Serena Seacat: CTC Theater Live's director

Patsy Southgate | March 20, 1997

As Serena Seacat gazed from her hilltop living room in Northwest Woods out across a sweep of scrub oak forest to the Atlantic Ocean in the distance, a visitor was reminded of Dorothy waking up in Oz and saying, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."

Arguably the East End's most dynamic theater person - she acts, teaches, directs, and develops theater-related projects at Guild Hall - Ms. Seacat, like Dorothy, took off from a farm in rural Kansas.

"The saying goes, find a barn and put on a show," she said. "But I had my own barn with cows, chickens, pigs, my Tennessee walking horse - and my faithful grandfather as my audience."

"I'd arrange bales of hay for the sets and give solo performances in the hayloft, singing away, accompanied by the pigeons in the rafters. It was fun growing up on a farm, but also a lot of hard work."

Stagestruck Sisters

Her oldest sister, Sandra, now a noted drama coach in New York City, was active in interstate dramatics and drew Ms. Seacat into the theater as a young girl. Their middle sister, Sherrell, a special education teacher and the Worthy Grand Matron for the State of Kansas in the Eastern Star Masonic Order, thought they were both crazy.

After attending Kansas State University, where she married her high school sweetheart, Dwayn Hoelscher, a horse-trainer, Ms. Seacat lived on a ranch in Loveland, Colo. The couple trained show quarter-horses, working animals bred to run a fast quarter-mile and to herd cattle.

They had two children, Devon Hoelscher, now a cabinetmaker in Santa Monica, Calif., and a "good little actor," and Shannan, assistant manager of the Coach Store in East Hampton, married to Robert A. Miller Jr., a brick mason, and living in Springs.

Theater-In-The-Round

When Ms. Seacat's marriage broke up, she moved with her children to Denver and launched her career as one of the founders of Theatre in the Square in Larimer Square, then known as Denver's Bowery.

The group gutted the lobby of an old hotel, creating a theater-in-the-round, and starred Ms. Seacat as Polly Peachum in their maiden production, "The Threepenny Opera." Other shows followed. "It was a thrilling time."

A move to New York City in the mid-60s found her studying at the Actors Studio with her sister, already on the faculty, and with the drama coach Allen Miller. She also studied choreography and tap-dancing with the legendary Charles (Honi) Coles.

"In those days there were dance studios everywhere, next to the pool parlor, above the weight-lifting room. Honi didn't really teach so much as just let his feet fly, and you'd have to try to follow - what a guy!"

Hand Commercials

Over the next 17 years Ms. Seacat appeared in countless plays and on major TV networks, acting in commercials, on soap operas, and appearing on the game show "Beat the Clock."

One of her most lucrative jobs was a hand commercial for the Massengill company, makers of feminine hygiene products. Ms. Seacat has beautiful hands, which have appeared in many commercials. She accents them with vivid nail polish.

"During a voice-over my hands would move onto the screen holding the Massengill product, set it down, and move out," she said. "The money was excellent."

Superman Lost It

While commercial and television work enabled her to raise her children in a spacious West Side apartment, it was the learning experiences in the workshops with people who really knew their craft that she treasures, even when the encounters were painful.

"I remember doing a scene from 'Tobacco Road' with Christopher Reeve for Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Chris was doing Van Heusen shirt commercials at the time, and we'd ride around the city on the bus practicing our New York accents."

"In the scene I was playing his wife, whom he no longer loved and actually wanted to harm. Losing himself in the heat of the moment, he threw me across the hardwood floor and really hurt me."

"An actor is supposed to go to the edge but not lose control - it's important to keep one foot in reality - but in this instance Chris lost it. It was a perfect example of what you don't want to have happen, and he felt terrible about it."

The secret of the actor's life? Learning how to deal with rejection. 'Think of yourself as a commodity, I tell my students. Put something between yourself and the business.'

"Working with Vietnam vets could also be terrifying. Those guys were so intense you actually feared for your life."

Directing - a series of productions at The New Dramatists Theatre - was the logical next step.

"I'd done a lot of scene and character analysis in workshops, and what began to interest me most was the playwright's overall vision. As I read a play, very strong images would come to mind, and I'd watch the action moving around in my head."

In the early '80s, with her kids grown and off on their own, Ms. Seacat began visiting the Hamptons on weekends. She fell in love with the area, and in 1983 married George Ryan, now chef at the Atlantic Golf Club. Soon she was acting and directing in summers at the Woodshed Saloon's theater-in-the-round in Bridgehampton.

Ten Musicals, Nine Plays

A gig as Belle Starr in "Jessie and the Bandit Queen," in which she played nine different characters, brought her to the attention of the Community Theater Company. In 1987, she debuted on the John Drew stage as Alice in an acclaimed production of "The Octette Bridge Club."

Since moving to the East End, Ms. Seacat has been involved with 45 local productions. As resident director of CTC Theater Live, she directed the company's last 10 musicals: "The Pajama Game," "Fiorello!," "Oklahoma!," "Guys and Dolls," "Kiss Me Kate," "South Pacific," "Finian's Rainbow, "Bells Are Ringing," "The Fantasticks," and "Annie Get Your Gun."

She's also at the helm of the upcoming "Anything Goes," and has directed nine CTC plays including the much-praised "Dancing at Lughnasa" and the recent "Waiting in the Wings," in which she stepped into the lead on a week's notice, to rave reviews.

Guild Hall Workshops

It's quite a list, to which must be added directing the summer musicals "Nunsense" and "The All-Night Strut" at Guild Hall, appearing in Tri-Light Productions' "The Wo men" and "Cole Through the Night," and performing with Andrea Gross and the late Michael Paoni in their cabaret act, "The Eighty-Eights."

At Guild Hall she also teaches tap-dancing and directs the creative workshops Dramarama at the Drew and Teen Acting.

"The kids get to work in a real live theater. They talk to set designers, lighting designers, stage managers, and see how it all gets put together. We play dramatic games involving improv, mime, and sensory work, drawing on their memories and experiences."

Acting As Teen Outlet

"We also do personalizations, exercises in which an actor evokes a person from his past who enables him to conjure up the emotions he needs to bring his character to life, and make the scene real."

"It's a wonderful outlet for the kids, a way to express themselves. Families don't talk to each other much any more - it's either the Internet or cartoons - and the kids bring some pretty heavy scenarios to class, things they need to work on."

She's in a position to change people's lives, Ms. Seacat said, and she has to be "very careful and spiritual, open and available."

Young Admirer

The best compliment she ever got came from a student whose essay on "The Most Significant Person in My Life" named her acting teacher, Ms. Seacat, for having opened up her life and allayed her fear of speaking her mind.

"That's where it's at," her teacher said. "I feel very lucky to have the venue at the John Drew where I can do things like that."

There are very few good young-adult plays around, she said, so last year Ms. Seacat wrote the show the workshops put on herself.

Called "Sisters Grimm," it deals with the brothers' obscure siblings who decide to dramatize their own fairy tales with puppets.

"Sisters Grimm"

"I was still on a high from doing "Waiting in the Wings," so I rode on that and just went to the computer and let it roll."

"Everyone loved it, especially the character of Willard the Wolf, who's worried he's getting a bad reputation for falling down chimneys and chasing little pigs and jumping into bed in women's clothing."

" 'And always always always, there's the call of the wild,' he groans," Ms. Seacat reported with a smile.

On the actor's life she fosters so tenderly, she said the secret was learning how to deal with rejection. "Think of yourself as a commodity, I tell my students."

"Put something between yourself and the business. Actors are so vulnerable, and so many don't make it. But somebody has to do it, and it's a great life if you don't weaken."

"Anything Goes"

Just as the interview was ending, the phone rang. Over the answering machine came the voice of the costume designer Chas W. Roeder.

"Hi. I'm calling from the city. I've found this terrific red dress for 'Anything Goes.' Let me know about the size."

"Anything Goes," the great Cole Porter musical, will be CTC Live's final production for the season. "The show must go on," as the saying goes, and it will, if Ms. Seacat has anything to say about it.