October is one of the busiest months of the year for me. With Halloween approaching, I get to take my storytelling alter ego Tita to public libraries, schools, festivals, anywhere folks appreciate spooky tales. This October, we have seven scheduled gigs, including a moonlight performance on Oct. 26 at the Bailey House Museum.
While preparing my material for this month's shows, I found myself distracted by memories and musings on how this Tita thing began. My late husband and creative partner, Barry Shannon, encouraged me to develop the pidgin-speaking persona, at first for our radio show, then for stage. Master storyteller Jeff Gere, who lives on Oahu but is internationally known and admired, coaxed me into entering the professional storytelling arena almost 10 years ago. But it was Sue Ann Loudon who put the greasepaint in my blood.
A Maui theater legend, Miss Loudon influenced thousands of students over 40 years of teaching at Baldwin High School. Many of us went on to careers in the performing arts; many more chose other paths but, like the Honorable Joe Cardoza, 2nd Circuit Court judge, still cite the divine Miss L with playing a significant role in their success. Judge Cardoza was among former Loudonites who paid tribute to her seven years ago in Castle Theater, just before she retired. Before that, the last time I'd seen him on stage was when he starred in the Baldwin Drama Club production of "Carousel" and set my adolescent heart a-flutter.
My turn on the Baldwin stage came a couple of years later, in the early '70s. As Boq the Munchkin, I had the first line in "The Wizard of Oz." My entrance was greeted with the squealing laughter of hundreds of delighted children, and I was hooked. I can see the wide-eyed wonder in their faces and still vividly recall the rush of being energetically connected to them. After the production ended, I tried to describe my feelings to Miss Loudon. "You've got greasepaint in your blood now, kid," she smiled.
And I did. I worked on every Baldwin production from my sophomore through senior years. Miss Loudon insisted that her actors learn the backstage roles as well, so we built our own sets and props, did our own makeup, crafted our own costumes. The lessons went far beyond stagecraft. Teamwork, individuality, self-confidence, humility, compassion, strength, resourcefulness, all were valued and encouraged in the drama room. And above all, respect. Respect for others, for ourselves, for our craft.
In my senior year, I played a 10-year-old kidnap victim whose teenage captors nearly kill her by administering an overdose of tranquilizers and then stuffing her unconscious body into a plastic garbage bag. The scene made my father physically ill, and he had to step outside to keep from throwing up. I remember being touched by the fact that he couldn't bear to watch, and feeling proud that I was so convincing. I had already briefed him on the scene and assured him that there was no danger; the bag was discreetly slit so that once I was inside, I could breathe through the air hole without the audience noticing.
One night, I couldn't find the slit. A quiet panic set in as my fingers searched in vain. I was more afraid of being exposed than being suffocated, so I lay perfectly still, conserving my air with slow, shallow breaths. When the curtain came down and I could finally break character, I burst into tears of relief. Miss Loudon seemed a bit rattled, but I think she was proud of me.
Today, as a professional entertainer and a sentimental fool, I've developed a pre-performance ritual. First, I thank my late father for his love and support. Even though he couldn't understand why I'd want to draw attention to myself, he came to all my shows. Talking to him in my mind makes me feel like he's still in the audience.
And then I thank Miss Loudon for reinforcing the values my parents taught me, and for nurturing the part of me they didn't understand. I know with absolute certainty that I would not be where I am or who I am today, doing what I love and loving what I do, if not for Sue Ann Loudon.
Thanks, Miss Loudon, for putting the greasepaint in my blood.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.