July 2009: Twilight Passage, oil painting by Mary C. Demroske
Header image: Twilight Passage, oil painting by Mary C. Demroske

Featured Artist: Judy Hill

Judy Hill is typical of many creative people in that she doesn’t restrict her interests to a single area. Most of you have heard her singing and playing in various ensembles through the years—Your Mother’s Moustache, Lost and Found, Ain’t Misbehaving and lately, No Strings Attached. She also has a solid record of acting credits, in musicals, dramas, and comedies. Among the productions she has participated in are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Don’t Dress for Dinner, The Melville Boys, My Darling Judith, The Boys Next Door, Move Over Mrs. Markham, Perfect Wedding, My Husband’s Desires Almost Drove Me Mad, Prisoner of Second Avenue, Always . . . Patsy Cline, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Run for Your Wife, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Blithe Spirit, and Butterflies Are Free. She worked with the Family Life Theater on ten of these productions and with the Musical Comedy Guild, the Sault Community Theater and the Sault Theatre Workshop on others.

Judy took the Quonta Festival’s Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role of Sheila, a handicapped woman, in The Boys Next Door. So completely does she take on the role she plays that one, looking at photographs from various productions, finds it almost impossible to realize they are of the same woman. We had a lot of questions for her and, when she answered in writing, we realized that we shouldn’t change a thing.

When did you first become interested in theater?

At a very early age, I knew I wanted to be a performer. My mother was a very encouraging and proud parent. One of her favorite hobbies was to videotape me with her 8mm camera. Whether I was a toddler twirling and doing cartwheels, or an adolescent singing, dancing and performing plays in the backyard, she was there to record it. Needless to say, she is my biggest fan. When I was 15 years old my mother took me to an off-Broadway performance of Wait Until Dark with Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones, though it was rather by accident. We went to Milwaukee to visit my father who worked on the U.S. Great Lakes freighters at the time. We were looking for something to do one afternoon and thought we would go see a movie. Once in the theater, the curtain opened, and we were delighted to discover that the show Wait Until Dark was a play, not a movie. All my mother could say was, “No wonder these tickets were so expensive!” For me, it was a peak experience and a turning point in my life. The idea of being able to create a character and give an honest performance in a play was exhilarating and a challenge to bring it to life for an audience. In high school, I looked for every opportunity to perform, from musicals such as The Sound of Music and Hello Dolly to the I-500 pageant. It was actually during the “talent” part of the I-500 pageant that I realized I had some comedic timing and could make people laugh. I did a humorous monologue (stand-up routine) about catching a fly ball at a baseball game. I didn’t win the I-500 queen contest, but I received a great response from the audience.

After high school, I had the opportunity to do a couple of plays with the Sault Community Theater, (now The Chippewa Theater Guild). I was cast as Alice in You Can’t Take It With You and also played the mother in Butterflies Are Free. My interest in the performing arts extended into college. I attended Northern Michigan University and graduated with a major in Drama and Performing Arts. At NMU, I was involved in a variety of plays. One of my most memorable roles in college was that of Edna in The Runner Stumbles. Since it was an entry for the Playwright’s Award competition, it was adjudicated by a panel of judges. I was honored by nomination for the Irene Ryan Award. During my education at NMU, drama students were encouraged to prepare for national auditions. There was an audition class which concentrated on putting together a resume and a repertoire of various monologues, including a song and dance. It was an exciting and successful program because most of the students who went to these national auditions landed jobs in their area of theater. Sometimes you received more than one offer, and you could choose where you wanted to go.

I was offered a job in Birmingham, Alabama, with a company called Bright Hope. We performed the same show all summer long and got paid a lump sum for the season. It was great professional experience, but I decided not to pursue a career in theater. I soon realized that a life in professional theater would require a total commitment. My husband was very encouraging and did not want me to have any regrets about my career direction, despite being married at the time. However, in order to make a living in theater, we would have to locate to a larger city, perhaps travel constantly. This was a real soul-searching time in my life to evaluate what was important to me and our future together. It didn’t take me long to decide that my relationship with my husband was what I valued most. Also, I could be happy doing community theater and pursuing a different line of work.

After graduation, we moved to Traverse City and started a business. In T.C., I did some plays with The Civic Theater. It was a great way to meet people and become involved in the community. With the experience and confidence behind me, I started to become more selective in the roles that I wanted. I appeared in Chicago as one of the six merry murderesses, POP, and also sang the lead in Applause. During the run of Applause, I became pregnant with our first child. I was reluctant to tell the cast for fear that they might get nervous about lifting me during one of the dance numbers. (Although I did end up telling the costumer after she had to alter my outfit twice.)

When my husband and I moved back to the Soo in 1989, he mentioned that I should look into the possibility of trying out for some plays in Sault, Ontario. It would be years later that I noticed in the Alberta House newsletter some of the upcoming events of Family Life Theater and the Comedy Guild. I went to several plays in Canada and fell in love with theater all over again.

What was your favorite role in theater?

My friend Lise White, with whom I have had the pleasure of singing and performing for over 15 years, was going to audition for the play Always, Patsy Cline in Sault, Ontario, with the Sault Theater Workshop. She invited me along, saying that there were two parts in the show. I was confident she would get the part of Patsy Cline; after all, she had a great voice and looked just like Patsy Cline. One of my most cherished roles in theater was playing the part of Louise, Patsy Cline’s best friend, opposite of my best friend, Lise White. It was a great match for both of us. We had an unbelievable response, selling out for a two-week run. There has always been the hope that we would bring that show to Sault, Michigan, but it has yet to materialize.

Since then I have been actively involved with The Comedy Guild and The Family Life Theater in Sault, Ontario. I try to get involved with about two shows a year with Family Life Theater. Michael Hennessy is the director and has turned out to be one of the best that I have ever worked with. He has great vision and knowledge of theater, and I would recommend him to anyone for a positive experience.

Over the years, I have become more of a character actress. One of the toughest but most rewarding experiences was during a Quonta Festival entry (in Canada) for The Family Life Theatre. Michael cast me in The Boys Next Door, a Tom Griffin play. When he asked me to do Sheila, a handicapped woman, he said it was a cameo part but substantial. I was fortunate to win an award with Sheila at the Quonta Festival for Best Supporting Actress, which confirmed what Michael has always said: “There are no small parts.”

One of my greatest acting disappointments occurred last year during the time I was rehearsing with the cast of Misery, a stage version of the Steven King book and movie. The role was Annie, a very complex character, one of those meaty parts with lots of subtext. We got three-fourths the way through and then suddenly learned that Steven King had taken back all rights and would not allow anyone in the country to perform the show until his version of the play had its run on Broadway. We were all devastated and had to stop our production immediately.

What was the first group you sang with?

When I was twelve years old, my mother arranged for me to take guitar lessons. I started playing at St. Mary’s Church for the 10:00 a.m. masses. It was an opportunity for me to play with different musicians during the early 70’s. In the early 90’s, I started singing with a group called Your Mother’s Moustache. We sang an eclectic mix but mostly focused on songs of the Chenille Sisters, song parodies that would entertain and make people laugh. It was during this time I met a wonderful friend, Lise White. She was a huge talent in our area as well as in the Canadian Sault. We worked on her first CD together, Waitressing Blues, and from that time, I have had the pleasure of performing a variety of music at various venues with her. Lise is a solid lead vocalist, and my strengths are in harmony; so we have worked very well together. Our first group was called Lost and Found and later evolved into a blues and jazz group that we renamed Ain’t Misbehavin’. Today we still have occasional opportunities to perform. We also do an Andrew Sisters set and have performed that at the White Pines Theater, and last summer at the Beer, Brats, and Beethoven Festival. Currently, I am playing my guitar and singing with a group of women in the area who go by the name No Strings Attached. Our style is a blend of bluegrass, ballads and blues. We are playing locally this summer at the Les Cheneaux Maritime Museum in Cedarville on July 2nd and at the Soo Locks for the Concert in the Park series on Aug. 19th. Hope to see everyone there.

What outstanding artists—visual, literary and performing—have in common is that they love what they’re doing and they have respect and enthusiasm. Respect for their craft and a willingness to work hard at it, because the craft is the vehicle by which their art and creativity are communicated to their audience. Respect for their fellow artists—a genuine appreciation and enjoyment of the work of others and of the role that others play in their own work. They have in common a generosity of spirit that makes them the first to praise the work of others. They have respect for their audience and a desire to bestow a wonderful experience. They have an overwhelming enthusiasm for their art and their craft—they love what they’re doing. These characteristics separate the artist from the performers and from those who merely ply their craft. There are no small roles. One doesn’t have to have a national audience or a big part.

People of this area don’t fully appreciate the wealth of artistry based here—in theater, in the visual arts, in music and dance. There is a tendency to wait until artists have been “validated” elsewhere before embracing them here—a trait that says more about the insecurity of the public than about the abilities of the artist.

Portraits of Judy Hill
Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.

Judy Hill as Sheila in The Boys Next Door

Judy Hill as Sheila
in The Boys Next Door

Judy Hill in Don't Dress For Dinner

Judy Hill in Don't Dress For Dinner

Lise White and Judy Hill in Always, Patsy Cline

Lise White and Judy Hill in
Always, Patsy Cline

Fringed Gentian, silhouette by Annegret Goehring

Lise White and Judy Hill in
Always, Patsy Cline

Last updated: July 1, 2009

Sault Area Arts Council Home Page 217 Ferris Street, Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783
e-mail: saac@saultarts.org Phone: (906) 635-1312