In celebration of Cherie Mason: an exemplar of the Opera House mission to use the performing arts to create excellence in all the ways we perform our lives.
Part IV of a 4-part series on the life and distinguished career of Cherie Mason, based on a 2016 interview with Judith Jerome, founding co-artistic director of Opera House Arts.
Part IV: GRACE
And then the Stonington Opera House reopened in 2000. It was at a Christmas party that Cherie Mason met the Ohags, as we called ourselves, four women who had rebuilt the Stonington Opera House. “We were just chitchatting. When did you come to the island?—the usual chitchat. And then said I was a member of SAG—and somebody almost dropped their glass! I said yes, SAG and AFTRA. And they said—Oh if only we had known! We just did a play and a series of Radio Shows—and you would have been in them! So, that was the beginning of my life at the Opera House. Which has been wonderful.”
In 2008, to our great fortune, Cherie joined the board of directors of Opera House Arts because, she said, “That’s where the decisions are made; that’s how you get to know an organization.” And then in 2011, at the age of 84, she became a member of Actor’s Equity Association, the last of the three unions available to her as a performing artist. A string of initials trail her name: PhD, SAG-AFTRA, AEA. “The theater has always been in my bones. But I think I’ve become—I don’t know, now that I’ve become Equity, I’ve gotten some kind of a new infusion. I’m really disappointed if I’m not in a show, or I’m not cast in something during a season. I really want to work. I want to use the muscle. And I didn’t always feel that way. But as I did more and more pieces at the Opera House, that became more and more part of the fabric of my life. At times it’s made me discontent with living here and not being near New York, or near a place where I can see theater all the time.”
The first big show Cherie was in at the Opera House was Shelley Berc and Anita Stewart’s documentary play, Women and the Sea. The great Mary Grace Canfield, who is best known for playing ‘Ralph Monroe’ on the television show Green Acres, was also in the play and when I ask Cherie what she most remembers from Women and the Sea she says: “Mary Grace Canfield said to me during one of the rehearsals: ‘Get yourself to New York and get an agent!’ Which just made my heart—what a wonderful thing to say!”
In Elizabeth Rex she wore an Elizabethan costume that weighed twenty-five pounds. In July. No air conditioning in the Historical Society’s new barn. “I think that show is the apex of what has been done at the Opera House, in terms of acting, in terms of the location, with straw on the floor, and the audience on benches, like I imagine it was for the Globe. It gives me goose pimples just now, thinking of it. A friend on the board of the ART in Boston said it was the finest thing he’s ever seen anywhere. In any city, any theater. He was just spellbound. I felt that way, too. And I loved my part—I was part of it, but not too much.
|The Ghosts in Ten Real Star Acts, with Jeff Brink and Larry Estey|
We talk and laugh away the afternoon, randomly remembering other shows: “As It Is is Heaven—I wept every night on that last line, talking to the girl who went astray. It was so moving. So well-written. . . . The Julia Wars were fun, too, of course, with Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. I had this glass of scotch—it was Pepsi-cola, or something. Smoking. I loved doing that . . . And I broke myself up every night in Ten Real Star Acts! with my entrance, coming in behind Esther who had her hands tied behind her back. I wanted a different hat, though. The only one they had in the wardrobe department was that little bonnet—I didn’t think that was funny enough. I wanted a big, broad-brimmed hat, with a scarf tied around it—like the ladies wore in automobiles! I thought that would be so funny . . . SMATWAFS I tap danced on to the stage. And I was flirting outrageously with Danny Hadley. That play was written by Nancy Hodermarsky. It was just topnotch. Dee and Phil Miller got so into it . . . I wore a peignoir in Portrait of a Madonna . . . And, well, I’m the poster girl in R & J & Z, aren’t I?
|Zombie Lady Capulet|
I remember Linda [Nelson] saying, ‘Cherie, I’ve got the best picture of you—but I can’t use it; it’s too gruesome.’ And then she did use it! That has to be a moment that is rare in acting—when you walk out on an empty stage, you’re the only person on the stage, and you’re doing this thing that you know is just going to stun people! It’s such a power play. The gasps! And then all the people teasing me. And then of course that photo became Ken’s and my Christmas card . . .Duck Variations: Well you can’t do any better than that. I just adored that thing we did together. It just seemed to work, didn’t it? . . . I loved the music in The Last Ferryman. Paul wrote the piece for me because I couldn’t sing—so I sang/talked. And then when I did my bit with the children, when I fell, and came back in with two black eyes and my arm in a sling—Pam Getto’s son Luke’s eyes just popped. I had to not look at him because it just broke me up. In Much Ado About Nothing I wore my hair down for the first time, to try and look a little younger. That was quite a nice part I had: doing the maid.”
|Cherie and Aryeh Lappin in rehearsal|
“Did I really say that?! That’s really funny. Oh I’m proud of myself if I said that.
That’s where I’m Anni’s daughter, right?”
Really, all those turns in Anni’s daughter’s career are not so anomalous. Cherie was always performing her heartfelt self, with such splendid, glorious arrogance, made of energy, ambition, love, and grace. When we perform we put our bodies, our live selves out there on the line. We fill ourselves with the glorious energy of play. It’s always an offering. How lucky the Opera House has been that one of Cherie’s turns brought her here.