When her boys were teens, Denise let go of more lucrative law and business opportunities to rekindle her love of theater.
Tell us about your life before your Next Act…
I was a theater kid growing up and was actively involved in my high school theater program. While I also did some theater in college, having been raised by very pragmatic parents, I was concerned that I would not be able to make a living as an actor. As such, I graduated as a psychology major then went on to Law School. I began work as a litigation attorney representing physicians and hospitals.
I married and had two sons, Jacob and Joshua. After Joshua was diagnosed with autism, I stopped practicing law and became a stay-at-home mom.
Because of my love of theater, I involved the boys in theater programs on the North Shore, which turned out to be very therapeutic for Joshua and his development. Through theater, he learned social skills and how to cope with group dynamics. He was also able to develop friendships, as theater kids are often a very accepting group of kids. My favorite volunteer jobs during this time involved working in these theater programs. I eventually became the executive producer of our town’s yearly middle school musical and held this position for 3 years as my kids participated in the program.
Today, Jacob is a freshman in college and Joshua, having mastered his disabilities, is a senior at Interlochen Arts Academy, where he is a musical theater major.
Every time I was in the auditorium, I remember thinking how much I loved being in the theater and wished I could be in the show.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
I never really forgot about my love of theater. I think I knew that one day I would return to the stage.
I began to think about a change when Joshua was in 8th grade and I was 44. I could sense that I was going to have time to do something outside of being a stay-at-home mom. The boys were older, would soon be driving, and were going to be happily ensconced in high school. Around this time, I finished producing my last middle school musical, Footloose. Every time I was in the auditorium, I remember thinking how much I loved being in the theater and wished I could be in the show.
When my last show closed, I decided that I didn’t want to be behind the scenes anymore; I wanted to be back on stage. I did a Google search for adult acting classes and came across Acting Studio Chicago. I knew some kids who had taken teen classes there and figured it was a good place to start. I signed up for their beginning acting class.
What is you Next Act? Please tell us what you are doing…
The moment I started my first adult acting class, I knew what I would be doing for my Next Act. The love of acting, creating, and collaborating came rushing back. Four weeks after starting class, I auditioned for a nearby community theater production of Neil Simon’s Jake’s Women and accepted the small part I was offered. Through that production, I met other like-minded adults who were actively involved in theater in the Chicago-land area. I was introduced to a community of people dedicated to pursuing a desire to be actors, even as middle-aged (and older) adults.
The love of acting, creating, and collaborating came rushing back.
I am a company member and president of the board of Halcyon Theatre in Albany Park, Chicago. The mission of the theatre is to make the stage as diverse as the city of Chicago, presenting new voices from inadequately represented communities, and recasting classic works to showcase their contemporary relevance.
I started working with the company in 2012 as an Artist In Residence and was soon offered a company position. In 2014, I was made president of the board. I have performed in 4 productions with Halcyon so far. I also perform with various community and small non-equity theaters in the Chicago-land area since. I completed the core-training program at Acting Studio as well as the Academy at Black Box Acting Studio, a competitive and comprehensive conservatory training program.
Why did you choose this Next Act? What other options did you consider?
I chose theater because it was something that I have always been passionate about. Being an actor and working in theater is fun for me and I am excited every day to work on my craft and work with Halcyon Theatre.
I considered going back to the law but the idea was not exciting to me. I did try being a real estate broker for a short period of time after I quit practicing law. This was an easy and lucrative field for me to enter because of my law degree, but I did not find it fun or exciting. When it came time to do something, I just simply went with what I was really interested in.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
It was not easy to make that first call to the Acting Studio in Chicago. I felt silly asking about acting classes as a middle-aged woman. It required a lot of bravery to make the call and show up for class not knowing anyone. I did not really prepare for this change. The idea of not making a change and keeping the status quo was ultimately scarier than actually making the change.
I did not tell anyone that I was going to audition for Jake’s Women. I saw the audition notice in our local paper and wrote it down in case I would want to go. It was an open audition so all I’d need to do was show up (no need to send a headshot and resume ahead of time and wait to be invited).
The idea of not making a change and keeping the status quo was ultimately scarier than actually making the change.
When the day arrived, I ran over to the mall’s photography studio and had them take a picture so I could have some semblance of a headshot to take with me. I made up a resume with what little experience I had after doing a Google search on how to make a resume for a beginner actor.
I was super-nervous at the audition, as I had only been in acting class for a month. I used what I had learned when I read for the play. The Director turned out to have been a former director for the same middle school musicals I’d produced. I think that connection helped. I couldn’t believe I got up enough guts to audition and was so happy I did it. I was thrilled to get the part!
What challenges did you encounter?
The biggest challenge was the adjustments that had to be made within my family as a result of me becoming an actor. My husband and sons were used to me being home and involved in activities that revolved around our family. It took some time to reassert myself as an individual with independent interests and goals. I am happy to report that, with some give and take on everyone’s part, my entire family is now very supportive.
My kids probably thought I was a little crazy but they never had any objections. In fact, my guess would be that they were happy to have me involved in something other than them and their schoolwork. I do feel I am a role model for them. I think it’s important for my boys to see that a person, and a woman in particular, can do what she puts her mind to.
That said, they do not voluntarily come to my shows. My husband has brought them a few times. I am ok with them not coming. I do this for me, not for them and I understand how teenage boys could be embarrassed by what their mom is doing.
I think it’s important for my boys to see that a person, and a woman in particular, can do what she puts her mind to.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
While I never thought about giving up, carving out my place in the world outside my family was a difficult task. If I did not love being an actor and the theater as much as I do, I probably would not have tried so hard to make it work. My love and passion for theater kept me going. The idea of not having it back in my life was my motivator.
What advice so you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
There is no reason in the world to believe that you can’t do something. The biggest barrier you face from doing something you want to do is you. As a middle-aged woman, it is time to let go of what other people think and do what is best for you.
Reinventing yourself can and will give you a whole new outlook on life. When I became an actor, I started to look at my world differently. My priorities changed. I stopped thinking and worrying about little things because I no longer had the time. I stopped caring so much about what other people were doing or what they were thinking. I have made deep friendships with people I never would have met. I am still a wife and a mother, but now I am also an individual with my own identity.
Reinventing yourself can and will give you a whole new outlook on life.
What advice do you have for women interested in pursuing your path?
Take the time necessary to train and practice. Go to classes. Start small. Don’t expect to be cast at Steppenwolf Theatre or to be discovered by a Hollywood agent right away.
It takes a lot of hard work, discipline, networking, perseverance, and a thick skin to become a successful actor in midlife. I think my past experience has helped with my success but I also believe that others without a background in acting can learn the craft later in life.
It is extremely hard to make a living being an actor in local/regional theater. Most everyone I know has some kind of additional job or support system. You can make better money doing some film/commercial work but again, it is very hard to get the work.
To prepare for the business side of being an actor, you need to first train so that you have some skills. There are many places to take classes. If you live in the Chicago area, I highly recommend Acting Studio as a place to start. They will help you break into the business and help guide you as to what you need and don’t need. Talking to other actors is also extremely helpful to figure out what you need to do.
It takes a lot of hard work, discipline, networking, perseverance, and a thick skin to become a successful actor in midlife.
Many theaters have internships or Artist In Residence programs. These types of programs serve as opportunities for actors to share ideas and be involved in mentoring.
Ultimately, you will want to get an agent. However, if you are starting from scratch, you need to train and get some experience before you start looking for one. After 4 years, I am hoping to start submitting my headshot and resume to agents this spring. I feel that I have a fair amount of experience now so that a talent agency would take me seriously.
Connections are not so important when you start. All you really need to do is to go on as many auditions as you can. Once you are cast in something, it is important to maintain the relationships you make with your fellow actors and director.
What resources do you recommend?
Audition by Michael Shurtleff
What’s next for you?
I think I will be in theater from here on out. I have found what I want to do. My dream is to perform in bigger venues and get into TV and Film. I would like to become an Equity actor one day.
At the same time, I see myself helping to grow Halcyon Theatre, with the goal to see it become one of the major storefront theaters in Chicago. I love being on the board of Halcyon. While I don’t get paid, it feels like a full time job. Overseeing a theater is like overseeing a small business. There is much more to it than being on stage. I get to use my organizational skills, law background, and business skills, all in a theater setting.
I also enjoy giving back to the community. I am able to use my connections from being a mom and wife and attorney to raise money for Halcyon and bring theater to Albany Park, a community that lacks such venues. In return, I get an artistic home where I can grow and learn from a very talented group of people.
I have been able to combine my passion for theater and my life on the North Shore of Chicago into a very fulfilling second act!