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14 Aug 2013

Know Your Neighbors: The Valley Is Full of Talented Women Who Balance Family and the Arts

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The Coachella Valley has always had a love affair with the performing arts, reflected in street names like Sinatra, Shore, and Hope.

Admit it: We’re star struck!

With the new Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School, and the emphasis by the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership on developing a thriving local arts community as an economic driver, the goal is to attract and keep talented people here.

We have neighbors whose names you might not know, but they’ve been blessed with outstanding training, experience and vision.

Daniela Ryan, 47, of Palm Desert, is one such example. Married, with two children, 9 and 11, she recently stepped back from her leadership position at Dezart Performs, the company she started seven years ago, to focus on raising her children.

“I actually put an ad on Craigslist three years after coming to the Coachella Valley when my husband got a job here, because I was frustrated trying to find something locally where I could act or direct,” she says.

“Dezart (One) Gallery, in Palm Springs, was the one response I got. They wanted to develop a theater in the Backstreet Arts District, so I agreed to try to write something I could perform. After three years of doing nothing but nursing and napping babies, the next year, I did my show and met (artistic director) Michael Shaw, and Dezart Performs was born.

“The response has been terrific, and I’m hoping to work with them again, and with other local theater companies, both acting and directing.”

Daniela began in the biz by attending children’s theater auditions at age 7, along with her sister and friends. “I just got thrown into it. I got the part of Peter (in a play version of “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater”) because I was the only one with short hair! But even when I would forget my lines, the audience never let me go.

“Until I had kids, I had always either been in a show or studying (theater at the University of California at Berkeley). I wanted to hone my craft even if I couldn’t make a living at it. I waitressed, bartended, and the worst job I ever had was in a shoe store. I was 16 and worked part-time as the ‘box boy.’ Size 10 men’s shoes are heavy, and getting them on the top shelf was a challenge. After three weeks, I was fired, after being told I couldn’t do the job because I was a ‘girl.’”

Daniela has also taught acting, and one of her basic tenets is: “If you’re looking for the exit, you’ll find it; if you’re driven to act, you should just do it.”

If she could do anything she wanted, Daniela would direct. “You have to be intelligent, thoughtful and ambitious to be a good director. The director can change the course of a whole play. The actor is given the vehicle; it’s more myopic. The director can shape the entire product.”

While Daniela is proud to have helped make Dezart into a success, she is realistic: “The local media is just beginning to recognize local talent. This community deserves a thoughtful, serious theater company.”

When it comes to training in the performing arts, Sky Valley resident Wendy Girard, a life member of the famed Actor’s Studio inducted at age 18, has a powerhouse background as actor, director, producer, and teacher, lauded by stars like Al Pacino and Martin Landau.

“I didn’t plan to be an actor. I was a big fan of Elia Kazan, and that was what I wanted to do when I grew up—to direct. But in those days, women weren’t directors.

“I read in the D.C. paper that auditions were being held for T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. I thought if I snuck into the back row and watched, I could learn what a director does.

“When the auditions were over, the director said I should come up and audition. I was cast on the spot, at 15. I figured acting would help me understand what a director does from the inside out. After that, I just kept getting cast.”

Wendy met her former husband, John Strasberg, when he was guest actor at the Arena Stage in D.C. “We moved in with each other same day.” At 18, she moved with him to New York, living with his father, Lee Strasberg. “We stayed in Johnny’s old room, where Marilyn Monroe had also stayed!

“I had never heard of Actors Studio or ‘The Method’ style of acting. I didn’t know that one of the ‘rules’ was that nobody talked to Lee unless he initiated the conversation. I just walked up to him one day and started talking about improv—he was apoplectic. But he became like a father to me.”

She studied with Strasberg for 13 years and the renowned Stella Adler for several more.

Wendy started producing at 19, an off-off-Broadway production, but “I had gotten caught up in acting to make a living, so it was a few years before I directed anything.”

Among other productions, Wendy worked on Spaceship Earth: Our Global Environment (which won two Emmys) and helped create an Academy Award-nominated project produced by Sting, Burning Down Tomorrow. She conducts professional acting/presentation classes in the Coachella Valley.

Wendy came to Sky Valley (north of Palm Desert and east of Desert Hot Springs) during her mother’s final illness and to recover from a serious accident, and now divides her time between the valley and L.A.

“I’m going back to acting, but I still prefer directing whenever I can. I have a stack of several film scripts I’d like to direct. One even takes place in the Coachella Valley.”

As for women now directing films, Wendy says, “When Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award in 2010 for ‘a guy film’ (The Hurt Locker), that really opened the door. It just takes persistence.”

Wendy quit high school, much to the consternation of her college-educated parents. “School was boring for me.”

Yet her advice to young people interested in performing arts as a career contradicts her own life experience: “Everyone should finish school and go to college. If you want to have a long career in this business, you need a broad education and should be able to talk on any subject under the sun for at least 20 minutes. I’m still working on biology.

“If you look at actors who are successful, they are very smart, have an insatiable curiosity, and they love learning.”

Wise words from a neighbor.

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

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