Monday, September 28, 2015

Margie Bicknell - Veteran singer/performer on typical struggles for women actors and her new show at Eclectic Theater

Margaret (Margie) Bicknell (Kinnunen)
It’s a particular pleasure of mine to occasionally profile one of our older Seattle area performers. They have loads of experience and history in theater and get to an age where it becomes more difficult to share that, just when they have the most range and depth to provide. Such is our youth-obsessed culture.

Margaret – Margie – Bicknell is one such and the latest person to sit down with me to talk about her life in the arts. It also just so happens that you can see her strut her stuff, shortly, in the Equity Member Project Winter Bird, opening at Eclectic Theater October 1st.

Margie’s dad was an Army guy, stationed in Germany after WWII and met and fell in love with a German woman. Margie was born in Germany and then the family returned to the States, bouncing around Army bases in Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina, and then back to Germany.

Eventually, the family settled down for good in San Diego and Margie started singing in high school. Her high school did a couple of musicals a year. She went to San Diego State and had to audition into the music department. She credits an instructor there for forcing her to learn the technical aspects of reading music and rhythm, having gotten by mostly by singing by ear. It was there she fell in love with classical music and opera. She got a degree in music education.

Oh, she also met her husband there, who marched in the marching band. They married just before senior year!

Margie tells a story about performing with San Diego Civic Light Opera, which used a 4000-seat amphitheatre built for the world’s fair for their productions. “The airport is smack in the middle of San Diego and planes would go straight over Balboa Park –  which meant right over the amphitheater. SDCLO devised a plan to use stoplight signals (red, yellow, green) and put three tiny little bulbs on the conductor stand and then on stage so everyone could see them.

“When a plane was approaching, a person stationed in the upper bowl of the amphitheater called to put the yellow light on. When they signaled they couldn’t hear the performers, stage management hit red and everyone on stage froze. The only exception was during a total dance number, which kept going till it ended and then they froze, too. When the plane was gone, the green would come on and the play would continue, usually to great applause.”

Margie travelled to Germany and Vienna in 1984 to do the rounds auditioning for European opera roles. She was successful in being offered a contract for community touring for Munich Opera for 1986-88, but it meant leaving her husband. He was supportive, saying, “I’d love to visit you…Go for it!” Ultimately, though, she decided not to take the contract.

After having kids, she made them the priority through their growing years, and in 1998, the family relocated to Seattle. Finally, around 2005, she says, “I decided the kids were old enough. I started back acting with straight plays at various small theaters. Also, I did musicals with Showtunes! Theatre Company (Annie Warbucks) and Taproot (Big River) and got my union card from Village Theatre’s Anne of Green Gables (2010).”

Now, Margie faces a very common problem for older women actors around here. It’s a cliché but so true, that there are few roles for older women, either in musicals or straight plays, and even fewer that get Equity contracts. It is very common for particularly older women union members to decide that AEA membership gets in the way more than it helps.

Margie says, “As an older woman actor, you see the same people up for the same roles every time you go (audition) and jokingly say, ‘Oh, you got an audition, too! Good for you!’ We all are in the same boat. One of us will get it, we just don’t know which one. And what does the director see in the part? We might all be equally good for the part, but no actor knows what the director wants until we’re cast.”

Margie also gets a bit demoralized when “you see women who are supposed to be 85 played by women in their 40s.”

Margie is lucky enough to have the financial stability to perhaps decide to “just” work for the love of theater. She says, “I would love to get on stage and do what I love. I was offered the opportunity to go Equity and thought it was wonderful, but then sometimes not so much. Now I have gone long stretches without any work. I call and say I’m willing to take a ‘guest artist,’ but they still can’t do it. It becomes problematic and frustrating.”

However, the next opportunity to see Margie on stage is this week when Winter Bird opens at Eclectic Theater. It’s what they call an Equity Member Code project which enables AEA members to produce their own show, with everyone sharing the expense as well as any profit.

Margie says, “It’s about a former doctor who is now a librarian in a rare bookroom in Anchorage, Alaska. He’s lost his way and a woman comes looking for herbal books to help a baby, but she can only use them one at a time. The librarian is drawn to her mystery.

“I get to play an older woman (and I’m going to have a hunch in my back) helping a blood bank, passing out posters for a blood drive. My character loves bird and is trying to track the snowy owl.

“The play has sections that are hysterical. But it’s probably more a dramedy. This is the world premiere for the playwright Stephen Delos Treacy. He’s been attending rehearsals, so that’s helpful to make changes with him. I’m having fun. I think the audience will be surprised and have a good time.