Finding voice

Written by Anne Ierardi

Wendy Watson in Light in The Piazza

This is wanting something, this is reaching for it,
This is wishing that a moment would arrive.
This is taking chances, this is almost touching, what the beauty is.

“The Beauty Is,” by Adam Guettel

Theatre loomed large in Wendy Watson’s life, starting as a 5-year-old who played an angel at church and performed in community plays in White Plains, New York. Her mother, Cara, a theatre director, inspired her to appreciate film and theatre. She recalls her mother keeping her up some nights to watch the 11:30 movie. “She would put me to bed in the early evening and then wake me up to watch, if she thought it was important enough for me to see.” Her parents raised the money to send her for two incredible summers to the exclusive Brown Ledge camp for girls on Lake Champlain, where she was empowered to act and sing through their theatre arts program. Three one-act plays were produced each week, a three-act play and a Broadway musical each season.

Wendy is the star of the Cape Repertory Theatre’s The Light in the Piazza, which opened on Tuesday. She plays Margaret Johnson, a Southern woman visiting Florence, Italy, with her daughter. Wendy’s personal and professional evolution shines through this chance of a lifetime to play this extremely demanding role of a mature woman interacting with an engaged, wonderful cast.

“This play is magic,” she said. “The music is closer to opera than standard musicals but the structure and action is like the musical genre. It is stunning, complex, and unpredictable so the audience has to be alert and awake, which fits the sophistication level of Cape audiences. The play is a culmination of a lifetime of my work in theatre. Fortunately, recent changes in our society provide more interesting lead roles for women.”

Wendy’s life took an abrupt turn many years ago. After achieving a following as a cabaret singer from New York to London and producing a one-woman show, “Wendy Watson, I Presume,” she lost her best ally, her voice. For seven years, before she was able to have surgery on her vocal chords, she could not sing or act. One of the movies her mother took her to see that inspired her as a young person was Johnny Belinda with Jane Wyman, who plays a deaf girl. She remembers that movie and the compassion it aroused in her.

Around this time, singer Chris Williamson asked her to be an interpreter for her concert at Carnegie Hall. A new door opened in Wendy’s life. She could enter into a play even without voice. From there she enrolled in Northeastern University and received a degree in interpretation. Today she is a sought-out interpreter for Boston theatres including the Huntington and Wang.

She returned to the Cape to perform at Cape Repertory in Brewster with a new voice one full octave stronger, thanks to her surgery. She found musical companions in Ethan Paulini and Christopher Sidoli, both Cape natives who grew up musically through Harwich Junior Theatre and Cape Rep. They formed a musical revue with a family theme, “Mama and Her Boys.”

“We loved singing together,” she said. “We managed to sing over 20 show-stoppers. The audience loved it. In addition to Cape Rep, we took it to Provincetown where it became a bit more campy, HJT, and Off-Broadway.”

Assuming the “mother” role in many of her recent performances, Wendy uncovered some interesting parallels in her life. In Light in the Piazza, she plays a Southern mother who goes to Italy in 1953 with her daughter. Wendy’s parents were both born in the South and her grandfather, a colonel, brought his family to Rome, where he was stationed, after World War II. The awakenings for Wendy’s grandmother in Rome and for Margaret Johnson in Florence between the strict standards of Southern culture and the more expressive manners of Italians challenged them to a new level of integration.

In her work with youth who are deaf, Wendy often becomes a mother figure aware of the delicate balance between her instinct to protect the children while allowing them enough independence to come into their own. Ten years ago video relay phones came into use. At schools for the deaf, phone booths were set up for communication between students and parents. Wendy interpreted to parents what their children were saying. While both parties had good intentions to connect, Wendy often found the parents surprised at what their child was saying. Light in the Piazza also brings out the tension between the needs of the mother versus the needs of the child and how to untangle this most intimate relationship.

Wendy’s life has come full circle with Light in the Piazza, thriving on the energy of the cast, the audience, the life. Bravissimo!

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