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Get to Know Your Actors: An Interview with Monica Palmer (Rita)

Monica Palmer moved to Columbia in 2005 to take a job at a local radio station At the start of her radio career, Monica had to relocate on a fairly regular basis. She recalls, "I found if I wanted to make more money or land a better time slot, I had to keep moving to a bigger market. Town to town, up and down the dial and all that. After a few such moves, I discovered the best way for me to quickly find my tribe in a new town was to get involved with the community theatre.” So, immediately after arriving, Monica established herself as a mainstay on the CoMo stage. Since that first performance, she’s acted in 18 shows here in Columbia, including Crimes of the Heart and Bingo the Musical at Talking Horse.

You may have also seen her on stages around town in CEC productions like Other Desert Cities, Communicating Doors, Young Frankenstein, and The Vibrator Play, sharing the stage several times with The Lyons co-stars Jim Malinee and Mary Shaw; and at TRYPS in James and the Giant Peach. Monica confesses that “It takes a very special script and a very special character to convince me to take time away from my husband and kiddos.” Monica found a way to minimize time away from her family by getting her son on the stage with her. Gabe has joined her onstage several times, most recently in James and the Giant Peach with TRYPS. She’s looking forward to her daughter, Anna, joining the family business in the future: “Community theatre is definitely a family affair for us.”

Theatre is a way of life for Monica’s family, both onstage and off. She says “we're lucky to live in mid-Missouri where there are so many options for people who love live entertainment. You could easily fill every weekend with the arts, and I try to do that for my family as often as I can.” Beyond the theatrical stage, Monica recommends checking out the Missouri Contemporary Ballet, the Missouri Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Kirk Trevor, and Columbia Art League and other downtown galleries, which offer tempting escapes from boredom with their exhibits. She also put in a plug for the arts for children, which are integrated into the school curriculum in some places: “My son attends Lee Elementary School and my daughter is heading there as well after having just graduated from the pre-school program at Stephens College, so we also get to experience music, art displays, theatre and dance performances featuring the youngest of Columbia's talent.”

Are you as intrigued by Monica’s life (and excited for opening night) as your friendly neighborhood blogger is?

Wondering what her thoughts are on art, theatre, and life in CoMo? Read on…

Where else might we have seen you around town?

As far as real life goes, I retired from radio about four years ago, because I felt called to do something different with my life. I actually left my job at KPLA before finding another one. It was a scary leap of faith, but it was the only way I could do it. After almost eight years of sharing my life with my morning show partner and boss, Chris Kellogg, I felt like looking for a job behind his back would be an act of infidelity. My trust fall into unemployment paid off, though, because I found a job that allowed me to use my communications skills for a cause and an organization for which I am incredibly passionate. I am honored to be the Communications Manager for Feeding Missouri, the state association of food banks in Missouri. Together, our network of six food banks and over 1500 agencies feed Missourians in every county of the state.

What was the first play you remember seeing? What was memorable about it?

I was about 11, and my Mom took me to see Annie at The Muny in St. Louis. I remember imagining myself on that stage, entertaining all those people. I also remember really wanting a red dress and patent leather shoes. I believe it was shortly after that experience when I turned the balcony off of my Mom's bedroom into a stage, and the trees in our backyard were my first audience.

What do you want the audience to know about the arts community in CoMo?

It's for you! So many people I meet have this impression that the arts organizations in our community are not for them. They view the CoMo art scene as something for other people..."artsy" people. Some worry they don't "get" theatre or know what good art is, and those worries actually prevent them from even seeing a show or exploring a gallery. The fact is, theatre is life, so sometimes it's not meant to be understood; it's just supposed to make us think or feel, and there really is no such thing as "good" art. There is art that moves you and art that doesn't, and it can be different for everyone. If you haven't found something that speaks to you in the CoMo arts scene, keep looking. I truly believe there's something here for everyone.

What is your favorite non-theatre thing to do around town?

I will generally choose a live performance over a Hollywood blockbuster any day, but the decision is tougher when I'm tempted with a great documentary. My husband and I love the True/False Film Fest, and we treat it like a three-day date every year. You can also catch us exploring Columbia's parks and trails, playing or reading at DBRL, swimming at the ARC or lurking around a local hardware or home goods store buying things for our new home.

What is your favorite thing about the rehearsal process for The Lyons?

Some people go on vacation to leave behind the stress of life and explore new places and things; I go to rehearsal. My favorite part about the rehearsal process for any show is getting to slip into someone else's life for a bit. Often this exercise provides much needed perspective and makes me appreciate my life and my family. This is definitely the case with The Lyons. This show has made me feel very fortunate to have the relationship I do with my husband and kids.

This rehearsal process has also been special for me, because of the cast. So much of why I do theatre is because of the friendships created off stage. I feel very fortunate to work with Jim and Mary again. The three of us were in Communicating Doors at CEC nearly a decade ago, and we've had several opportunities to reconnect on stage and off over the years. When you have this kind of history with your co-actors, you develop a sort of emotional short-hand. It also gives you the courage and the safety net to make bolder choices as an actor, and emotional exchanges are amplified by a genuine connection.

I've loved expanding my theatre family as well. Colin and Garrett are incredibly talented, and I'm already making plans to keep them engaged in the community theatre scene. Gina played my son's Grandma last year in Talking Horse Productions Stud Ducks, so she already felt like a family member, but it's been so nice getting to know her better. Now I understand why Gabe speaks so fondly of her.

What similarities & differences do you see between yourself and Rita?

Well, my son said it best, so I'll just quote him. After hearing me running lines one day, he said, "Aside from the accent, your character seems a lot like you in real life. I'm guessing no one wins an argument with her either." I will say, Rita and I do share a similar tenacity when it comes to disagreements. Even when it seems as if we've let something go, we're not always successful at resisting the urge to get in a little dig long after the debate ends.

Rita and I also share a love of telling a good story. We love orally recounting memories and taking mental trips to another time or place. I think this is something we both really enjoy, regardless of whether our intended audience is actually tuned in. I told my husband it's been a real challenge learning Rita's lines, because she talks as much as I do. He said, "that's not possible."

I think one of the major differences between myself and Rita is that I would have never stayed in that toxic marriage to Ben. I struggled with this at first, because it made me see her character as weak or frightened, and that didn't really mesh with the person who was taking up residence in my brain. However, after doing a little informal research, I began to understand that Rita's decisions to: a) marry a man she didn't love and b) stay with him for forty years were in fact continuous acts of strength and courage fueled by core values of the time and culture in which she was raised. Rita was a mid-century Jewish girl from New York. I think for her, choosing a mate was much more about security, obligation and religious compatibility. It wasn't really about love or even compatibility.

I really do like Rita. Some may find her overbearing and acerbic, but at the core, I think she is quite selfless. I mean that literally. This woman lacks a self-identity that isn't directly linked to another human. Ben's imminent death leaves her wondering what she is without him. Not who. What. This subtle difference sort of breaks my heart. She's always been trying to fill a role or play a part for someone else. Truly, the majority of her major life decisions have been made to live up to someone else's expectations or to honor her commitments to others.

What do you hope the audience comes away from this play thinking about, talking about, or asking themselves?

I hope the audience members with a tendency towards self-sacrifice heed Rita's example. It's admirable and often enjoyable to give of yourself to your loved ones. Just don't give until there's nothing left. If Rita's journey has taught me anything, it's to remember I was a who first and a what second. We all have to fight the urge to let the titles we've assumed in our life swallow the identity we created or want to create for ourselves.

What is your #1 karaoke song?

The last time I was on a karaoke stage, I went for my karaoke go-to from college: "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia.


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