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 Williamsons
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 BTAPs
beginnings and its future.
David Zimmerman: Ive 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 Blairs friends together
and start an acting class for them. You train them and Ill 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, theyre 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. Theyll 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,
youre 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 wouldnt tell
me that we were going to Baltimore, Maryland, until we were on the
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
Rings: Yeah, Glen directed Arsenic and Old Lace and A Midsummer Nights
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 Durbins 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.
Its so alive, and you get to sing and dance in theater all the
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
Hanka 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 wed 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 teachers 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 brothers
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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