Interview by Laura Ng
Appearing to national audiences in the feature film LA Mission and PBS’ Trauma, Cathleen Riddley is ever committed to the arts and welfare of the Bay Area community. This PlayGround company member and associate artist with AlterTheater also moves crowds with her spirited vocals in local bands Sweetie Pie and the Doughboys and Burnsy’s Sugar Shack as well as working to foster goodwill with San Quentin Prison’s No More Tears and Healing Circle programs. This past November, Riddley added two TBA Awards to an already dazzling roster of accomplishments.
|TBA featured member Cathleen Riddley.
You've worked in a wide array of media—stage, film, television, voiceover and singing in bands. What are some aspects you consider when choosing a project?
When a movie, TV show, voiceover, or commercial is presented, one often needs to go with what one’s agent chooses. That being said, I did turn down, without a second thought, a well-paying voiceover that took a religious stand against gay marriage. I realized that it would deeply hurt my heart and wound so many people I loved if I stood for something–even if not as anything but a voice–that I know is wrong.
When considering a project in the theatre, which is where about 90 percent of my work is, I look at the role, the director, the text itself, and why is it important that this play be done at this time. It matters so very much to me what the play is addressing in the tumultuous times that we are living in now. I must admit that I also am excited to work on projects that challenge me beyond what I have ever done before, and that will grow me as an artist and a collaborator.
Parenthood can be a challenge for theatre professionals. When a company like AlterTheater—where you are an associate artist—invites actors to bring their children into the rehearsal process, it generates interest. How has having a daughter impacted your perspectiveon the field?
There is nothing more immediate than the needs of one’s children, and if an ensemble like AlterTheater can not only accommodate but embrace the sometimes fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants reality that is having children in the process, there is amazing beauty and messiness and collaboration and group parenting that happens nowhere else on earth. In a piece that is all about the African American church like The Amen Corner, it would be inconceivable that this church would exist without children crying babies who are passed between whoever was available to rock and cradle and feed them (often the teens in the church), kids who palmed their quarters given them to put in the collection plate so they could buy candy after church... Having children in the theatre helps it to reflect real life.
Because I thought that the worst thing that could happen was that someone could say “No,” I started asking to bring my daughter to rehearsals from the time she was four years old. I was shocked to find that often I was the first person who had ever done that, and pleased to be told that she would be welcome almost all of the time. Consequently, she is an awesome theatregoer, critic, supporter, positive energy bringer, fan, and well-rounded 13-year-old.And she made her theatre debut in The Amen Corner, which thrilled her mama to no end. Let’s assume that the answer will be “Yes,” and ask to bring our children into our world of theatre.
Congratulations on your 2015 TBA Awards for both Outstanding Performance in a Principal Role in a Play and Direction of a Play Score for The Amen Corner! What it like to shift between two roles on the same production?
First, the awards were a great honor. Thank you. It was an adventure to be doing a scene where I had a major event take place for my character, where I really had to be in the moment, but at the same time be thinking, “This song is too loud for this part of the play,” or “The tempo of this song is so fast that it’s going to finish before the end of the scene." The great blessing of this play was that I had the most amazing people to work with. Their musicality was awesome, their ability to learn a part by ear in a short time and sing it in four-part harmony was something miraculous, and their support of me in my dual role was so amazing that I realize now I never would have been able to do it without this exact group of ensemble-minded, heart-driven, musically-inclined, risk-taking precious souls.
How else has being a Theatre Bay Area member impacted your career?
Theatre Bay Area provides me with so much that I can’t get anywhere else. I look to it for auditions; for what I should go see; for artists to keep an eye out for; to enlighten me about aspects of the theatre that I know very little about, like puppetry, sound design, and stage combat; and to provide me with fabulous full scripts of current plays. And I cannot tell you how many times I have had questions in my mind about the business and Velina’s column, “The Business of Show Biz,” provided answers and insight.
Tell us about your involvement with the violence prevention program No More Tears/Healing Circle.
No More Tears is a program in San Quentin State Prison whose mission is “[t]o curb violence and detrimental behaviors within targeted communities by utilizing the specialized knowledge and experience of former perpetrators of violence and crime. These former perpetrators hold themselves accountable to bring solutions to the communities where they once contributed to the problem.” The Healing Circle actually brings together family members (mostly mothers) who have lost children to violence to meet with former perpetrators of violence, in order to begin the healing and forgiveness process that is vital to all involved.
It’s no surprise that I came to [these programs] through theatre. An incarcerated man wrote a play about a hardened young man, starting from when he committed the murder that got him into prison, through the healing process brought about through No More Tears/Healing Circle.
I performed in this play in San Quentin, and after it was over, shared my desire to support this organization. These incarcerated men, having heard this from many who had come inside their walls, were naturally skeptical, as so many had vowed to support their organization and were never seen again. I took their challenge and started working as a sponsor for them. I am more than proud to be a part of this healing.
Any other exciting happenings on the horizon you’d like to share with our TBA readers?
I am thrilled/terrified to be a part of Shotgun’s upcoming season, where I’ll be performing in Hamlet Roulette, where every night we’ll pick from Yorick’s skull which character we’ll be playing on that particular night. Shaking with fear, tingling with excitement. I’ll also have the pleasure of performing in a gem of a show called Grand Concourse in the season, where I’ll get to stretch my muscles by playing a nun. Challenges await–the lifeblood of the theatre!
Theatre Bay Area members: Creative. Committed. Community.