The Invisible Scene Partner // by Sally Wilfert
Actor Sally Wilfert finds continuous inspiration from a cherished mentor.
When I was 18 years old, the summer after my freshman year in college, I got on a plane for the first time in my life and traveled from Cincinnati to New York City. My goal: to pursue my dream of working on Broadway. I had decided not to return to Eastern Kentucky University for my sophomore year. Instead, I would complete my education in the performing arts with another great institution: The School of Life. (To this day, I still can’t believe my parents went along with this.) I rented a room in a women’s Christian boarding house in the West Village, “The Katharine House.” (Don’t worry—my rent included two meals a day.) I earned my keep by juggling two jobs: one as a waitress at a French restaurant (I lied that I had previous experience) and the other was scooping ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins around the corner. I was instantly immersed in the sights and sounds of the city. Somewhere down the hall, I could hear a woman vocalizing, so I tracked her down and knocked on her door. I’ll never forget her name: Zelta Stanley. I told her I had just gotten into town and asked whether she knew any good voice teachers. She said she knew the best voice teacher and gave me his number. His name was Donald W. Johnston. I excitedly called him, and he immediately told me that he had no room in his studio—or his life— for another student.
Wow! I guess I’m not in Ohio anymore.
However, he did offer that he would allow me to come over and sing for him and he would likely be able to connect me with the teacher that was right for me. I took the subway to his studio on West 72nd Street. I opened my mouth and let my 18-year-old self belt out “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” After we had some back and forth for an hour, he miraculously found space for me in his studio. The decisions that he and I made in that moment changed the course of my life forever.
After that magical summer of studying with him, he convinced me to return to my university and finish my education. I knew he was right, so I followed his advice and did just that. While I was away, we stayed in constant contact and our mentor-protégé relationship continued to deepen. Shortly after I graduated with a BFA in Theatre, I moved to NYC—this time for good. I arrived with more experience under my belt and my Actors’ Equity card in hand. I took weekly lessons with Donald and worked my tail off auditioning, honing my craft, and eventually booked my first Broadway show. By this time, in addition to being my teacher, Donald had become my dear friend, mentor, counselor, and I became his protégé and surrogate daughter. He was my creative father. We became…chosen family. As the years went by and he got older, I found that Donald needed more from me. I then took on the role of his power of attorney and healthcare proxy in the last years of his life. Totally normal right? Well, it felt that way to me.
When Donald was 86, he suffered a stroke. I was at the hospital with him every day and helped him make the plan for the next chapter of his life. It was clear that he would not be able to live alone in his apartment on West 72nd Street and other arrangements would have to be made. He spent his remaining time at the Actors’ Fund Home in New Jersey, still sharp as a whip, still teaching me (and others) from his wheelchair whenever he could.
Three years later, my beloved teacher peacefully passed away. I was devastated. I was bereft. I was lost. I was not ready.
My best friend was gone.
I poured my energy and focus into my art, into work.
In 2010, my agent called with an appointment to audition for the role of “Lauren/Judy” in Transport Group’s Off-Broadway premiere of See Rock City & Other Destinations.
With book & lyrics by Adam Mathias and music by Brad Alexander, this new musical would be directed by Transport Group’s Artistic Director Jack Cummings III.
I had heard friends rave about the amazing projects being done by Transport Group and I’d been dying to work with Jack for a very long time.
My agent then hit me the gory details right upfront:
The dates—June 21 – August 15, in the sweltering heat of summer in NYC.
The pay—$218 a week.
I thought long and hard and said, “Ok, what the hell. I’ll audition, but there is no possible way on God’s green earth I can pay my rent on money like that.”
So naturally, I booked the job. I couldn’t believe I just agreed to do this show in the middle of summer for basically my subway fare. But I did!
See Rock City & Other Destinations is a show best described as a musical travelogue. It’s a contemporary piece about connections missed and made at tourist destinations across America, with a cast of seven actors playing all the characters.
From the first day of rehearsal, I knew I was part of something very special. Our leader, Jack, set the tone, describing in great detail his vision for our show. The seven of us would be present in every scene, either as a participant or as an observer. We would be telling these stories using only things found in the room. We would dismantle an enormous pile of lawn chairs as the audience entered the theatre and assemble the seating around the playing area. We would create the lighting for certain scenes and move the scenery that gave the illusion of a change of location, a shift in the emotional tone. He wanted it to feel collaborative, completely immersive, intimate, and personal.
Well, I was in absolute heaven. For me, my favorite part of any show is the rehearsal process. Don’t get me wrong—I love performing equally as much. But there is something truly remarkable about the process of discovering and creating a character. Finding the voice deep within you that connects you to this person. That element of surprise and the buzzing you feel inside when you’re on the right track. Staying open and listening. And more inspiring: to be a fly on the wall watching your fellow actors do the same. It was a very safe and special space in that room, with Jack guiding and pushing us along.
The scene that is most memorable to me takes place at The Alamo. It’s a scene between “Lauren,” “Grampy,” and “Dempsey,” (played by me, Ryan Hilliard, and Jonathan Hammond). At the start of the scene, we see Lauren pushing Grampy in a wheelchair. He has suffered a stroke. He speaks in grunts, gestures, and garbled sentences, but Lauren understands every word that he says. Dempsey is a stranger that they meet by chance at The Alamo. Through the course of the scene, you see Lauren and Dempsey make a connection, and we sense the beginnings of what could be an unexpected, perhaps fateful, romance.
Now we had done lots of tablework on the scene, had lots of discussions, and done a general outline of the blocking. But on this particular day we were going to work it on our feet and run straight through without stopping.
I took my place behind the wheelchair, pushing Grampy, and as I walked into the playing space I was overcome with emotion. In an instant flood of memories—there I was with Donald again, after his stroke, pushing him in his wheelchair. He was with me. I felt the entirety of our connection flow through me in a flash. It was filled with so much joy and gratitude. He was there. And he opened up a channel in me that I didn’t even realize needed to be opened. It allowed me to be open to the character of Lauren in an entirely new way. I could feel her fear about never finding love. I could also connect Lauren to the old Sally…the person before I found the love of my life…the skeptical girl who thought she would always be alone. This focused energy coursed through me, into Lauren’s song and at the climax of the lyric…
And believe me Grampy,
…sustaining this note and I could feel it move like an electrical current from my toes through my heart and out the top of my head. Lauren’s relationship to Grampy was crystal clear to me now, and I was able to fully connect and take the ride with her in this beautiful scene.
Donald was with me, and he never left me for the entire run. My experience with Transport Group was essential. What I learned from See Rock City is that you have this opportunity as an actor to bring all of your life, all of your experiences, all of your connections with the people who are here and those who are now gone into your work. This life is not linear, but rather a circular continuum of connections to the people who touch us, who by the sheer fate of knowing them inform who we are. And we are able to bring them and all this life experience with us on stage, to enjoy them always.
About the author:
Sally Wilfert is an actress based in New York City. Broadway credits include Assassins, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, King David. National tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Off-Broadway credits include Trevor, See Rock City & Other Destinations, Make Me A Song: The Music of William Finn, The Mistress Cycle, The Prince & The Pauper. Regional credits include Mamma Mia, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Chasing Rainbows, Damn Yankees, Kiss Me Kate, The Light in the Piazza, Little Miss Sunshine (world premiere), Les Miserables, Elegies: A Song Cycle, Enchanted April, Marry Me A Little, Amadeus, The Last Five Years, to name a few. Sally has appeared on the following recordings: Trevor, All The Girls (with Rebecca Luker; Broadwayworld Cabaret Award: Best Recording, Commercial), One Voice (with Natalie Weiss), See Rock City & Other Destinations, Sweet Little Devil, New York City Christmas, Make Me A Song, Assassins, King David, The Prince & the Pauper. Televisioncredits include The Blacklist (NBC), The Ameri-cans (Comedy Central), Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC), Submissions Only (Web Series), Loving (ABC). Sally has performed numerous concerts across the country and internationally. Twitter & Instagram: @sallywilfert www.sallywilfert.com