Out of the Wings

Amy West parlayed her interest in the theater into an active calling

Amy West

If you happen to see a dark-haired woman gesturing and talking animatedly to herself while walking the track at Tufts’ Ellis Oval, don’t worry. It’s probably just Amy West, department administrator for the Department of Art and Art History, on her lunch break memorizing lines for an upcoming theatrical production.

West, who has worked at Tufts since 2000, performs in her spare time with both professional and amateur companies. It’s a passion that has waxed and waned in her life, and now is again in full bloom.

She dreamed of being an actress since her childhood in Rockport, Mass., where her mother ran an inn that in summertime hosted many actors from the Rockport Players. She savored the allure and excitement of the theater, she says.

“Shelley Winters would show up once in awhile in her big Cadillac and take my sisters and me for a ride around Cape Ann, and then out to lunch,” she says. “There were parties and lots of rehearsing. We had actors, set designers and others around all the time during the summer.”

After working as a sales assistant at a busy bond trading desk, at age 30 she decided that finance wasn’t for her. She auditioned for the Boston-based New Ehrlich Theater Conservatory, and was accepted to its two-year acting program. But when the program folded because of financial problems, she shelved her acting ambitions. She married and had two children, often holding down the fort at home while her husband, Tom, a keyboard player, was on the road performing with Susan Tedeschi, a blues singer and guitarist, among others. West, meanwhile, turned to temp work and occasionally pitched in helping a friend with her catering business.

Flash forward to 2007. Now in her 40s and her children more independent, she signed up for a subscription to the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square, and was bitten anew by the theater bug. She soon joined StageSource, a clearinghouse that lists auditions, jobs, classes, lectures and workshops. She began to audition, but nothing panned out. It was tough. “There was a lot of rejection,” she recalls, “because I really didn’t feel that confident.”

One Success Leads to Another

But she didn’t give up: she landed a part in SLAMBoston, a festival of very short plays, portraying a college advisor to a young student. The play was only 10 minutes long, with four rehearsals and one performance. It was perfect for her. “It was just enough to get me going,” she says. “Once you get your first gig, you finally feel you have something to offer. I felt like I could ease my way back into this.”

One success led to another, like the role of Mrs. Snip, a slightly daft centenarian housekeeper at a Connecticut inn in The Bride, a production mounted by the Atlantis Playmakers, a theater company based in Burlington, Mass. West did her homework by plumbing YouTube for videos of older women. “There were people celebrating their birthdays who were 100 or older,” she says. “I watched how they held their bodies, how they spoke. It was interesting to see how different they all are. Some were very vibrant and spry; others were more sedentary.”

The Atlantis Playmakers also performed Bright Ideas, about a fiercely competitive couple determined to get their son into the best preschool. West played five of the 15 characters the parents encounter in their quest: an aggressive and wealthy businesswoman who gets killed off with poisonous pesto; a drama teacher; a young mom; a seemingly perfect mother who has a past; and the director of the nursery school. Last year she performed with the Fort Point Theatre Channel in Codes of Conduct, and recently was invited to serve on the board of the GAN-e-meed Theatre Project, which promotes the role of women in theater. She is currently performing in Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera, a collaboration between the American Repertory Theatre and the MIT Media Lab.

Despite her full-time job at Tufts—she works with the department chair to manage everything from budgets to faculty searches to producing a newsletter—West makes time to work on her acting. In addition to her lunch-hour walks around the track, she gets up early to study her lines, and at home her teenage son helps by reading the other parts.

At auditions, she notices that it’s not just the other actors who are younger; the directors and producers are, too. She knows there are not many parts written for older people. “One thing I’ve learned,” she says, “is that I can’t compare myself to anyone else. There’s something out there for me.” She may not be the lead, but that’s OK. “I’m the texture, the atmosphere.”

What she relishes is telling a story and coming to understand what she describes as a character’s internal tempo. “I bring myself to the part, but then create someone else in my imagination. I like becoming somebody else,” she says. “I took a while to find my way in, but now I’m part of the theater community, part of a whole world.”


Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.


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