In theater, serendipity often plays a major role. Consider actress Amanda Ladd, a member of New York’s New Circle Theatre Company, which specializes in incubating new works.
At New Circle, Ladd made the acquaintance of playwright Bill Leavengood of St. Petersburg, Florida. Over the years, the company workshopped and produced several of his plays.
Suitably impressed with Ladd’s onstage versatility – she is also a singer and dancer – Leavengood recruited her to fly to his hometown to appear in his historical musical, Crossing the Bay, in 2019.
That’s when the playwright learned that the performer spent many of her early years in St. Petersburg – her mom’s a native – and in fact graduated from Northside Christian School with the Class of ’98.
Ladd’s been back in town for over a month now, appearing onstage at Studio Grand Central in Leavengood’s The Sister-Mothers of Gulfport. The gripping drama ended its run last weekend, but Ladd isn’t going anywhere just yet.
She’s onstage today through Sunday in another Leavengood drama, The Azure Sky in Oz. The playwright describes it as the stories of “two women whose lives are profoundly impacted by the other-abled.”
In this one-women tour-de-force, Ladd plays artist Michelle Feulner-Castro in the first act, and special education teacher Mary Tilford in the second.
They’re both real people, friends of Bill Leavengood’s.
“Michelle is a nationally-recognized artist,” explains Ladd. “She’s amazing. She draws and does a lot of cut-outs – it’s very textural and whimsical. It has this sort of floating, dreamy feeling.
“The piece is about her as an artist, but also about trying to be a mother to a severely autistic son. And also another son who had a blood disorder for many years. So it’s what it looks like to be a mom and an artist, which is already f—ing hard by itself, but to be somebody dealing with adversity who still manages to create amazing stuff. She has so much humor about her. The fact that she keeps going … I don’t even understand what sign you had to be born under for this dark cloud to happen.
“But it’s not depressing – it’s invigorating. I don’t know that she would be the same artist she is without the shit that she’s been through.”
Tilford, Ladd continues, “is just a giant, exposed heart. She embodies what it is to be a nurturer and a giver. Somebody that you want on your team as a cheerleader.
“At the same time, I think that she has faced a lot of self-doubt and uncertainty in her life. So I think the way that’s manifested for her and her work is she understands what it is to not feel like you count in the world. And that you’re maybe not visible in the world. And so she’s dedicated her life to being a special education teacher, and giving voice to that. Giving direction to that. Giving hope to that.”
Amanda Ladd was born in Tennessee, raised there (on a farm) and in St. Pete, and after high school beelined for North Carolina’s Mars Hill College, where she got her BFA in Musical Theatre.
Next came New York, and big dreams, and a few years of cross-country tours and cruise ship gigs.
But she craved something more. “I quit doing musical theater, and started working with playwrights,” she says. “I prefer to work on new work. I prefer to collaborate with writers – I’m a director, too. That’s my happy place.
“I like finding new things. I like the challenge of finding the right way to speak with a collaborator, and what those boundaries are. There are some writers I work with who are very precious about their biblical work, and they don’t want it messed with.
“But there’s others who are willing to improvise and listen to where it’s coming from. And all of those are good. I like to learn what that language is with the people I’m working with.”
She’s also a graduate of the Upright Citizens Brigade, where she acquired another invaluable skill: Longform improv comedy.
It’s about problem-solving on the fly, Ladd says. “People who I’ve worked with in improvisation are people who are operating at the top of their intelligence, always. So really good improv-ers are the biggest dorks you’ve ever met in your life. They’re the ones who win all of the trivia at Bar Night, and are kind of pedantic to be around.”
The Sister-Mothers of Gulfport was Ladd’s first time back onstage since early 2020 (we all know why). Learning two shows at the same time, she explains, was only slightly daunting: She’d done it before.
“I started in repertory theater in North Carolina, where you were doing one show and you were running it for three or four weeks – but then you were in rehearsals for the next show, and the next show after that. Depending on what your track was in the cast.”
She’s an actor who relishes a new challenge – and Bill Leavengood made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“The one thing I’ve come to love the most about Bill, and what I’ve gotten to learn about him and his writing: I love the way he writes women,” Ladd says. “Especially playing two people that are real people, people he has a past with – and I got to meet them. I rehearsed with them via Zoom before I met them.
“And then when I met them, I told Bill, ‘You wrote them exactly how they are.’ He is a channeler.
“I think it’s not that easy for men to write women. He’s one of the first male writers that I think can really see a feminine side of things.”
The Azure Sky in Oz runs Dec. 16-19 (four performances). Tickets here.