With a half-dozen professional theater companies inside a relatively small radius, the Tampa Bay area keeps actors working year-round. Yet there are no sure things – of the talented women and men seen with some regularity on our stages, only a handful of local people do theater, and theater alone, to earn a living.
“It’s difficult,” says actor and playwright Roxanne Fay. “Even some of my Broadway friends, in New York, have day jobs.”
The 55-year-old Fay, who’s currently in the cast of The Fantasticks at freeFall in St. Petersburg, is among the elite: Stagecraft is all she does.
She bid farewell to her last “real world” job, as manager in the perfume division at Elizabeth Arden headquarters in Chicago, 15 years ago.
She’s performed with American Stage, Jobsite, Stageworks, at Sarasota’s Asolo and Urbanite theaters and, of course, freeFall. The Fantasticks, in which she plays the over-the-top character Henry Albertson, is Fay’s first appearance at freeFall since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 2015.
In 2017 alone, Fay’s play Fabrication (in which she co-starred) did sellout business at the Dali Museum, and she played nutty family matriarch Paige in Taylor Mac’s gender-bending comedy HIR, and Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, at Jobsite.
A recipient of the 2017 Creative Pinellas Professional Artist Fellowship, Fay completed a residency at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, and was named a 2018 Artist-in-Residence by The Growlery in San Francisco.
She’s putting the finishing touches on a new one-woman show, in which she’ll play the historical figure on which Shakespeare based Lady MacBeth.
Add to that her annual visits to Bridge Street Theater in Catskill, N.Y., and her Christmastime gig at Walt Disney World’s Holidays Around the World show, and Roxanne Fay doesn’t miss her former life even a little bit.
Opportunities, she says, “can be finite, in that you can’t do every show – you don’t fit in every show. And also, I don’t know that the audience wants to see me in show after show!
“I like working; I like being present. I like really getting a chance to do something fulfilling. I don’t ever want to be ubiquitous – someone I worked with in Chicago was once described as ubiquitous, everywhere you turn. And I don’t want to be that person.”
Eight years ago, Fay played Aretta Webb, wife of legendary St. Pete shopkeeper J.E. “Doc” Webb, in a production of Webb’s City: The Musical. Doc was played by Eric Davis, the founder and artistic director of freeFall. “I’ve been really blessed to have had great relationships with great people,” Fay says.
Davis invited Fay to be a part of the cast of The Fantasticks, the story of two neighboring dads who trick their children into falling in love – they hire a pair of (male) actors, Henry and Mortimer, to carry out a shady ruse, in order to make it happen.
“When I got the offer,” Fay muses, “I was like ‘Who am I going to play in The Fantasticks?’ My first thought was that maybe I would be Mortimer, because that can go either way. But Henry? Wow – he’s such a fun role, he’s goofy and old and very, very full of himself. He’s very much the old grande actor.”
Nobody could think of a time when Henry in The Fantasticks – the longest-running musical in Broadway history, and a staple of both professional and community theater – had been played by a woman.
“It’s been around for 50 years – somebody may have had that idea somewhere,” Fay says. “But we knew that it would be a complete surprise for the audience as well.”
It isn’t the first time Fay has blurred the lines of gender – in The Tempest, she played the lead, the exiled Prospero, to great acclaim.
She loves breaking boundaries. “I’m spending more and more time in trousers – and I like it!” she laughs.
“I pretty much play Henry as Henry. There’s no attempt to make him ‘manly,’ nor is there any wink about ‘Hey, he’s really a girl.’ It’s just Henry.”
The Fantasticks, she explains, is a very, very simple story. “It’s the same thing with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we don’t appreciate the little world that we live in – our homes, our families – because we always want to think there’s something better on the other side of the fence. And it’s not until we go out and look at the world that we go ‘Oh – my home is really a special place, because it’s mine. I belong there.’”
The scheming fathers – Hucklebee and Bellomy – conspire with a mysterious and dashing bandit, El Gallo, to bring their kids, Matt and Luisa, together.
“El Gallo is really the ultimate enabler,” Fay explains. “He’s there to be the “id,” to allow us to be bad. He’s like ‘well, if you want to do that, that door will lead you.’ He doesn’t open the door and push you through. But the decisions to do the things they do are still their own.”
And that’s very much the way Davis, who’s directing the intimate production, talks to his actors. “He doesn’t do things for the sake of doing them,” says Fay. “He has something very specific in his own vision that he wants to see if he can bring it to life. And I have found, working with him over the years, that it’s a gift. For me, as an actor. Because I’m walking into a place where I know everything’s gonna be OK.
“Eric will never ask you to do anything that he doesn’t believe you can do. Sometimes I think he’s very generous with what he thinks I can do! He doesn’t demand anything from us that he would not demand of himself.”
For all the steady work, Fay is careful not to take her professional life for granted. Ubiquity is not an option.
“For me,” she stresses, “to come back to freeFall after a hiatus of five years is such a joy. Because you can forget how lucky you are. You can forget how good a place is if you’re there all the time.”
Tickets and info on The Fantasticks here.