This article appeared in the January 2011 issue of KC Stage
The road to Equity can be a bumpy one, and it can take awhile to gain momentum. Cathy Barnett knows.
“I never really thought about doing theatre,” she says, until eighth grade, when a friend had to force her to audition for her school production of The Wizard of Oz. “I do this imitation of Bert Lahr,” she explains. “But that’s the deal in junior high and high school, maybe even the rest of your life. A lot of theatre is imitation. When they see someone who can imitate, that’s exciting.”
But this was junior high, she was only in eighth grade, and the casts of the school plays were almost always comprised of older kids. Ninth-grade boys were chosen as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, and they were confident that their buddy would be cast as the Cowardly Lion. Their disappointment was palpable when the role was given to an eighth-grader. A girl. “It was not real pretty,” Barnett recalls. “But it ended up being a blast.”
In ninth grade, she was cast as Mama in Bye Bye Birdie, and jokes that it was the first in a lifetime of playing characters that were [ahem] older than she. “I never even thought of playing the ingénues. Even then, when I was young, it would have never occurred to me to even want to play those roles, because I felt the character roles got the laughs, and that’s where the meat was, that’s where the fun was, that’s where the story was. I like that. I’ve always liked that.”
Her participation in theatre continued, but a career in the field never occurred to her. “All I thought, ever, was, ‘That was really fun,’” she says about her high school theatre experiences at Shawnee Mission North. She was in all the plays there too, including Anything Goes, Once Upon a Mattress, and Hello, Dolly. “Then I went to KU, and I was going to major in—you’re going to laugh—biology.”
The first fork in her career road came as she helped another student prepare a lab. As she retrieved materials from the refrigerator, she paused to read the jokes and cartoons taped to the door. “I just thought, ‘Wow. I don’t think any of this is funny. I’ll be working with people that have this sense of humor for the rest of my life.’ It really freaked me out a little bit.” She changed her major after she landed a major role in Candide her freshman year. Of course, she played the old woman.
Candide is “a complicated piece, I don’t care who you are,” Barnett declares. After the first reading, she found herself, again, standing out awkwardly among her castmates. “We get all done reading the piece, and it’s a pretty big cast, and we’re asked, ‘Are there any questions?’ I raise my hand—here it comes, more reason to hate Cathy—and I went, ‘Um, is this a comedy?’ I didn’t understand the show, and I didn’t know for a long time that it was okay to say that.”
After graduation, she moved to New York City, ostensibly, to pursue theatre. But it didn’t work out that way. “That’s the irony,” she states. “I was in New York for ten years. I mostly did stand-up and worked administratively for a theatre company. I was too afraid to audition. I was terrified.”
Although it would seem that stand-up comedy is fear-inducing in its own right, Barnett argues that it was comparatively easy. “All you had to do in stand-up was say, ‘Hi, I’m from Kansas.’ That was a fifteen-minute laugh,” she muses. “Then you let your audience say things like, ‘Hey, Dorothy, how many scarecrows did you have to sleep with to get this job?’ ‘Hey, Dorothy, show us your tits!’ You see, if you let your audience just yell things, then they think they’ve had a wonderful time.”
But stand-up was also something that she had to be pushed into. This time, it was her roommate in New York who planted the seed, and then spoke to her friend Lewis Black about Barnett. “I went down to the room a couple of times and watched what they were doing,” Barnett, then Cathy Hill, remembers. “The thing is, it was all guys. There were no women. And they were all, I thought, completely brilliant. A lot of them were story-telling, or they were doing very dry humor, stuff you had to think about, you know? After the second or third time, I just went up to Lewis—and let’s remember, I was this very cute little 24-year-old—and I went up to him and said, ‘I really like what you’re doing, I’m Chris’s friend, you guys are so funny…’ And he was like, ‘Why don’t you have five minutes for next week?’ That is how it happened.”
Her act was a mish-mash of material, she says, including singing “Memory” from Cats. “People would start to moan and groan and ask, ‘Why is this woman doing this?’ Then halfway through it, I coughed up a giant fur ball, and told everybody that I saved them sixty bucks. That was part of my act. Really nice,” she says sarcastically. “And I did a lot of stuff about my family. Some of was a little vicious, actually. Then I had a bit where, if it was really not going well, I had a little wind-up bird with a suction cup that I would stick on my glasses, and I’d do a Tippi Hedren moment…. Or, if it wasn’t going well, I would sing Debby Boone’s “You Light Up my Life” in German, which I learned in high school. Just totally random. Whatever I was thinking about, or maybe something that happened that day.
I’ve got to give props to Lewis Black, because Lewis let me do that. The West Bank was a room like no other: this audience was willing to listen to a story. You don’t have to do joke, joke, joke, joke, joke.” Barnett has nothing but good things to say about Black. “His heart’s bigger than his body,” she affirms. “A lovely man, and gave me my break, as far as I’m concerned.”
“I had a little following,” Barnett says of her career in comedy. Around this time, she met and started dating Dan Barnett. Faced with the decision of whether to go on the college circuit with her stand-up, she decided to quit altogether. Stand-up comedy is a lonely business, “and I was falling in love with Dan,” she says simply. “It was a real turning point, deciding if I was going to stay on with stand-up. We got married, and moved back here in 1990.”
Shortly after returning to Kansas City, her college friend Lisa Cordes let her know that Forbidden Broadway was going to be produced locally, and auditions were coming up. Barnett says she had seen the show several times in New York, and had thought, “This is what I would like to do more than anything else in the world, but I couldn’t possibly do this.” Her insurmountable fear made her throw her headshot in the door of the theatre and run away instead of auditioning. “So when Lisa called, I said, ‘Oh, no. I know it seems weird, because I’ve been in New York for ten years, but I haven’t been performing, and that show’s way up here [above my level]. I’m not right for it.’ And she said, ‘Hm-mm. Well. If you don’t audition for it, I’m going to come over and pick you up in the car, and I’m going to take you down there at gunpoint, because you’re auditioning for this show.’”
Barnett got the part, which made perfect use of her knack for impressions. “It was really scary and really great,” she says. Toward the end of the run, Richard Carrothers and Dennis Hennessy, now owners of the New Theatre Restaurant and whom Barnett knew before she left for New York, came to see the show, and “sort of nabbed me out” to replace a departing actor in their long-running production of Nunsense. The rest of the cast had been doing the show for over a year, says Barnett, and were none too happy with the new addition. “They were so burnt out, then here comes this new idiot. I can never express some of the looks that Deb Bluford gave me.” Barnett confesses to making several social missteps, which only added to the intolerance. At one point, she was sure that running into Bluford onstage, as she was blocked, had resulted in Barnett bruising her breasts, so she asked Bluford if she thought that was possible. “Well, you know what it was, I was pregnant,” Barnett reveals. “So my boobs hurt all the time. I had just assumed it was because I was running into Deb Bluford, so you can imagine how that made her feel. Oh, she was so angry at me,” Barnett laughs.
Since there was a new actor now, “they’d have to sit through note sessions, and I felt terrible, in retrospect,” she says. “Every time I would get a note, I’d have a comment of some kind.” This only served to make the note session even longer, and the veteran actors even more resentful of the naïve Barnett. “That stage manager, in front of everybody—musical director, director, actors—said, ‘When you are given a note in the professional theatre, you take it. And then we move on.’ I learned a lot.” In addition, she earned her Equity card.
Nearly twenty years later, Barnett remains a prolific actor in the Kansas City area, and she has some advice she’d like to impart. “The main thing I would want to tell actors, young actors, particularly: keep pursuing it, but understand that you have to pursue many aspects of it,” she insists. “And there are many. It may be writing, it may be voice-overs, it may be working in casting or production, you just don’t know until you start getting out into the world.” Barnett diversifies by doing industrials and voice-over work, as well as portraying the curmudgeonly Hallmark character, Maxine, in personal appearances, e-cards, and talking Christmas ornaments. “If you love it, then you’ll keep at it, you know?” she says. “The theatre stuff is fine, but I could not live on one single person’s contract in this city. No way. No way! And I’m Equity! I’m an established Equity actress, and I can tell you, I can’t live on my theatre income. No way. I don’t think there’s anybody who could say that they could, in this town.”
Aging can be a difficult fact to face as an actor, but since Barnett has never played ingénues, she says getting older really doesn’t bother her. She claims the term “character actor” gets a bad rap. “It doesn’t mean ‘the ugly one’!” she emphasizes. “It’s a profession. This is what I do, and I’m not looking, probably, for the same things a 20-year-old is looking for, or a thirty-something is looking for… let’s not worry about that kind of shit. It’s stupid. This is where we are.”
“Here’s the interesting thing: I’m finally actually playing roles that are my real age.” Barnett says playing Little Edie, the off-kilter recluse, in last year’s production of Grey Gardens at the Unicorn Theatre “was really extraordinary… I thought that something that was multi-faceted, and it wasn’t just about imitation.” She considers it another turning point in her career. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I worked really hard on it. I really felt that I sang it well. I worked really hard on it vocally, because none of it was anything that was easy for me to sing. I was really proud of it. And I also feel that I just really understand Little Edie.”
Barnett’s boisterous laugh rings out. She warns against making broad generalizations, as those are dismissive to a complex character. “You know how you say, ‘Oh, well, that character’s crazy,’ and then your acting teacher says, ‘No, no, no, no one ever thinks they’re crazy, no one ever thinks they’re a bitch. You can’t play the negatives,’ if they’re a good acting teacher. It’s interesting, because even when I very first watched the documentary, there was nothing about her that I was not mesmerized by. I did not think, ‘Oo, this woman’s crazy, and her mother’s crazy...’ I didn’t see any of that. I just thought, ‘These two are magical!’”
Barnett dreams of becoming a theatre matriarch like local actor Dodie Brown, still acting after decades in the business. “She could get up there and do it tomorrow again, and that’s what I want to do. That’s exactly what I want to do. I want to—literally, not figuratively—want to die onstage. I do. I want that: ‘You know, I don’t feel good’ and curtain comes down, that’s the end of it. That would be great.”
Cathy Barnett can be seen in Sylvia at the New Theatre Restaurant through January 16 and No Way to Treat a Lady at the American Heartland Theatre in the spring.