2003 Keynote

Ruby Griffith Award Ceremony
Keynote Speech

Presented by special guest, Donna Migliaccio

Twenty years ago, I cut my long hair short, had it permed, and got my ears pierced. None of this was motivated by fashion, a new boyfriend or a deep desire for change. The reason was far more prosaic. I was working for the now-defunct Mutual Broadcasting System and was sick and tired of the work/home, work/home redundancy of my life. I wanted some excitement – I wanted some variety – I wanted to meet some new people and to take on some new challenges. In short, I wanted some community theatre.

I was no stranger to the beast. I performed in my first community theatre show when I was 13, in the chorus of the musical “Oliver!” By the time I graduated from high school, I’d racked up an impressive resume of chorus parts and bit roles. My Army family then uprooted to Hawaii, and suddenly I was a college student, too busy for much theatre. Four years later I was out of school, living in Arlington, Virginia and working in the wonderful world of journalism. Theatre just didn’t have a place in my life anymore. After all, I was a grownup, earning a living, being oh, so serious. I spent five years focused on my career. And you know what? I wasn’t having much fun.

So when I saw a notice that the Fairlington Players – remember them? – were holding auditions for their spring production of “Grease,” it was as if the little kid trapped in the sensible blue business suit suddenly whined: “I wanna do THAT!” The cutting, perming and piercing happened shortly thereafter. I wanted to play Rizzo. No, I REALLY wanted to play Rizzo. I wanted it like I hadn’t wanted anything in a long time. I bought the original cast recording of “Grease” and memorized it. I worked on a fifties-style audition song. And when the audition night came, I put on a striped leotard, knotted a scarf around my neck, donned a pair of hoop earrings and swaggered off to the audition, my sheet music to “The Great Pretender” under my arm.

Many years later, the director of “Grease,” (who’s now a dear and treasured friend) told me that when I walked into the audition, he turned to his producer and said “That’s HER.” I got the part, and within a week, I was neck deep in the world of community theatre.

All of you standing in this room know what I mean. You dip your toe into the community theater pool and WHAM! it’s as if a bunch of sharks got hold of you and dragged you in. Fresh blood! Wanna sit on the play selection committee? Wanna write the theatre newsletter? Wanna handle season subs? Wanna help build the set? Wanna run box office? Usher? Make bug juice? And you find yourself saying, yes, sure, love to. And then they hit you with the big one:

“You’re so smart, so clever, so organized. You have so many good ideas and so much energy. Why don’t you …. RUN FOR THE BOARD?”

Well…we all know the term “run for the board” is a fallacy. No one “runs” for the board. The bodies of burnt-out board members are scattered all over the Washington Metro area. What happens is that you open your theatre’s newsletter, look at the list of nominees, and discover that you’re running… unopposed. So are most of the nominees for other offices. Oh, occasionally there’s a battle over the Presidency, but no one ever fought to be a community theatre’s Vice President. Or Secretary. Or worst of all, Treasurer.

I became the Treasurer of the Fairlington Players in 1984. I, who never balanced my own checkbook, suddenly had someone else’s books to keep. It was a sobering experience, and I learned a great deal. I learned about budgets, spread sheets, treasurer’s reports and fiscal responsibility. I learned how board meetings can alternate between brutal and boring. I learned never to leave for rehearsal without the company checkbook, because inevitably I’d be in the midst of a scene and spot the production’s carpenter, props mistress or costumer hovering anxiously in the doorway with their hand out. Mostly I learned just how much I’d rather someone else be the Treasurer. But I did it, and wrote the company’s newsletter, and sat on every committee ever made, and managed to squeeze in performances in about three shows a year, not only with the Fairlington Players, but with other Metro community groups, including, on two occasions, the British Embassy Players. All this while holding down a full-time job.

Which, by the way, disappeared in 1985. The Mutual Broadcasting System was purchased by another company that year, and the new owners cut the workforce by thirty percent. My job as Writer/Editor for the Advertising department was one of the jobs eliminated. I was given notice on a Friday, and had a show that night - I was in the middle of the run of the Arlington Players’ production of “Sweeney Todd,” playing Mrs. Lovett.

I remember putting on my makeup carefully that evening, because my eyes were puffy and swollen from crying. I remember not telling my friends at the show what had happened until after final curtain, partly because I didn’t want to worry them, partly because I was embarrassed, and partly because I was afraid I’d start to cry again. But what I mostly remember is the blessed relief of starting the show – of being able to sink into someone else’s skin, into someone else’s world for three hours. Of being surrounded by circles of friends – my friends on the stage, in the wings, in the orchestra pit, in the audience (because I’ve always looked on the audience as my friends). Of feeling that THIS was where I belonged – not out there in the nine to five, Monday through Friday, 52 weeks a year with two weeks off for vacation and one week’s worth of sick leave world – but here, in the theatre.

Of course, I wasn’t ready to act on my discovery at the time. It took me a few months in that recession-era economy, and it wasn’t in journalism, but I finally found a new full time job, as a legal secretary. During the time I was unemployed, my theatre work kept my busy and my theatre friends kept me buoyed up. A year or two later, I was in a production of “A Little Night Music” with the Arlington Players and was approached after the show about appearing in a professional production of “Jerry’s Girls.” After much hemming and hawing, I said yes. The show ran for eleven performances – about even with the average community theatre run. However, one evening a local professional performer named Joan Cushing saw the show, and before I knew it, I was in her “Mrs. Foggybottom and Friends” show at the old Marquee Lounge in the Shoreham Hotel. I worked for her, off and on, for two years, becoming a part-time theatre professional – yes, I was still working for the law firm. I took a break in 1987 to design, build and perform the Audrey II puppets for the Fairlington Players’ – whoops, I mean Dominion Stage’s – production of “Little Shop of Horrors”. I met my future husband at the Foggybottom show, and dragged him along to work crew when I took another break, this time to perform in the Arlington Players’ 1988 production of “Sunday in the Park with George.” The show was directed by fresh new face Eric D. Schaeffer, and he and I became fast friends. In 1989 both of us were sitting on different community theatre boards and doing some professional work in DC – he was designing sets for the Source Theatre, and I was still working for Foggybottom. We used to joke that there was enough talent and ability in the Northern Virginia area to start a professional theatre there. What started as a joke became a vision, then a reality in 1990, when we formed Signature Theatre.

In its early years, Signature Theatre was largely staffed and cast from our circle of community theatre friends – people who were excited about what we were attempting and believed in us and our vision. I look back now and I’m both startled and humbled by their willingness to give us their time, their brainpower and often, their money. We paid everyone who worked for us, but it was only our community theatre friends who donated their paychecks back to Signature. Their friendship and generosity was what kept Signature afloat during those early years – the same friendship and generosity that keeps community theatres running through some very dark times.

A lot of years have passed since then. I left Signature’s management in 1995, but I continue to work with the company as an actress – in fact, I’ll be spending the next seven months with them, appearing in “20th Century,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and “Allegro,” as well as performing my cabaret act there in January. (Commercial over.) I’ve worked with other DC professional companies: Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House, Olney Theatre Centre, American Century and Interact. I starred in the West coast premiere of “Dirty Blonde,” directed by James Lapine. I spent nine months on the road in the 50th anniversary tour of “Guys & Dolls,” starring Maurice Hines. I appeared in the ground-breaking “Sondheim Celebration” at the Kennedy Center last summer.

The reason I’m giving you this laundry list of my professional career is because NONE of these things would have happened for me if it wasn’t for my experience in community theatre.

From community theatre, I learned that working for something that doesn’t put money in your pocket can still fill up your heart.

I learned that imagination, innovation, sweat and generosity of spirit can create wonders that can’t be achieved with a million-dollar budget.

I learned that no matter how diverse a group of people are – whether it be through race, religion, sexual orientation, economics or political beliefs – they can become as one when they are seeking a common goal.

I learned that the purest reason for doing anything is to do it for love.

And most of all, I learned gratitude. Gratitude for the experiences that community theatre gave me. Gratitude for letting me make mistakes and learn from them. Gratitude for the camaraderie, for the caring, for the community of people who, with a bit of money, a can of paint, thrift shop clothes, some two by fours, imagination, a tremendous will and an even greater love, create the magic we call theatre.

To all of you, who represent the best that community theatre has to offer, thank you.

Biographical Information: Donna Lilliard Migliaccio

Ms. Migliaccio has been a well known actress to Washington area theatre audiences for many years.  She is an eight time nominee for The Helen Hayes Awards, winning it in 1992 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical for her performance in Sweeney Todd.  She is the co-founder of the renowned Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia where she recently starred in Follies.  Before turning professional, Ms. Migliaccio was active in Washington community theatre with The Arlington Players, Dominion Stage and The British Embassy Players.

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