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Ami Sallee Corley: A Woman in Mind
In just a hair over one week, Jobsite will open our newest offering, Woman in Mind, by the celebrated and prolific British playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn. Leading this all-star cast is Ami Sallee Corley, who has been a Jobsite stalwart for some time now. The following interview was conducted with Ami via email last week.
Tell us a little bit about the character you’re playing, Susan. I’m interested in your initial thoughts when you read the play, what you thought the greatest challenges would be once you found out you were cast vs what’s proved to be the most difficult parts once you got into rehearsal and what you enjoy most about the role.
Susan is an under-appreciated, under-loved, overlooked housewife. Today she is coming to realize that life hasn’t always been as it seemed. Things that she took pride in have turned out to be not so award-winning and she is faced with the new knowledge that her steadfast pillars of security throughout her life have been a facade.
When I fist read the script and right up to the auditions my take was “I can totally do this. Susan is a heavy-hitter’s role and I eat those for breakfast” and I went into auditions with every confidence that I could do Susan justice. Once inside the very packed audition room I soon reminded myself of the other side of the coin, “So can a lot of other extremely talented bay area actresses, you dolt!”. But, thankfully, the overwhelmed Ami didn’t come out to play. You know, the one that thinks, “Holy crap! I have to be better than everyone in this room?” Now, understand that 3 times a year I teach kids how to audition and for once my advice I give to them stayed in my head. Never try to be better than everyone. Always try to be the best you that you can be. I can never do Colleen McDonnell better than Colleen but no one can do Ami Sallee Corley quite like me. Get it? Simple advice, really.
It apparently worked. And by worked I mean that I apparently didn’t suck, my chemistry seemed to match the best with the other 7 actors and I seemed to be able to pull off being of an age to be married to the appropriate characters and to have birthed others and I must not have a reputation for being a real shit in rehearsals. You see, it’s never fully about your talent. That just gets you in the door.
So I get the part. I pee my pants with excitement. I feel like the gods are smiling down on me. And then it hits me. “Holy crap! I have to do Susan justice!” I just spent the better part of last fall proving that I could if given the chance. So I go back and read the play. And then again and then a third rereading. And it hits me. I’m not funny. I don’t get it. I don’t know how I will be as funny as this scripts seems to think I should be. I’m just going to be a misunderstood, sad and crazy lady about whom the audience won’t care.
Then I go to the first read through (5 months later) and am comforted by the fact that I am surround by all the right people to make a true comedy. And I see how much of the play happens to Susan. She doesn’t make the comedy it just happens upon her while she is being, among many other things, a misunderstood, sad and crazy lady. I am surrounded by a magnificent cast who carries me through every turn, every emotion, every laugh and drops me off at the curbside of the end of the play.
What do I enjoy most about this play? I get to go crazy, completely and selfishly tap into my emotions and lash out uninhibited. I have three romantic leading men: one budding romance (Shawn Paonessa), one in full bloom (Steve Garland), and one dead on the vine (Jason Evans) Susan never leaves the stage so I have full opportunity to share the energy of Live Theater with each member of the cast (which also includes Steven Ray, Caitlin MacDonald, Kari Goetz and Matt Lunsford). I could not be happier. A few weeks ago I wrote this in my blog:
“I just got home, physically shredded, intellectually numb, emotionally drained and covered in every ounce of dirt that was on the rehearsal hall floor. I couldn’t be happier. I am doing what I was meant to be doing.”
You’ve had some heavyweight roles with Jobsite over the years. Can you pick one or two favorites?
Aside from the fact that Jobsite has afforded me the privilege of playing Steve Patterson’s leading Lady (Waiting on Sean Flynn) and leading man (Delusion of Darkness), there’s Frankie in Frankie and Johnny, Tamora in Titus Andronicus and Maggie in Dancing at Lughnasa, to name a few.
- Maggie was while I was still at USF and was the first time I felt hungry after acting. For those of you who don’t act, think of it like this: A good actor uses his body, mind and his spirit to fully commit to the character. Similar to an athlete, it’s not just about going through the motions, you have to psychologically condition yourself the whole way through and you have to really put your heart into it to be good. All those things combined for around 2 hours makes me hungry. I literally switch my meals around when I get into a show like this to avoid eating a second dinner. Famished. Seriously.
- Frankie was the first time I had chemistry on stage that didn’t carry over into life. It’s hard to open you emotions to someone on stage without any slipping into reality. There’s a reason couples meet while doing a show together. It’s like match.com for actors. But with Paulie, there were no mistaken emotions. But what replaced it was an undying respect for him as an actor and as a human being which is far more rewarding than a silly show romance.
- Tamora was my first Shakespeare and let me tell you she is a powerful character to cut your teeth on. I also have a soft spot for Titus because it was the last time I got to share the stage with the late Mark Trent and Ize Ofrika (Love to you both). Our theater community changed with the loss of those two beautiful men.
The process of creation feeds all artists in different ways, and we all have various reasons for doing what we do. What do you think the satisfaction for you is as an actress, and why do you ultimately think you act?
I’ve often said that my memoirs will be told through the roles that I have played. I remember thinking to myself when I was not cast in The Beauty Queen of Leenane that it was a good omen. You see my mother came to live with me that year…
Seriously, though, I do this because I am a continuously evolving emotional ball of energy and when I journey down the rabbit hole of a character, I look forward to the new person that comes out the other side. The new person who is forever changed for having walked a mile in another’s shoes. And if, by chance, someone in the audience goes down the rabbit hole with me on a given performance night and gains what they didn’t even know they were lacking prior to, well then that’s the best feeling someone could have, believe me. I have been very selective with my acting opportunities in the past 3 years, due to my career, so I always try to make sure it’s a rabbit hole worth venturing down because it just may be two years before the next one.
Is there anyone in your life, or any specific events in your life that you think have prepared you for a role like this?
My mother is a retired psychiatric nurse. All through my childhood I was affected by the stories of the mentally ill. She worked with in a youth mental hospital, the state mental hospital and eventually with mentally ill geriatric patience. Both her parents’ were very hard-working people whose minds went before their bodies did (Alzheimer’s and Dementia) and I experienced her struggle with that twice. My grandfather died when I was thirteen and my grandmother this March. My family has also had a history of depression and I was on anti-depressants in my late teens, just after the Prozac scare era. I know what it feels like to think that your whole life was for nothing that it was all a waste up to this very moment and I cannot imagine how much further I’d have gone if I did not surround myself with completely supportive and caring friends and family who have always been there without asking. That’s where Susan starts the play, with no support network except the one she has created in her head.
Is there anything you’d like to tell us about the ensemble of actors you’re working with – any good stories or anything like that?
- It is my first time on stage with half of these cats. I do have history with them all. I like to claim introducing both Steve’s (Garland and Ray) to Jobsite. Don’t know if that is actually, but I had worked with and seen their work outside of Jobsite and strongly suggested that they come and audition with us 🙂
- I have worked with Erica as SM while I was a director, but this is my first time as an actor.
- I directed and conceived (Neil, Shawn and Chris wrote) the role of Tempa for Caitlin MacDonald in The Acropolis Project: Balance.
- Jay and I seem to find ourselves in plays where we peripherally come in contact with each other (Sean Flynn was the exception).
- I thoroughly enjoy watching Matt and Kari playing each other’s counterparts, there should be a comic strip where Muriel and Tony are arch rivals: He’ll kill you with kindness, she’ll kill with her cooking.
- I probably have the longest history with Shawn. He was in my first three Jobsite shows, we’ve directed each other (he’s been in every Jobsite show I’ve directed) and he’s written the show that I conceived. Not to mention he’s a dear friend who’s acted as my psychiatric bouncing board when life’s gotten a little too shitty for my liking, which makes it fun that he is playing my doctor in this one.
Did you have a specific role model, mentor or idol as a young actress that you think formed you or that you aspired to be?
I remember watching the Emmy’s the year Bonnie Bartlett won supporting actress for St. Elsewhere and in her speech she said that she played the Frog in the Frog Prince when she was in elementary school. I had just finished being bummed out that I got the role for the Frog in the Frog Prince (I was in 4th grade and had to sing a love song to a girl …). It literally changed my perception casting around. I realized that it was not a judge on who you are but who you can pull off. Big lesson for a fourth grader.
I’ve always been a fan of Colleen Dewhurst, Meryl Streep, Dame Judiy Dench. Kids Inc. and You Can’t Do that on Television let me know that kids can act and gave us ideas for our weekly neighborhood plays/episodes/talent revues – highlight reel would have 5th grade when Danny Rennie and I sang Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong and our weekly re-enactment of the A-Team episode (I was always Murdock).
What advice would you give to the young actresses here in Tampa Bay to get them on the path and into the business here?
- You have to go out and make the opportunities you are looking for.
- Observation is a powerful learning tool. If you don’t have a big part you should be watching how a director directs people differently, learning what makes a good actor and what doesn’t. Pick up some good habits from the pros.
- Keep yourself in classes. Acting is a sport, if you get out of shape, you are less likely to be able to jump right back in.
Everyone always wants to know why a show will appeal to them – it may be the subject matter, the writing, technical elements, the fact that it’s funny or any number of factors that makes someone take a chance on seeing something. If you had to pitch the show to someone you didn’t know very well, what would you say to them to make them want to come?
It is everything funny about British humor (Are You Being Served?, The Office) with a sweet ass journey into insanity. And the best part is you get to see the world through the crazy lady’s eyes. It’s all just left of center until about halfway through the second act when it goes completely off the map.
Top 3 films: Harold and Maude, The Dark Crystal, Bud Townsend’s Alice in Wonderland
Books: Go Ask Alice, Stranger in a Strange Land, A Clockwork Orange
TV shows (all time): M*A*S*H, LOST, Little House on the Prairie
Things to put in your mouth: Four Green Field’s Salmon Melt with a side of Salmon Chowder, Shrimp Pad Thai, Bananas and Peanut Butter, Starburst Jelly Beans
Things to do when alone: Journal writing, singing, yoga, cranking up the iTunes and dancing around the house while I clean.
Places to visit: Glastonbury, England; NYC; North Carolina (Asheville, Greensboro); Savannah; The Grotto at St. Leo College
Bands: Imogene Heap, KT Tunstall, Pink Floyd, Ben Folds, Live
Current neighborhood: Seminole Heights
Pets: Frankie, the Wonderdog and Janis Joplin, the cat with the hoarse meow
Schools: Studied at University of South Florida, Valdosta State University, New Mexico State University, AA in theater performance from St. Leo College.
Tell me up to three things not many people know about you.
I used to DJ Karaoke at the China Doll Lounge and DJ the college radio station in Valdosta Georgia. I wrestled a hog in a mud pen at the Dale Fall Festival of ’85 (lasted something like 5 minutes, for whatever that’s worth). I have a carryover childhood fascination with Winnie the Pooh, more specifically the classic illustrations, even more specifically Christopher Robin.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I consider myself blessed to have a fan like David Jenkins. To have such a dedicated and successful director see your potential and enjoy working with you is a gift. Most of the roles I have embodied through Jobsite have been because David saw a fit for me in one of his casts. He is a very generous director who expects nothing less than for you to be your very best. He encourages a two way street with artistic input and allows the play to breathe throughout the process. I have no doubt that he will lead this fearless ensemble to another Jobsite success.