Mary RIngs

Award-winning actress Mary Rings founded Born to Act Players (BTAP) nearly two decades ago in a small studio space in North Hollywood, California, where a handful of young people with Down syndrome met to memorize lines and play theater games. The impetus was the friendship between Rings son, Casey Powell, and talent representative Gail Williamson’s son, Blair; Rings decided to teach the young pair to act and sing.

BTAP has grown exponentially. Today, students perform full plays, one acts, and monologues; get musical training; and participate in productions and showcases twice a year. Several BTAP members are working actors with credits that include ER, Saving Grace, and CSI. David Zimmerman sat down with Rings and Casey to talk about BTAP’s beginnings and its future.

David Zimmerman: I’ve known about BTAP for a long time, but not about the exact details of how it all came together.

Mary Rings: It started when Gail Williamson told me, “Mary, I think that you should get some of Casey and Blair’s friends together and start an acting class for them. You train them and I’ll get them work.” Then, within two weeks, my friend and agent Dennis Hart told me: “My wife has a backroom with a little stage and 20 seats in this North Hollywood space, so if you get Casey and some of his friends together, I would like to donate the space once a week for you to have an acting class there.”

Today, because of the training our students have gotten, when they have an opportunity to go for an audition, they’re so talented and confident that they blow casting agents, directors’ and their fellow actors’ minds. And these are the same kids where doctors told their moms: “Put them in a home. They’ll never do anything.”

Zimmerman: Tell me a bit more about how you got started. When did you know you wanted to be an actress?

Rings: Ever since I was a little girl. Growing up in Michigan, my dad used to play harmonica, ukulele, and my parents and I used to sing together. My mom put my sister and me in dance, and we performed all over, singing and dancing and doing USO shows. We had some professional-level gigs, too. When I was around 10 or 12, I was even paid to dance in a line of girls who were 18 to 21. We performed at hotel conventions and things, and you had to be 18 because they were serving liquor there. But my dance teacher told me, “Mary, you look 18, you dance 18, but if you as much as say “hello” to anybody, you’re not getting paid. You stick your nose up and walk.”

Then our family hit a rough patch: We found out that my dad had hired a guy who embezzled from him, and we lost everything. We moved out of town in the dead of night. I was 12, and they wouldn’t tell me that we were going to Baltimore, Maryland, until we were on the plane.

So I did seventh and part of eighth grade in Baltimore, where I went door to door asking if I could teach the little kids tap dancing, which I did in my basement. Then I completed eighth grade in Kansas City, Missouri, where my dad got transferred. I did some professional modeling there, too. When my dad was about to be transferred somewhere else, my family decided to move to LA for me, because they believed in me. They always backed me.

Zimmerman: You were teaching kids to perform way back then!

Rings: In the basement.

Casey Powell: Me and my brother were born here. I was in Arsenic and Old Lace.

Rings: Yeah, Glen directed Arsenic and Old Lace and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Casey was in them.

Powell: Glen is my dad—

Rings: —and the head assistant at BTAP. Glen and I write songs together sometimes; we work really well together.

Zimmerman: Where did you meet?

Rings: We were both cast in a production of Born Yesterday. When I moved out here in ninth grade, Deanna Durbin’s sister, Edith (Durbin) Heckman, was my junior high school drama teacher. She was so supportive of me. When I started doing plays outside of school in little theaters around town, she sent telegrams and flowers, and sometimes came to see my shows. I was very blessed. I had, like, every lead in ninth grade, and then in high school I had lead roles and won awards. I had sung and danced all my life, but I loved acting more than anything because of the interaction and magic that you create. It’s so alive, and you get to sing and dance in theater all the time.

Zimmerman: When did you get an agent?

Rings: So long ago. I think my father sold the agent, Antrim Short, a car and then talked to him about me. Antrim was a wonderful man, so dignified. He was old-fashioned agent, too; he would show up at Paramount or the studios to introduce me before I would go in. I got a guest-starring role on Gunsmoke, and did a couple of episodes of Hank—a situation comedy about a guy at college. I got my Screen Actors Guild card doing that show.

When I graduated high school, I got scholarship money because of my grades, and my drama teacher went to bat for me, saying: “She needs to use this to further her acting career.” So they allowed me to use the money to study with Estelle Harman at an accredited school; it was there that I got moved into the professional class. She got me an interview for Elizabeth the Queen, with Judith Anderson and Charlton Heston for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. I got cast as a lady-in-waiting. She coached all the big stars; Frankie Avalon was in her class. She had me do the first scene with him. I heard she directed James Dean from his hospital bed. She directed a lot of big stars; she was amazing.

But after I lost my brother, my world fell apart, he and I were so close. We were two years apart, and we’d moved to all these places, he was my only friend a lot of times. But anyway, ultimately I did go back to Valley College and I did theater there. And the actor Victor French was my drama teacher’s best friend at Valley College, and he got me the interview for Gunsmoke. I had already won the best actress award at Valley. But for two years after my brother’s death, I dropped out of everything.

Zimmerman: What made you go back after those two years?

Rings: Acting is what I always loved.

Zimmerman: You went on to do episodic TV, including Gunsmoke, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and The Six Million Dollar Man. Do any of those experiences stand out for you?

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Excerpts from the Gary Busey Issue Apr/May 2014:

Nao — Robot for Education

China — Art Project

Gary Busey — Life’s Apprentice

Billy Mclaughlin Music — Focal Dystonia

EARN — Internships & Mentoring

Rings — Born to Act

Articles in the Gary Busey Issue; Senator Harkin—The Reality of Restraints; Ashley Fiolek — Surprise!; Humor — Better Things to Do; Geri Jewell — Red Carpet; China — Limitless Art; Long Haul Paul — Two Week’s Notice; CSUN — Wonders of Technology; Special Olympics — Spread the Word; Doug Henry— A Day in the Dirt; Nao — Robot for Education; Music — Focal Dystonia; Gary Busey — Life’s Apprentice; Rings — Born to Act; EARN — Internships & Mentoring; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

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