She Said the Right Thing, Always: For Wendy Overly

“Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always.” ~ Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

In 2004, the Gamm Theatre presented Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, a rarely done and intellectually ambitious play about a woman’s memories of her charismatic “Aunt Dan,” a friend of her parents, and the lasting impact she left on her. Playing the role of Aunt Dan was Wendy Overly, and while I could try to describe her performance to you, I’m not sure there are words that would do it justice. The role was a high-wire act, asking for a very specific kind of energy, unflappable charm and the ability to marry unappealing complex political arguments with unbridled enthusiasm.

It was one of my first times seeing Wendy onstage, and watching her work was akin to seeing a magician. When the lights came up after the bows, I remember thinking–

“How did she just do that?”

This was not an uncommon question to ask yourself after seeing Wendy onstage. While some actors are good and some are great, Wendy could walk onstage and change the atmosphere in the room. All of a sudden gravity would seem to loosen up a bit, and you’d find yourself having the kind of astounding theater moments you’re still thinking about 16 years later. I can still see her twirling a globe in Aunt Dan and Lemon with a gleefully maniacal look in her eye, knowing that I was going wherever she was going and wherever she was taking this character. I stole a quick glance at the audience sitting around me, and every single person was transfixed. When the play received a professional production in New York a few years later, it was not well-reviewed. One critic felt that the actor playing Aunt Dan was unable to muster what it would take to pull off a convincing performance. A friend forwarded me the review along with one sentence:

They should have gotten Wendy.

While she was acting in the play, Wendy was also teaching at Rhode Island College. I was one of her lucky students, and usually, if Wendy was teaching a class, you did whatever you could to take it. I would have signed up for Medieval Art for Beginners if she was the professor. The day I saw her as Aunt Dan, I had her for two classes in a row, and the person I saw onstage that night might as well have been a total stranger. She was both completely lost in the character and totally in charge the entire time.

The next day when I saw her on campus, I stumbled over my praise for what she had done. It was trying to compliment Houdini on escaping the water tank, in that I both wanted to know how she had done it and I also didn’t want her to ruin the mystery for me.

Wendy was, as always, gracious. Not only that, she told me about the trouble she had with the role. The knotty monologues that needed memorizing and then embodying. It struck me that most actors upon receiving acclaim would just smile and say, “Thank you,” but Wendy saw everything as an opportunity not just to teach, but to teach in a way that was abundantly human. If you accused her of being perfect, she would dispel you of that, not out of some show of humility, but because she was more interested in preaching that acting was a craft, and that not only could you do everything she could do, but she could teach you how to do it.

When I took my first acting class with her, I was unable to perform a monologue, even one far less complicated than the ones I had seen her tackle and conquer. For those of you who are unfamiliar with acting, not being able to perform a monologue is a little like trying to become a chef when you can’t successfully chop an onion. All my auditions were abject failures and if I did happen to get in a play and there was a monologue, I’d white knuckle my way through it, dropping words left and right as I went. It wasn’t just an inability to memorize, it was a fundamental block that kept me from being able to stand in a given moment and perform. I was confident that I would never be confident, and so of course, monologues were what we did in Wendy’s class. As much as I believed in her as a professor, I held far more disbelief in myself. Luckily, she was for me, as she was for many, a lifesaver.

By the end of that semester, she had somehow flipped a switch. Monologues no longer terrified me, and in fact, I began to enjoy them. This was not unusual. Miraculous artistic feats were commonplace with her as an instructor. If you took a class with Wendy, she’d ask why you wanted to be in that class, and I mean, she really asked it so that even you had to think about why you were there beyond just getting a good grade or a degree.

Whatever the reason, you found yourself arriving where you wanted to go if you trusted her to get you there. If you were a beginner, she could teach you how to look like a professional. If you were experienced but having trouble rediscovering your passion, she’d remind you what you loved about acting and theater. If you were scared, she made you feel safe. If you were big-headed, she brought you down to size in a way that felt appropriate. If you needed someone to believe you could do it, that was Wendy.

That was her all the time.

She was the first person I ever met who took real pride in being a theater artist. There was never any apologizing for taking it seriously. For treating the work as sacred. For striving to make the work better, and in doing so, becoming better in all areas of your life. When it came to the effort you put forth in her class, Wendy accepted nothing but the best, and she usually got it. Other teachers and directors I’ve had through the years tried to get the same result with fear or manipulation. But none of them could teach you how to do something in a scene study class at 2pm and then go onstage six hours later and demonstrate it for you in front of a live audience. 

After a show once, I saw her talking to a group of students, excitedly saying, “Do you see how that can work if you…?” I saw them looking at her the same way I did, with unfettered admiration, probably wishing they had brought a notepad with them. It seems that if you want to be that teacher students talk about for the rest of their lives, just show them respect and kindness and then let them watch as 200 people jump to their feet to applaud you, and you’ll be good to go.

As a director, Wendy was meticulous. Her research for any given project usually filled up a binder the size of a phone book, and she carefully chose what she wanted to work on so that everything she put her name to clearly held great meaning for her. Sam Mendes says that you have to find a “secret way in” every time you direct. “You have to have to a way in that is yours, and yours alone.” If you worked with Wendy as a director or saw one of her productions, you always felt the connection she held to the material, whether it be a farce like The Hypochondriac or a musical like Next to Normal. Great directors often get called captains or coaches, but more often, they end up creating temporary communities built on experiences. A few are able to give that precious once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience to an audience. Others can offer that invigorating and unforgettable six or eight weeks to the artists working on a production. Only a handful of directors can do both.

Wendy could do both.

Three weeks ago, I asked her if she would participate in an interview about her life and career. I had so many questions I wanted to ask her about so many shows and performances and things I still wanted to document. Things I wanted to learn and secrets I knew she would share if asked, because above all, she was generous — with her time and her talent. Her willingness to work on projects ranging from major motion pictures to two-person plays in a blackbox. She invested in new talent and made herself available as a mentor and confidante to whoever needed her. It’s hard to imagine not seeing her in an audience again, cheering everyone on with that unmistakable laugh. 

Once I had assembled a list of questions that stretched out for four pages, she told me that she unfortunately didn’t have the energy to answer them all. I understood, and I regretted having so much time to ask her those questions and never having done it. It’s easy to take even the best among us for granted. Still, it’s incredible how indelible her mark was on the community. 

Remarkably, theater was only one facet of her as an artist. She was skilled at so many things, and all the while she was fiercely devoted to her family and her friends, many of them colleagues, who have been expressing their grief and sharing their memories since her passing. The outpouring of words serves as a reminder that it’s impossible for any one person to sum up a life that was so rich and expansive. At a time when none of us are able to congregate in a theater, it seems cruel that we can’t gather to remember and celebrate such an extraordinary life, but the mosaic of recollections posted online, and spoken of between friends and even strangers, has become a light much like Wendy herself. Remembering great artists reminds us why we do art, and it’s no surprise that Wendy would find a way to inspire us even now.

As a teacher, she could bring out the best in a student.

As a director, she could bring out the best in a cast. 

As an actor, she could bring out the best in a play. 

She could take any character, and render them theatrically electric and unfailingly human at the same time. Under her direction, the oldest stories seemed freshly relevant and new work seemed to have the power of a classic. Whether she was playing Mother Courage or Queen Elizabeth. Whether she was working with the Southern iconography of Tennessee Williams or the intricate brilliance of Caryl Churchill, the dark humor of Martin McDonagh or the heartbreaking drama of Paula Vogel, Wendy always seemed to know the way in, and she always brought you along with her.