Karen is an actress originally from Chicago who came to Oakland University after a year on the road as Cinderella's Stepmother in Into the Woods. In Chicago, she played a host of roles and garnered two Joseph Jefferson Citations. In the Detroit area she's been recognized with a Detroit Free Press Best Supporting Actress Award for Kate in Dancing at Lughnasa and Oakland Press Awards for that play and her work in Angels in America, both at Meadow Brook Theatre.
Karen got her AB in Theatre from Loyola University of Chicago, spending one year at their Rome Center campus in Italy. She studied mime in Paris with Etienne Decroux and got her MFA from the Goodman School of Drama/DePaul. She taught at both her alma maters and spent six years on faculty at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.
Karen Sheridan: A Life In Theatre
"I just showed up," said Professor Karen Sheridan, speaking of a mime class she wanted desperately to take but had been refused admission to. She was a student at Loyola University in Chicago, trying to take a summer class with Bud Beyer at Northwestern and had no priority for sign-up. So she just showed up to the first class and told the teacher how much she wanted to take the class. He told her the class was full. But she stayed. She took part in warm-ups and took to the stage when the official students were asked to, and at the end of the class, Bud called her over and told her that now she was part of the ensemble, he guessed he had to let her stay.
There's a life lesson there, and not just for theatre students, but certainly no one can make expect a career as an actor if they are daunted by rejection or unwilling to take risks. Professor Sheridan, still a working actor, has embraced many opportunities, traveled widely, and for years she made a living by skillfully balancing acting jobs with part-time teaching and bookstore work. She's also worked as a nanny in Paris and in a shoe factory on a kibbutz in Israel. Her life in theatre surely has been an adventure.
She fell in love with mime when she saw a college troupe while a senior in high school. From the very first class, she says, "I was totally turned on." Much of her early career was devoted to mime. It was, she admits, sometimes "an obsession." Asked what the attraction was she explained that mime is "Magical . . . You can be anyone or anything. You can go anywhere."
In fact, Karen went many places for real, not just in her imagination. She spent her junior year at Loyola University's Rome Center in Italy, where she did "as the Romans do," taking classes like stone carving and art history that promised full advantage of the Italian locale. She studied mime there too and says that mime in Italy is more "clownesque" than in other countries, influenced as it is by the traditions of commedia dell'arte.
After she returned to Chicago, and while still a Loyola undergrad, she was invited to join the Northwestern Mime Company and toured with the group. Those travels included her first visit to Detroit, where she performed at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.
While studying to be an actor, she was also learning the skills necessary to be a costume designer in case Plan A did not work out. But she won theatrical parts while still in school, making her first appearance with a semi-professional company in Good News under the direction of Dennis Zacek. Mime was still her first love and after graduation she toured with the Northwestern company to Poland. When their work was lauded in a non-English speaking environment she realized, "You can do this anywhere."
In fact, mime is not only universally understandable, it is also deeply embedded in many cultures. Professor Sheridan cites for instance that African mask drama and Chinese opera both incorporate mime in their storytelling. In the mid-twentieth century, Étienne Decroux developed an athletic style known as corporeal mime. Karen spent two years in Paris studying with Decroux who was Marcel Marceau's teacher.
While she was an American in Paris, Karen lived hand to mouth for much of the time, and as an antidote to her exposure to privilege in French high society she traveled to Israel to live on a kibbutz where "everybody works—everyone contributes." Socially refreshing it might have been, but the sound of gunfire on a trip to the north propelled Karen's return to the US. She began to work with the Chicago Theatre for the Deaf, and she remains committed to creating theatrical experiences for the Deaf community. It was Professor Sheridan who initiated Oakland's longstanding partnership with TerpTheatre. "They've been shadow-interpreting productions for us since 1998." (They will interpret Much Ado About Nothing and Captain Louis in the 2011-12 season.)
While working in a professional conservatory that taught Meisner technique, Karen was given the role of Charlotta in The Cherry Orchard. Charlotta performs magic tricks and movement is key to her portrayal. Charlotta is also an outsider, and the director asked Karen to play her with an accent. This was her first exposure to developing a dialect. She worked on what one book called a "Middle European Dialect" with great success and this talent, mastering accents, became another string to her bow. Karen says the book she used, Foreign Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors and Writers by Herman and Herman, is still in her office.
But it was this experience with Chekhov that convinced Karen she needed more training if she was to work in the "speaking theatre." She spent three years at the Goodman School of Drama, at DePaul University in Chicago, which she says, had "a phenomenal program." All her doubts about going back to school were dispelled the moment her classes started. "I was so sure I was in the right place. I had some great teachers."
After graduating with her MFA, Karen taught movement at the Goodman (now called The Theatre School). And she is very proud of the fact that for four years she was also constantly working as an actor, in performance or rehearsal and sometimes both at the same time. She became an expert in dialects. Asked to describe how a mime specialist comes to have such an apparently opposite skill she explains that although it helps to "have an ear" for dialect work, and she does, the production of sound is not all there is to successfully acting with an accent. She says, "After you study and learn the sound changes, you have to make a leap. You have to embrace the character and fill in the spaces between the words." As an obvious example she points out that Italians and English people hold their bodies differently and relate to each other very differently. She tells her students that if they concentrate on the dialect alone that is all their audience will notice.
As a master of physical acting, Karen was asked to put her talents to good use teaching mime and directing gags at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. This world class program offered for free a "million dollars" worth of training to a group of select would-be clowns who would go on to perform in circuses all over the world. She taught for six seasons at the college, from 1988 - 1989, and later from 1994 -1997, by which time she had made the transition to a full time academic "role."
Professor Sheridan began to look for full-time teaching work while she was in the midst of a year-long national tour of Into the Woods. She played Cinderella's stepmother "from Maine to Anchorage," and interviewed at several different universities when the tour was over. She was offered three positions, chose Oakland, and began work here in September 1991, twenty years ago this month. To begin with she was unsure about an academic life, but she "showed up" and she says, "It turns out I am a teacher."
Many students and former students will attest to that, but Karen insists, "I'm still an actor." She was recently seen at Meadow Brook Theatre in Boeing-Boeing, playing a French maid, a part she relished as much as the audience did her performance. And she continues to audition. She continues to show up, take risks, and in doing so inspires her colleagues and her students.
ITALIAN AMERICAN RECONCILIATION opens May 31st, 2012 at Oakland University's Varner Hall Studio Theatre. Tickets may be purchased at www.epicentertheatregroup.org.
Karen Sheridan Photo Gallery