was playing in his high school jazz band, first in Missouri and later at Irmo High, that got him hooked on performing. Since graduating from USC, he’s played tenor saxophone with the Columbia Community Concert Band and, more recently, the Greater Columbia Community Big Band, which plays jazz-infused standards. “It’s so important to keep big band jazz alive,” he says. “It’s music that’s unique to America. But there’s also nothing finer than the feeling you get synchronizing with five trumpets and five trombones. It’s amazing.” Although Brian would like to spend more time on his music, as a full-time photographer who travels around the country on photo shoots for clients, his time is limited. “We either practice or perform on Tuesdays during the school year. It’s just enough to keep me happy.”

For Tye Price, vice president of Chernoff Newman, the desire to be in a rock band came in a single moment. “I was about 14 and heard the guitar on Van Halen’s song ‘Eruption’ and that was it,” he says. “I had to play guitar.” He and his high school friends started their own band, the first of many for Tye. “Since then, I’ve always been a part of some type of group that was making music,” he says. “I find it a great way to express myself, even when we’re playing somebody else’s music.”

Three years ago, Tye and a group of his best friends formed the band Jetlag Jones. “Our audience gets to let their hair down, and for us it’s a great escape,” he says. “Plus, I get to spend time with my friends playing the music we grew up listening to. I can’t imagine a better creative outlet. I finish every show or rehearsal with a clear mind and renewed energy.”

David Campbell, president and COO of Chernoff Newman and a guitar player himself, agrees. “Being on stage is a great confidence builder. It allows you to step into something besides yourself.” Although David came onto the band scene late — after learning “three chords” in high school, he set down his guitar until he was about 40 — he loves the challenge. “I’m not in a band now, which frees me up to play open mike nights and to fill in when other band members are out. You arrive ready to play, but nervous about things like whether your chord changes will be smooth,” he says. “It’s the greatest feeling to stop for a second and listen to yourself and realize that you aren’t totally horrible.”

Growing up in a musical family, Dr. Malcolm Gordon, a Columbia dentist, was so talented that his band gigs paid for both college and dental school. Once he graduated and began his practice, he continued to dabble in music, singing in the choir at Shandon Methodist Church and participating in weekly jam sessions with friends. One day about five years ago, Malcolm’s daughter told him about a group in Chicago who had formed a band that played exclusively for charities. “It seemed like a great idea, and something that we could do in Columbia,” he says. Before long, Malcolm had assembled a group of musical friends who shared his vision and formed the Heart ‘N Soul band. Now, about twice a month, the group plays the R&B and doo-wop songs from their youth at charity events in and around Columbia. To date, the group has raised over $2 million. “When we started we had one singer and no horns,” says Malcolm. “Today, there are 11 members, and we have a full horn section and five vocalists who create great harmonies. It allows us to come pretty close to the original sound of those songs.” The band has become so popular over the years that they now perform two or three public shows a year. “All of our band members have played in successful bands over the years. Now it’s time to give back.”

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