“I don’t remember how the bug first bit me. Storytelling has always been my passion. I love reading books aloud, and as the oldest of 7 children, I had plenty of opportunities to experiment with accents and captivating telling styles. My parents invested in piano, horseback riding, ballet, tae kwon do, and it was all wonderfully expansive. I would have happily traded every extra-curricular activity for theatre! I remember as early as when we first moved to Carbondale in Southern Illinois, hearing about the Stage Company, and knowing some kids who were acting there. I would have been about 9 years old, and already the story was that theatres are unhealthy places and that acting was not an appropriate pursuit for a good Christian girl.

Thankfully, I had a few theatre experiences in my childhood that were sanctioned and supervised enough, and they kept the dream alive. Eventually, I moved out of the house, and began pursuing more projects. Although it’s taken some time to deprogram my training against the performing arts, I am gradually learning to celebrate my love of performing. I’ve done some screen acting, children’s theatre, started a few talk radio shows, and sung with a big band and a jazz quartet!”

The theatre is catharsis, for the actors and the audience. Cloistered in the dark, breathing, laughing, and crying with strangers, or staring into the stage lights imagining you’re the only person left on Earth – live theatre holds space for emotional experiences that most modern Western lives don’t make room for any more. How relieving, to be sad, and go to see a play, and have the opportunity to weep along with a character on stage, protected by the privacy of the darkened theatre.

As an actor, I love the immediacy of theatre. My real-time emotions and actions, my castmates’ organic and calculated reactions, and the delight, or horror, of the audience, all combining in a delicious soup of Here, Now. Co-creating. Working on the production side of plays and musicals, I get to be the magician. I know the tricks behind the sudden wardrobe change and the seamless decor. When kids and adults alike gasp and giggle, my team and I were pulling the strings.”

Bible Temple

“Bible Temple was a mega-church we attended briefly in Portland, Oregon, when I was about 4 or 5. I was part of the “Pajama Choir” one year, for their annual Christmas production. Being a massive church, they had to find a way to include everyone’s babies. This resulted in a few large groups of the youngest/rawest kiddos being ushered out on stage to sing a song at some point in the play. My group lined up backstage in our footies each night, to toddle out into the blindingly bright lights and sing “Joy to the World.” It was a powerful feeling to be elevated on stage above 3000 people watching me (and several other bejammied babies) sing my guts out for the Joy of the Lord.

A weird little memory that has always stuck with me from that experience happened one night while we were standing in line waiting to go on stage. I was feeling all wiggly and excited to get out there and do our thing, and having a hard time waiting quietly. I decided to pull the kindergarten version of the “come here often?” joke, I suppose, and said to the girl in front of me in line, “Hey, nice PJs.” So witty- as if we hadn’t been seeing each other in those jammies for a while now. She turned and gave me the dirtiest look, and a roving teacher told me harshly, “That was so mean, apologize.” Still befuddled by that one, but I suppose it’s one in a long string of misunderstandings fueled by my disconnection from mainstream US society. “

American Girl Plays

“We followed our best friends, the Engel family, around the country as their dad was a year ahead of my dad in school. They moved to Illinois, we moved to Illinois. They moved to North Carolina, eventually, we moved to North Carolina. Friday’s were my favorite day when I was 6+, because that was generally the day we would all go visit the Engels, or they would all come visit us. As a homeschool family in the 90’s, all of us kids were at home with our moms and each other 24/7, except for the rare whole-family playdate or dinner date, and church each Sunday. Getting to interact with other people and psyches was always so thrilling and relieving for this tiny, wild, undiagnosed-ADHD extrovert.

I couldn’t join the Stage Company in Southern Illinois, of course, because theatres were corrupt environments, but with the power of so many siblings combined, we could produce plays at home. Mrs. Engel had been a theatre star in school, and loved supporting us girls in putting together our little shows. I don’t remember doing auditions, or if she placed us in roles based on our enthusiasm level, but both times I got to play a lead. The American Girl Doll company was also good at writing character roles that were relatively equitable in size. In “Check Under The Bed,” I played the nerdy detective who cracked the robbery case in a hotel full of quirky guests. In “Hairum Scareum,” my friend Sarah and I played the lead hairdressers at a salon that takes care of fairytale characters in the midst of their hectic adventures.”

Smoky Mtn Community Theatre

“When the Engels moved to North Carolina, we spent a tough few years living a long roadtrip apart. Maybe once or twice a year, we would pile into our 15 passenger van and drive to see them, or they would pile into their 15 passenger van and drive to see us. Benefits of homeschooling: it didn’t really matter who’s dining room we scattered about to get our work done for the day. With our depth of friendship (and our dads’ similar career path), it was inevitable that we would once again move to be near them. By the time we got to Bryson City, they were already deeply involved with the local community theatre. The town was so small, and the theatre community so small, and the Engel family so large, that they practically made up half of the operating force of SMCT. I think this gave my mom a sense of safety about that theatre environment, since half of any show was going to be a gaggle of homeschooled Christian kids. We started doing plays with the Engels there.

When I was 20 I again had the pleasure of acting alongside my dear friend Sarah, producing “Waiting for MacArthur,” a 2.5-hour long behemoth of a play, composed entirely of 4 women writing letters to each other during World War II. In other words, a ton of long monologues. Sarah kept a series of books backstage in her little nook, to read during the long stretches she wasn’t on stage. I was too nervous, as the main narrator, to l et myself potentially get caught up in a book, so I did a lot of pacing. The costuming for that show was such a visceral experience for me- a heavily-starched nurse’s uniform, clunky combat boots with too many laces for the scene’s timing, thick wool blankets and gold bobby pins, a 1950’s dress made for women with much tinier waists and smaller boobs. I got to change clothing on stage while monologuing (risque!), sing war ditties, and stare deeply into the blazing stage lights as I recounted falling in love with a soldier doomed to die on the Bataan Death March.

As it often goes with community theatre and indie film, everybody helps with everything. My first experiences with theatre life happened at the Smoky Mountain Community Theatre in Bryson City, NC. I was producing plays with my mother, siblings, and childhood friends, the Engels, so it was a very family-friendly theatre environment. There are certain resources that most early homeschoolers experienced in common. Jungle Jam and Friends: The Radio Show” was unique: quirky audio dramas depicting a passel of jungle animals learning moral stories and life lessons with humor and song. They turned one of their episodes into a stage musical, and my family and the Engels produced “Three Wise Men and a Baby” at SMCT for Christmas, 2008. I helped paint sets, ran vocal exercises with the cast, and conducted the songs each night from the back of the theatre. One of the neatest parts of that production was that our friend Ashley Nelson choreographed a few of the songs for us in American Sign Language. Something about singing with our voices and our hands always had me tearing up.”

Triad Stage

“If I close my eyes I can still conjure up the smell of Triad Stage in Greensboro, NC, like burying my nose in a favorite old book. Some places just draw some people. My wusband and I moved to Greensboro right after our wedding, so that he could pursue his Master’s in Music. When I first found out about Triad Stage, I volunteered as an usher regularly in exchange for watching the show, too poor to afford regional professional theatre ticket prices. Then I got a job in the box office, and delighted in selling tickets and arranging the perfect seating for people who were just as excited to enjoy and support live theatre as I was. By the time I moved out of NC, I could walk the entirety of the Triad Stage complex by memory in the dark. On the occasions that I was the last person in the building at night, I would walk out onto the stage and sing my heart out for the empty stands. I was in love.

I didn’t know enough about the politics of theatre and arts communities to understand at the time that I was never going to land a role at Triad Stage. I lived in hope, and auditioned for plays that had open auditions. What I learned eventually is that, as a union theatre, Triad Stage had to make the first 4 hires for each show to be union hires. In an effort to keep costs low so that they could keep producing quality plays, they often staged shows that only had 1-5 cast members anyway. On top of that, Triad Stage had a partnership with the local university’s theatre program, which meant that, after the first 4 union hires, the next several roles (say, in a larger production such as a Shakespeare, or My Fair Lady) would go to university students, not community members. Such is professional theatre- I don’t begrudge them.

And it wasn’t like I was making every audition a ringer. At the time I still in the back of my mind believed that I shouldn’t be pursuing acting, that I was probably full of myself, and that translated to me cramming lines at the last minute and acting very blase about my auditions. I cared so deeply about getting into theatre, but because of my upbringing I forced myself to show up for auditions as if I didn’t care. I’m sure it put off a confusing and distasteful energy.

In my heart of hearts, much like we fantasize about someday running into a high-school crush again, I like to imagine that I roll into a Triad Stage audition someday, blow them out of the water, and finally tread the boards in that space I love so much.”

Community Theatre North Carolina

“While living in Greensboro, I started exploring for acting opportunities further afield. Little did I know that I would one day move to Montana, where every opportunity is hours apart! Winston-Salem has a beloved and long-running community theatre, The Little Theatre. While I performed there, it was doing a brief stint as Twin City Stage.

I auditioned for the premier stage version of a beloved Christmas TV show, “Yes, Virginia!” and was cast in a narrator-style quartet. I made so many lovely friends among the kids of that cast, and have happily followed as their artist careers have progressed over the years. The original writers of “Yes, Virginia!” came to see our show.

Another community theatre group I auditioned for was The Gallery Players, which operated out of the Paramount Theatre in Burlington, NC. I played Dolly Tate in Annie Get Your Gun, and was the Dance Captain. Our choreographer taught us all the moves, and I helped rehearse when she wasn’t available. We had a fun and diverse cast, including a guy in his 80’s who was still singing and dancing up a storm!

One of the best parts of that experience was my dad visiting us in North Carolina. He left after work one night and drove through the night to surprise me, and attended one of the shows! It was such a loving and grounding experience to be able to host my dad for breakfast on my front porch, and for him to give me flowers after my show. Nearly broke my heart.”

On Cue Performing Arts Studio

“After my wusband completed grad school, we decided it was Ainsley’s turn to pursue the arts. I had been working at Triad Stage and teaching piano lessons to pay our bills, and we figured that now he could get a good-paying church musician job, and I would focus on acting. We decided to move to LA. Go big or go home, I guess?

We sold a grand piano and a car, and somehow ran out of money in Cape Girardeau, MO. Not even halfway to LA. I started teaching piano again, and got my first coffee shop job. When the local dance/theatre studio was putting on Nightmare Before Christmas, I joined up as the vocal coach.

It was so rewarding to empower some young singers to breakthrough stage fright and try new things. Every night I helped people meet their cues, and sang loudly from the wings.”

Orphan Girl Children’s Theatre

“After my divorce and 2 years in Georgia working in restaurants and background acting, I moved to Butte, America to help a friend produce an independent film. Butte doesn’t have a community or professional theatre, but they do have a Children’s Theatre!

The OGCT has a yearly 24-hr play festival, where 10 groups of kids and adults produce 10 short plays in 24 hours. Starting at 7 pm on a Friday night, 10 people of various ages write 10 short plays overnight. Then in the morning on Saturday, the production teams convene to rehearse, costume, and pick props. That evening everyone performs their plays! One year I acted on stage in “Cinderfella,” and the next year I helped run the lights and sound for the show.

I auditioned for several mainstage shows, but as is the norm with theatres everywhere, casting directors tend to pick people they already know, especially in small towns. I did happily get to play the moth queen in Babes in Toyland, and had just the best time coaching and coaxing little actors backstage. I’m looking forward to OGCT opening up again for stage plays after COVID, so I can audition more enthusiastically than ever. I love working with the youth community!”

More of Ainsley’s Projects