Sunday, April 23, 2006

INTERVIEW: Priscilla Allen

I fought light sprinkles on a recent Saturday morning to visit with the incomparable Priscilla Allen at her lovely La Jolla residence where I competed for her attentions against her two quite loveable cats, Arnold and Brenda (Priscilla had just lost Champ, her 19 year old English Springer-Spaniel, Arnold’s best buddy). Ms. Allen was sporting a new darker shade of red hair, and wore comfortable black-striped slacks and tennies for our relaxed meeting. Not only did we commiserate about plumbing improvements required in older houses, we traversed in circuitous fashion this working actor’s past and present.

Cuauhtémoc Q. Kish (CQK): Describe yourself in three words please.

Priscilla Allen (PA): Humorous, loving and creative.

CQK: I understand that you are a single, available lady; is that correct?

PA: I’ve been a widow since 1977; my husband, Dennis, was killed on duty while working as a San Diego Policeman. That left me with three kids, ages 7, 9 and 13 to raise by myself. And, yes, I have always wanted to find someone else to share my life. One does get lonely on occasion, even though I have my family (three daughters) along with my constantly changing theatre family.

CQK: It must have been difficult and a shock to suddenly have to raise three children on your own?

PA: Initially it was difficult. I secured a teaching credential and taught for many years to support my family. Luckily, since I was an only child, I inherited some family properties that assisted my financial plight so that I remain comfortable at the present time.

[Priscilla, after securing her teaching credential, was offered employment in 1980 at San Diego’s SCPA (School of Creative and Performing Arts) where she taught for most of her career. She was the Drama Teacher charged with creating courses for the school as well as being a director for the school. She then spent the last few years teaching at Point Loma High School where she found the students more eager to learn.]

CQK: From what you’re saying you sound like a native San Diegan?

PA: Almost; I was born in Buffalo, New York and we moved here when I was two. Otherwise, I most likely would not have been involved in theatre. My father moved here to help the war effort by seeking employment in what was CONVAIR.

CQK: I applaud them for helping the war effort which resulted in bringing you ultimately to San Diego. What do you bring to San Diego theatre; you never seem to be without work?

PA: I think it’s a sense of possibilities. I have never been limited by size or age. Luckily I have never been type-cast and I thank my colleagues for not being boxed in or labeled. I’ve played anything from gut-wrenching dramas to silly, frivolous plays and musicals; classical to contemporary pieces. And that’s not the case with so many other actors. Case in point is my daughter, Jennifer. She lives in New York and is known as a comedian who sings musical theatre. She is labeled and so they (casting directors) won’t see her for other projects.

[Priscilla just came back from a visit with daughter, Jennifer, in New York, who recently participated in a run of Carnival at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Jennifer recently was recently seen in Almost Heaven (John Denver’s music), Off-Broadway, and she is up for a part in a Broadway production of Mary Poppins, the musical.]

CQK: As an actress you seemed to have done it all. Have you ever had aspirations as a director?

PA: Although I educated and directed young children in theatrical productions and took a stab at directing adults, I finally came to realize that I just wanted to be an actor. I’m quite content being a team player. I think I made that decision around the time that Chuck Zito (former Artistic Director of Diversionary Theatre) invited me to direct a show for his first season. I announced that I was not interested in directing but would like to play the part in The Killing of Sister George. Chuck granted my wish by putting “Sister George” on the season’s roster.

CQK: When did you get the acting bug?

PA: My mother was somewhat of the catalyst being the entertainment chair for various clubs and such. I was the outrageous class clown, the crazy girl of my class. In High School (La Jolla High School) I would “act out” in Variety Shows, along with some of my other more motivated classmates like Raquel Welsh, who was determined to be an actor at almost any cost.

CQK: Who have been some of those individuals who have influenced your careen in a positive way?

PA: Doug Jacobs (San Diego Rep founder) has been instrumental in my career. He’s offered me many parts at the Rep including Romulous Linney’s Holy Ghosts and Suddenly Las Summer. Craig Noel is another good influence when I worked at the Old Globe Theatre. Another influence was Ole Kittleson. He directed me in a show at SDSU (San Diego State University) in the days when we were students. We recently did a show a Schroeder’s Cabaret.

CQK: Have you ever experienced a role that you just couldn’t get right or that you disliked?

PA: I have played a few roles when it just became “work.” I remember a role that I played in Animal Nation at the Rep where I played a cow. Although I wasn’t all that fond of the role I never let the audience know that fact.

CQK: What were some of your most cherished roles?

PA: Holy Ghost, Heathen Valley, Red Noses and Beauty Queen of Leenane.

CQK: Are there still parts that you are dying to play?

PA: I’ve always wanted to play the lead in Come Back Little Sheba (Are you listening producers?). And I would love to play in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide as well as the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.

CQK: You’ve recently played at Schroeder’s Cabaret with Ole Kittleson; how did you two meet?

PA: Ole directed me in my first musical as a Freshman at SDSU in On the Town. We will be playing together at Schroeder’s on May 19th and 20th.

CQK: I understand that you were one of the founding members of the San Diego Actors Alliance?

PA: I went to the very first meeting of the San Diego Alliance Co-Op as it was called in those days. The idea was to have an organization that would empower the actor and help the actor to find and generate work. In traditional Co-Op fashion we all volunteered to work: cleaning the office, folding programs, etc.

CQK: You are still a strong supporter of the Actors Alliance of San Diego?

PA: I think it’s one of the best things for actors in San Diego. After reading about 35 one-act plays I invited a dear actor/friend of mine (Bill Dunham) to participate in this year’s Festival with a play written by Tennessee Williams called I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow. It’s a great opportunity to do something you might never have an opportunity to do.

CQK: Is there any advice you would give to those actors waiting in the wings for their opportunity to shine?

PA: Over the years when I noticed a student of mine with “fire in his eyes” I would cautiously encourage them into an acting career. I could see that nothing else would ever satisfy them but a career as an actor. I would steer others into the technical side if I thought there talents belonged elsewhere.

CQK: I would be remiss if I didn’t allow you to tell the story of the exploding head.

PA: Yes; my job on Total Recall. I was working with Bill Dunham in the Rep’s Heathen Valley. He had an LA agent that he invited to the show and afterwards that same agent wanted to speak to me about work. I was evasive, not quite expounding upon my day job as a teacher and so she eventually called me up—right in the middle of class mind you—and I went to LA for an interview and eventually got selected over two other finalists: a Women’s Wrestling Champion (Matilda the Hun) and a Drag Queen. Well, the rest is history.

CQK: You’ve also had some experience working in television as well.

PA: I did find some employment working on Happy Days and could have opted for a career in Hollywood but my family came first and I settled on secure employment and an environment more conducive to raising three girls. I don’t regret it.

CQK: Would you like to share some of your fondest memories.

PA: There are so many. I think some of my fondest memories were with Starlight because my entire family has performed at that venue. I look back and remember a few summers that I played Queen Elizabeth, the pre-show (Dancing on the Green) before the Shakespearean Festival shows began. It was divine fun. I was in my young 20’s and every night I put on a costume with extensive make-up. But just before putting on the make-up I went out and retrieved my horse from the stable and parked that horse right outside my dressing room until it was time to make my entrance, side-saddle. I would announce the evening play, dance with the courtiers, and then play a small part in the Shakespearean productions.

CQK: What’s your favorite theatrical word?

PA: Commitment, meaning...to give all you’ve got.

CQK: At the end of the day what does accomplishment mean to you?

PA: That I have challenged myself, often to do something new. I try and do that each and every day.

CQK: If you took a detour and at the end of your days met up with the devil, what would you say to him/her?

PA: Oh...perhaps...Big Daddy, you’ve been on the borders of my life but you never got me...all the way.

CQK: Any last words for your faithful and adoring public audience?

PA: I am concerned somewhat about the viability of San Diego theatre; so many companies have lost their theatrical homes recently. There’s been a loss of some of those individuals as well and that is worrisome. We need to nurture our actors and one of the best things going is the Actors Alliance.

CQK: Thank you, Pricilla, and may you continue to grace our many stages in San Diego.

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