New York, New York
Actress Debi Guthery recounts her big leap from Naples to The Big Apple and back
Debi Guthery went to New York to pursue her dream. After acting locally and around the state of Florida, she wanted to see what the city might hold for her.
Debi Guthery She was in her mid-40s, which some naysayers might claim is too old to start following your dream. Her only stage experience was in community and regional theater, and her only training was an occasional acting workshop.
“I wanted to try it, see what it was like,” she says. “I wanted to see Broadway shows and everything you see on TV. I wanted take some classes there, see Rockefeller Center and go ice skating at Wollman Rink in Central Park.”
She wanted the whole New York experience. So she took the leap.
She didn’t know where she would work or live, but she went anyway.
- Ms. Guthery’s grand experiment lasted
two years. Then, she says, she just knew it was time to leave. She wanted to come back to Naples, to have her own place, her own car. So here she is, and happily so.
Not only does she have her own place and a car, but she’s been cast in The Naples Players’ upcoming production of “Annie” as mean Miss Hannigan at the orphanage (a role she played eight years ago at the now-defunct Naples Dinner Theatre).
But she has no regrets about having gone to New York. Though she wishes she’d taken the chance earlier in life, she’s still glad she did it. She got further than many younger actors who show up in the city, fueled with nothing but hopes and dreams and the belief that they can beat the odds.
She worked as an office temp and went to auditions. On her first try, she landed an agent and in six months managed to earn her Equity card, tangible proof that she was a professional, a member of the Actors’ Equity Association. She was also mentioned by name at www.playbill. com, a personal goal she’d set.
The bad guys in rehearsal for an “Annie” number: Debi Guthery (left), plays evil orphanage matron Miss Hannigan; Russell Jones plays her brother, Rooster; and Mary Anne McKerrow is his sweetie, Lily. COURTESY PHOTOS She was cast in “Hats,” but the show was cancelled. She performed with Broadway actors in “Funny Girl” at the Westchester Broadway Theatre, playing a number of small roles and serving as understudy for Mrs. Brice. And she was first runner-up for roles in many shows, including “Drowsy Chaperone” and “42nd Street.”
All about auditions
Acting is a quirky, unpredictable profession, and a stage career is often a grueling pursuit. It takes drive, talent, sacrifice, luck and perseverance. Ms. Guthery recounts a typical audition experience: “In order to audition, you have to arrive early to get your name on the list. You should get there by 7 or 8, or 6 a.m. sometimes, to get in line,” she says. “You put your name on the list, and then you have to come back (when you’re scheduled.)”
Clockwise from left: Debi Guthery in Times Square; backstage in “Funny Girl,” her first equity show; with a friend in New York City. Every actor is vying with countless others who want the same roles; sometimes, only the first 200 people will be allowed to audition. Some actors go to two or three auditions a day, she says.
Sometimes she couldn’t get to an audition because she was working. “I needed that money,” she says about the temp job. “It’s expensive to live in New York.”
She didn’t like to audition. “I missed a few because I was very nervous,” she says. “If I hadn’t been such a scaredy cat… — I would have gone to a lot more.”
It’s tough to put yourself on the line, to walk into a room and have only 30 seconds or a minute to impress the people behind the desk.
“If I’d been better at auditioning, I might have stayed longer in New York and probably would have had more parts,” she says.
There were, of course, more than a few good auditions for Ms. Guthery. “It’s a great feeling when you’re the person who gets to stay in the room the longest,” she says. “You’re there for 10 minutes… and when you come out, the other actors look at you, wondering who are you that you got to stay in there so long.” An even better feeling is when you’re called back.
Three-time Tony-nominated director/ choreographer Randy Skinner kept calling Ms. Guthery back to read for the role of Dorothy Brock in “42nd Street.”
“He really liked me,” she says. “He considered me for the role of Maggie, but I’m a little too young for that. He also said I was a little too young to play Dorothy, but he didn’t care.”
The choice came down to two actors: Ms. Guthery and the woman who had played the role on Broadway. The other woman got the part.
At some auditions, Ms. Guthery says, the actors were told to go home if they didn’t already have a Broadway credit on their resume. They wouldn’t even have a chance to try out. Even so, a Broadway gig doesn’t guarantee an actor anything, she adds.
She believes the fact that she had more life experience than many younger actors at casting calls helped her take rejection in stride.
“A lot of these people haven’t played anything great,” she says. “But I’d already done some good roles. I wasn’t starving and dying to be in a show. When you’re older, you say, ‘Whatever.’ You’ve been through so many things in life, you already know how to roll with it.”
Launching a career
Ms. Guthery’s very first acting job was a non-speaking role in “The Nutcracker” in her native city of Tampa. Her young daughter was in the ballet, and they needed someone to play the mother. Not much after that, when the Miami City
Ballet came through town with its “Nutcracker,” Ms. Guthery played the governess.
“I got put in a bunch of ballets,” she says. “I didn’t have any lines to say.”
Then she had a speaking role in the farce “Exit who?” and was hooked after that.
“I don’t jump off cliffs, but I guess acting is my way to feel alive,” she says. “This is my bungee jumping. I’m not a person to go out and do any crazy stuff (like) skydiving or scuba diving. But I’ll go out in front of people and act.”
As a girl growing up in the ’70s, she loved watching TV sitcoms and “The Carol Burnett Show.”
“I love her,” she says about Ms. Burnett. “She gave me my whole sense of comic timing. “I try not to make it look like I’m trying to to get a laugh.”
Dallas Dunnagan, artistic director for The Naples Players, is directing Ms. Guthery in “Annie,” which opens at the Sugden Community Theatre on Friday, July 2. “One of the things I enjoy about Debi on stage, especially in the rehearsal process, is that she’s always trying to work out new pieces of comedic business and try new things,” Ms. Dunnagan says. “She stretches the boundaries of what’s funny and what she can bring to the character. She has an excellent comic sense… I like the way she can play the villain and still be funny at it.”
When she portrays Miss Hannigan in “Annie,” Ms. Guthrey says, she wants the audience to “love to hate me.”
“It’s great to have someone of her caliber aboard,” Ms. Dunnagan says about Ms. Guthrey. “We’re fortunate. I hope she continues to use (the Sugden) as her home, now that she’s back.”
Ms. Guthrey’s first role with The Naples Players was in 2000, as the lead in “How I Learned to Drive.” The following year, she played Mazeppa, the stripper with the trumpet in “Gypsy.” When the owners of The Naples Dinner Theatre saw her at the Sugden as a taxi dancer in “Sweet Charity,” they asked for her backstage. It wasn’t long before director Michael Wainstein cast her in the dinner theater’s production of “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” And then “Annie” (the first time she played
She went on to act in 14 shows at the dinner theater. After it closed in 2007, she went to Los Angeles for six months and worked in TV. She was a featured extra many times, which means that the director liked her picture and picked her out.
“You have to have a certain look,” she says. “You get to be seen with more stars.”
She worked the Emmys and was also on “Bones,” “Two and a Half Men,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “Big Shots” and “Moonlight.” But then the writers went on strike. And she missed live theater.
Doing television is boring, she says. “It takes a long time. You have to sit around and wait. And I always talked too loud for TV.
“I realized it’s more fun to be on stage.”
She tried out for and was cast in the national tour of “Peter Pan,” playing Mrs. Darling. From October 2007 to March 2008, the company performed in 35 cities. “I saw beautiful hotels, casinos and theaters with wonderful stories in them,” she says. “I made friends with the backstage people who shared stories about other casts and other stars.
“I met lots of wonderful people.” And today, she adds, “I have friends everywhere.”
When the tour ended, she returned to Naples. But the lure of the Great White Way was too much. “I was just itching to go to New York,” she says. So that’s when she packed her suitcase and took the leap of her lifetime.
A dream fulfilled
And now she’s back in Naples, preparing for opening night of “Annie,” with no regrets whatsoever.
About leaving the bright lights of Broadway behind, she says, “I’m not bitter, not at all.
“I made a few mistakes. I should’ve taken a few jobs here and there, or gone to New York sooner. I followed a dream at an older age. I was like a little gypsy… Almost every friend I have thinks it’s wonderful that I did it.
“I’m happy that I did it. If I hadn’t, I’d be very unhappy. You don’t have to be a huge success at something. Just go out and try it, and you’ll be glad that you tried.”
in the know
>>What: “Annie” >>When: July 2-Aug. 1 >>Where: The Sugden Community Theatre, 701 Fifth Ave. S., Naples
>>Cost: $30 for adults, $10 for kids under 18; Vergina has a special package with dinner and the show for $48 per person. >>Info: 263-7990 or www.naplesplayers.org