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Joy Sherratt – Actor, Fallon School Teacher, Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre Co-Founder

December 3, 2012

Joy Sherratt Fallon Middle School

Live theatre continues to inspire, captivate, move and entertain – despite the competition from 3D movies, video games and high-def television. Fallon Middle School teacher and Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre co-founder Joy Sherratt on why, “Live theatre moves you in such a different way. Live theatre can really transform and take you somewhere, because it is a physical experience that invites the audience in.” met with Ms. Sherratt, who recently starred as ‘Belle’ in the Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”, and is preparing for the January 2013 production of ‘Rent’, to learn more about her journey through college to the theaters of New York and ultimately to the Bay Area where she co-founded the Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre and teaches in Dublin’s Fallon Middle School. Along the way, her story provides practical advice for students considering theatre as a passion or even a profession. What inspired you to pursue theatre?

Joy Sherratt: “My mom said from day one that I was the kid in a room who would be yelling or talking or singing at the top of my lungs just for the attention. I started in the Alameda Children’s Musical Theatre at the age of eight, which was the first time I formally did plays outside of a school setting. I worked with ACMT until the end of middle school, performing in 2-3 productions per year, plays and musicals. ACMT gave me the foundation of how a show is put together.”

“In my freshman year at Alameda High School I took a beginning drama course with Frederick Chacon (it happens to be his final year there). Fred is also the Artistic Director of the Altarena Play House in Alameda. In my sophomore year I was cast as Peter in ‘Peter Pan’ – it was very rare at Alameda High for an underclassman to be cast in a lead. We were lucky at Alameda High to have a beautiful facility to perform in, a building that’s at least 100 years old with a beautiful proscenium, a theatre that holds over 2,000 people.

“Fred saw something in me in my sophomore year, took a chance and let me do Peter Pan. I remember him sitting me down after that show and saying ‘I really think this is something you should do.’

“I was always very academic and athletic too, so he said ‘I know you want to swim, I know you want to play soccer, but I really think this is something you should focus on too.’ I took that to heart and in my junior year I was a secondary lead and in my senior year I was a lead again, which led me to pursue a drama major in college.” After high school what led to your choice of UC Irvine for college?

Joy Sherratt - Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre

Sherratt: “Both of my parents are educators, so I was always mindful of education. I remember when I was applying for colleges, I really wanted to go to this one conservatory in Boston but it would have been just for voice. I remember my parents advising me to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, because you never know what you’ll want to do down the road, and in the end I chose UC Irvine. I earned a B.A. in Performing Arts and I minored in Health and Fitness, because it was always something I was interested in doing. In the long run I’m so glad I did that because it led me to have more options down the road as an adult.

“I had a great four years at UC Irvine – they have an amazing program where you can spend a quarter studying in New York. I got to work with the leading choreographers, directors and casting people in New York at the time. I was able to get introduced to New York in a very safe environment because I was there for school, but also get exposed to directors and casting directors. I was even able to get an agent in New York during my junior year who told me to give them a call when I was moving to New York and that they’d represent me.” Was there a period where you pursued theatre before becoming an educator?

Sherratt: “Yes. Right out of college I was determined to move to New York, but I needed money. So I did some researched and determined the best way to make money quickly was to work on a cruise ship, so during my senior year of college I started auditioning for cruise ships and got a job with Holland America Line. I boarded a month after graduation and worked at sea for six months, saving up a ton of money.” What is that like, being a performer on a cruise ship, and how does that contrast with performing in a traditional theatre production?

Sherratt: “It’s a little more of a spectacle. We did review shows, not a book musical, so it’s more about getting to know the genre of music and emulating the performer that originally performed the song. The cruise ship I worked for was geared mainly to adults 60 years and older so we did a lot of Cher – I was Cher once in the show. I did a whole Judy Garland set. It was pretty interesting because I took the time to research the artists. We were asked to sing in our own voice, but have a flavor the original performer, so it was totally different from doing a musical.

“For six months it feels like you are on this little island, it was before the Internet was available on ships, very insular. I felt a little disconnected from family and friends. Luckily I had a really nice cast and group of people who I worked with for six months, but I’ve heard horror stories of where the cast don’t get along, and it’s a long contract, and lots of drama.” So after your contract with Holland America is up, do you make the move to New York?

Sherratt: “Yes – after my contract ended I disembarked in Florida, flew home to California and three days later packed four bags and left for New York with my mom and my sisters. I had five days to find somewhere to live. Luckily I had emailed people in New York that had gone to UC Irvine and something came up through that network – a friend of a friend of a friend. I got to live in Manhattan – which was awesome – and five days later my family left and I was on my own, without any close friends.” What is the reality for students considering the performing arts based on your experience in New York?

Sherratt: “What I found was that there were hundreds and hundreds of women exactly like me. It was finding my way through that – finding what made me unique. For me the balance was making enough money working a day job but still having enough time to audition for roles. Sometimes that was not in balance because I had to work, I had to pay the rent, and I just couldn’t get to the audition because I had to pay the bills. That was a big reality check.

“The first two years I was in New York I landed some national tours, some off-Broadway stuff, I was slowly building my resume and had an agent. Then 9/11 hit and it really shifted the whole theatre scene for a year and a half. People who had Broadway credits were taking the national tours, because shows weren’t being produced on Broadway, and as a result I wasn’t working for a while so I did some on camera stuff.

“So I thought, and my agent thought, since the theatre scene in New York was so cold and while I still looked ‘young’, that I should move back to California. I chose to make the move after living in New York for almost four years. I went to L.A. for two years and tried to do on camera work, but wasn’t quite as successful in L.A. as I was in New York. I also didn’t really love the L.A. scene like I loved the New York theatre scene.” During the Dublin High School Drama Club’s visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Christine Albright noted during a Q&A session that in theatre your education and background really matters, but in TV and film that is less important. Was that your experience?

Sherratt: “I did find that – I found that L.A. was more about who you knew, who your family was, how you are connected; it had nothing to do with your training or what you’ve done. It had nothing to do with your resume – if I had nothing on my resume that would be fine. If you had the look they were looking for and they could shape you, that’s how you would get cast. And that was frustrating – I’ve always been an academic and I’ve really enjoyed studying roles and characters. I believe in hard work, that you’ll get results by working 110 percent. In New York it was about going to class, continuing your training, making sure that you’d done your research on the audition that you’re going to. I felt in L.A. it had nothing to do with that.” Was it in L.A. when you decided to switch gears?

Sherratt: “I started dating my future husband [Christopher Branson, also a Fallon teacher] and we had to decide together – would we start a marriage with theatre as my career. And we decided no, it wasn’t realistic – being on the road, getting small jobs – making a living but with a lot of road work. I was ready to put up that hat and come back to the Bay Area and figure out what’s next.

“I started substitute teaching, at the advice of my parents, before going back to school – to make sure teaching would be right for me. I sub’ed for almost a year and found that I loved middle and high school, and loved health, fitness and drama. I went to the University of San Francisco to earn my teacher credential and my masters in education. I chose USF’s program because it was designed for working adults. I got a job here in Dublin while completing my masters. That worked out really well.” Fast forward to today and the Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre – how does repertory theatre work as a business, in contrast to the large shows you experienced in New York?

Sherratt: “In a Broadway show you have backers, you have producers giving you money to fund the show. As a repertory theatre we are a 501(3)(c) – a non-profit – not all repertory theatres are. We chose being a charitable organization for multiple reasons, for tax reasons, for allowing donations that provide a tax benefit. We spent a year establishing the charitable organization and fund-raising. In the first year as well we needed to find a space to work in. We’d heard the Pleasanton space [the Firehouse Arts Center] was being built and did a huge presentation to the City of Pleasanton on why they’d want us in that space, and we’re currently negotiating with Pleasanton for the 2013-14 season.

“I’ve learned so much about the business side of theatre. That ticket sales don’t cover the cost of a show. For us, because we are so new and don’t have a large donor base yet, or many sponsorships from business, tickets are 70% of our budget. For more established theatre companies, like the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, ticket sales are more like 40-50% of their budget, and corporate sponsorships and donations fill the gap. Since we are still a young company, if we don’t hit our ticket sales and donations don’t fill the gap, the money comes out of our pockets. We’ve had to be really careful about our budgets.” What’s been the response to far to the Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre and its productions?

Sherratt: “At first the Pleasanton community didn’t know who we were and in the second season that’s been our goal, to have our theater patrons understand who we are, because there are other community theaters in the area. That has been a new challenge – to make sure the community understands what they are going to get when they see our shows.” What are you trying to do to stand out?

Sherratt: “There are a few things that we are doing that are different from other theatre companies in the area. We hire professional actors. It’s part of our mission – to have at least two equity actors in every show. We use an all-pro orchestra, which other theatre companies in the area don’t do. We also have professional lighting and set designers.

“Since we have these professionals in the top-level positions, a second goal is to develop a mentor program where high school and college students have an opportunity to learn in a professional environment. That makes us very unique because most theatre companies in the area do not provide mentoring opportunities. We’re currently pursuing sponsorships to further develop the mentoring program.

“For me, working in a professional space at a young age, was beneficial on so many levels that I’d like to give the same experience to other students – actors like Dublin High School junior Patrick Wallace [who recently appeared in the cast of ‘Beauty and the Beast’].” How do you choose what shows will be performed?

Joy Sherratt in Disney's Beauty and the Beast - Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre production 1

Sherratt: “We have decided, to be fiscally strong, to have one family friendly show, one smaller boutique show and one show that challenges us and the community. Looking at this season we started with ‘Beauty and the Beast’, because we knew it would be a family-friendly show and it was the most expensive show we’ve done to-date.

“The City of Pleasanton asked us to produce ‘Rent’ [opening Jan. 25, 2013] and we were excited about that. We think ‘Rent’ is a show that challenges people on many levels – the topic, the multiple story lines. It will be interesting how the community embraces ‘Rent’ – it could be a risk.

“‘She Loves Me’ [opening April 25, 2013] is based on the movie ‘Shop Around the Corner’ (which was re-made as ‘You’ve Got Mail’). I did ‘She Loves Me’ in college and it’s been one of my favorite musicals ever since. I think it’s a little gem. We have an amazing director and I know it’s going to be a great show, we just have to get people to come and see it!” Regarding the Dublin High School Performing Arts Center that is now being built, do investments like that matter? Does the facility make a difference?

Sherratt: “I think it does. It sounds silly but I equate it to sports – when you have a beautiful football stadium suddenly you have more people playing football and coming out to your games. When you have a facility that you can do more in, you are going to have more kids excited and want to get involved, and you are going to have people wanting to come check what this is all about. I really do think it makes a difference – not that you can’t do good things in small spaces, because you can, but rather that it opens the door for more opportunity. What a great thing we can give our kids.” Any closing thoughts for students reading this who are dreaming of a life in theatre?

Sherratt: “Continue to dream big, understand that it’s a process. Accept the journey along the way and don’t think of things as roadblocks but rather as new opportunities. Always know that you may not be able to sustain your life, financially, in theatre so you may need other things you can do to pay the bills. For me, when I got married, if I had stopped doing theatre completely I knew I would not be a happy person. It fulfills a part of me that nothing else does. Continue feeding that artistic soul – even if not exactly in the way you expected.”

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Joy Sherratt in Disney's Beauty and the Beast - Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre production 2

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