Ten years ago Lori A. Howard left the prosaic New York area to re-settle in the cultural cornucopia we know as South Jersey. At the time, she worked as the Assistant Development Director at the Walnut Street Theatre. Since then she’s transitioned from schmoozing donors to wowing community theatre audiences. They’re glad she did. Fans will no doubt remember Lori’s moving performance of Kate Jerome at the Haddonfield Plays and Players recent production of Brighton Beach Memoirs. Audiences will also recall her comical work in The Drowsy Chaperone and The Addams Family Musical, both presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council; an organization where she volunteers and gives back to a community for which she has unparalleled passion.
Ms. Howard graciously agreed to be interviewed on February 6, 2017. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Question: I figure you’ll be a big success one day since you’re such a talented performer. Normally, I’d ask for an autograph. Since I’d just end up selling it for big money some day: could you give me ten thousand dollars now?
Answer: (Laughs) If I had it, I’d give it to you.
Q: Tell me a little about yourself.
A: I live in Marlton with my husband, Edwin, and my son and daughter.
Q: How old are your children?
A: My son is ten. My daughter’s six.
Q: What first interested you in the performing arts?
A: Oh, I’ve been doing it since I can remember. I always loved singing, dancing and performing.
Q: When did you start performing?
A: At five or six. I took dance classes. I grew up in North Jersey so I saw a lot of Broadway shows.
Q: Why did you come to South Jersey?
A: I got a job at the Walnut Street Theatre in the Development Department. I had a wonderful boss. I taught at the theatre school and worked there for 10 years. I taught kids acting class for five, six and seven year olds. We did fairy tale plays and told jokes. We worked on art projects, too.
I do a similar class with the Maple Shade Arts Council. This is their pilot year. My husband builds sets for us. Anne-Marie Underwood and I did class with 29 kids last Saturday. (2/4/17)
Q: How did you get involved with the Maple Shade Arts Council?
A: I worked at Maple Shade High School.
I was cast in the Maple Shade Arts Council’s production of The Addams Family. It was the first time I’d been on stage in 15 years.
Q: Why the long hiatus?
A: Family life came first for me; then my career. I also understudied at the Walnut Street Theatre, but people were always healthy!
Q: What types of things make you want to play a role?
A: Well, a great script. There are a lot of rich characters in theatre. I also like to work with a great production team. Working with Matthew Weil and Sarah Viniar on Brighton Beach Memoirs and To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind.
Q: Why did you want to be in The Addams Family?
A: I liked the show and soundtrack. I wanted to give theatre a shot again. I had a lot of fun with my character.
Q: What’s been you’re favorite role that you’ve performed so far?
A: In a play: Kate in Brighton Beach. We had a small cast. We really became like a little family. Kate Jerome was a juicy part. She did what she had to do to keep her family’s heads above water. She was feisty. I loved her!
Into the Woods was my favorite musical. I played the Witch. The theme is what happens after you get your happily ever after; when your dreams and wishes change.
Q: What’s the most difficult role you’ve played?
A: I played Katerina in The Taming of the Shrew. Learning the language was a challenge. So was the physicality.
Q: Describe your most memorable moment on stage so far.
A: It would be at the end of Brighton Beach. Kate called for Eugene to come down and join the family. The family members in Europe escaped Poland. It had a happy resolution.
My family is Bronx Italian. Bronx Italian and Brooklyn Jewish seem to have very similar family dynamics. With the way the characters and script are written, I heard echoes of my grandmother’s kitchen table.
Q: What actors have influenced you?
A: From Broadway I’d have to say Bernadette Peters. She has a distinctive voice. I love how she performs Sondheim. She speaks to my heart.
I also appreciate Kate Winslett’s depth. She captures characters so brilliantly.
Q: If you had the opportunity to work with any actor either living or dead, who would it be?
A: Dustin Hoffman. He’s a good everyman with a little quirkiness. He’s very identifiable. He’s in so many of my favorite movies. I’ve always been a big fan. It would be fun to banter with him.
Q: You have a tremendous enthusiasm for community theatre. Why?
A: It’s something that you can do at any age and on the local level. It gives artists that can’t pursue it professionally the opportunity to come together. The passion and talent are there. I’ve met amazing people through it. My whole family and I do it together. The brilliant people I’ve met have brought joy and richness to my life.
Q: I didn’t recognize you playing one of the gangsters in The Drowsy Chaperone. What was it like performing in that show?
A: A lot of fun. I didn’t expect to play a male. Debra Heckman (the other gangster) and I ran with it and had a lot of fun.
Q: Brighton Beach Memoirs featured an unusual set-up as the audience was seated both in front of and behind the stage. How did you like working with that format?
A: It was a wonderful challenge. (Director) Matthew (Weil) wanted the audience to feel as though they were in the house. It would’ve been hard to create that effect with a regular stage set-up. Also, the actors don’t have to worry about putting their bad sides to the audience. Matthew did an amazing job. I cannot credit him enough for it.
Q: During that show, the actors remained on the stage even when they weren’t part of the action. What was it like being on stage while not participating in the action?
A: I didn’t have issue with sitting on the stage. It gave me the chance to watch the whole show.
Q: What do you do when you’re not on stage?
A: I’m a stay-at-home mom. I keep busy with my kids. I take them to karate, ballet, and I volunteer at their school. I run the science fair there every June.
Q: How do you prepare for a role?
A: It depends. If the script is of particular time period, I might look at books, fashion styles and see what was going on at the time. I immerse myself in the script. I might voice lines to my husband or in the mirror, too.
Q: What do you bring to your roles that other performers don’t?
A: I’m very passionate. I’m very committed to getting something right. I will work with director until everything is “as it should be.”
I have a good sense of humor. I try to say hello to everyone. My daughter and I bake and bring cookies to rehearsals.
Q: What’s the most difficult part of performing in front of a live audience?
A: Never quite knowing how they’re going to react. You never know if the laughs will come from the same spots. Different audiences may respond to different lines. You can’t assume that the audience will react in a certain way. It’s their experience. The audience will interpret. You have to respond accordingly.
Q: How would you like audiences to remember you?
A: I hope they think I did my job. It’s important as actor to understand the role in the greater scheme of the play. I don’t want to stick out in a bad way. I want to fit into the puzzle as the author intended.
Q: Have you ever worked with a script that contained bad writing?
A: Every actor comes across something that doesn’t come across the way they want. You need to find way to identify with an aspect of it and make it your own.
Q: If I asked people with whom you’ve performed what it was like working with you, what would they tell me?
A: I ask too many questions about the script, character, and time period. The more of a background I have the more real I can try to make it.
I’m also committed to playing off them well. I hope they would say they had as much fun as I did.
Q: Joseph Conrad said that he always kept one fact about his characters out of his novels. This way it was known only to him. Do you take a similar approach with the roles you play?
A: Backstory is always helpful. If you can create one or can get information from the rest of the script or if you can answer questions that the audience doesn’t have to know: it adds to the script and the circumstances. It gives you more to work with. A great director can help with that, too.
Q: Have you ever thought about directing?
A: I was a co-director at Maple Shade High School. I directed in college. I went to Flagler College in Saint Augustine Florida. It’s a small liberal arts college with a good theatre department.
Q: What advice would you give to young people interested in participating in the performing arts?
A: Go for it. Absolutely. It can bring you so much. It can boost your confidence. Plays have historical value. You meet amazing people. No matter what field you’re planning on going into, there’s an aspect of the performance arts you will benefit from. You will walk away with invaluable experiences for the rest of your life.
You don’t have to do it professionally. If it’s in your heart, you’ll be a richer person for it.
Q: What adjective would best describe your theater career?
Q: I’d like to ask a bit of a personal question. It involves two characters featured in shows you performed. If you were single and available, with whom would you prefer to take a romantic cruise: Lerch from The Addams Family or Aldolpho from The Drowsy Chaperone?
A: (Laughs) The same actor (Antonio Baldassari) played both of them! He’s a friend of mine. Funny guy.
I would say Lerch. He’s a man of fewer words and I would enjoy the vacation more. Aldolpho would talk about himself the whole time.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: To Kill a Mockingbird opens at the Ritz on March 2nd. It runs through the 19th. Matthew Weil is directing. I’m thrilled to be back on his team. It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.
I’m on the board of the Maple Shade Arts Council. I’m the Director of Fundraising. My son did their camp. My daughter is performing in Annie.
They present a summer musical, a teen show in fall, and a show for the youngest group in the winter. This is in addition to the summer camp. I’m proud to be part of their organization.
I’m grateful to be part of the community. South Jersey has so many local theatre companies. There are so many people giving their time and talents to such a rich community.