Rings — Born to Act

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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.”

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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?

Rings: Doing Wonder Woman was really hard. I played this German spy with a blonde wig. I had to have a German accent. At the end of the day, I had to walk up this hill out in the Valencia area, and my boots kept sliding in the mud. It was nighttime and the director said, “The girl with the braids.” He didn’t even know my name, even though I’d been there all day. And then I had to stand between Linda Carter and the guest star, two beautiful ladies, and they’re freshening up their makeup, and I’d been there since, like, 6 in the morning, and nobody’s touching up my makeup! And then there was that muddy hill that I couldn’t climb. I told them, “I’m slipping, I can’t get up the hill in the time you want me to,” so then they dug some steps into the mud so that I could climb up, but it was not a happy day for me.

On the other hand, I had a great time on The Six Million Dollar Man. I did three episodes of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and on Gunsmoke, the director left flowers for me in my dressing room. I’m so thankful that I got to do all those shows and all the theater and everything. It’s so great to have them on DVD, and to look at them. It’s been so much fun.

Zimmerman: Remember the fun we used to have at Bobby McGee’s restaurant?

Rings: Yes, indeed!

Zimmerman: I just remember you singing through the halls with your amazingly beautiful voice.

Rings: You have a great voice, too, David; I loved singing with you.

Zimmerman: That experience is what kept me going in LA. To be a character waiter and sing! And you moved on. But one day, you came up to me when we were waiting tables and said, “David, why don’t you come to my class?”

Rings: One day? I said it many, many times!

Zimmerman: (laughs) Well, you know how it goes. So I came on a Saturday, opened the door, and there was this amazing group of actors. I loved it, and after that I became an assistant and a member of BTAP. Because of you, I found my calling.

Rings: That’s so great.

Zimmerman: It helped me because we grew up wanting to be actors or singers, but there’s potentially so much more to it. Tell me more about your first class at BTAP.

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Rings: I had eight students, but Kristine Johnson, Blair Williamson and Casey Powell have been with me all 20 years. Now I have six of the original eight back. Isn’t that incredible? And now my troupe is about 35 actors and six or seven assistants. We do two shows a
year with one being a musical and then we try to rotate between an improv show, a second musical or a scripted show.

We’re going to do Lynne Goldklang’s Any Dream Will Do, an original show. It’s all about the dreams of our actors. It’s kind of like A Chorus Line for BTAP. They get to talk about their dreams and there’ll be songs about dreams in it, too. It’ll be a really powerful show. She’s interviewing people and putting it together. There’ll be one original music piece that Glen and I wrote together called, “Believe in Your Dreams,” as well as other songs about dreams in the show.

Zimmerman: I love that. You have an amazing mom, Casey.

Powell: I know I do.

Zimmerman: Tell me a few more details about those early BTAP years.

Rings: For a year we were at my friend Dennis Hart’s house, and his daughter, Nancy, wanted to help me with the class. She married the famous songwriter, Steve Dorff, who wrote Anne Murray’s “I Just Fall In Love Again,” and Kenny Rogers, “Through the Years,” and the theme from Murphy Brown, I think. He had gold records everywhere. So Nancy married him, and then wanted to take the summer off. But I did not want to because I knew we’d lose our students. We took the summer off anyway, and when we came back in the fall, a lot of them had moved on. Sharon Johnson’s daughter Christine, Casey and Blair were the only three left.

I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to continue, and I did for another year with just the three. We did it here at my apartment. The manager said we could have the rec room Saturday mornings. And for a long time we did a show with just the three people. But then gradually, Gail started bringing me students and referring people
to the class, and it got bigger and bigger. And then we got a new manager of the apartment building who was really mean and said, “You can’t be here any more.”

Zimmerman: A temporary setback.

Rings: Right. So from there, we rented a space usually used by bands at the Sound Arena Studios in Reseda. On Saturday mornings we would be in a room, and hard rock and roll would bleed through the walls. They were guys with earrings and tattoos, they were so nice to us. They gave us a big discount. They built a ramp for the wheelchairs and revamped their whole bathroom so that it was
also accessible. They treated us a lot better than my church at the time. But when we held a show at the church, we still passed the plate and gave all the money to them—and I heard we made a lot of money. After that I got a phone call: “Mary, you’re right. It was a great program for community outreach.” And I’m like, “Yeah, right.” I was so bitter. I thought, “Nuts, I’m going to rent a real theater, and shine the light on our troupe.” So I rented the Whitefire Theater in Sherman Oaks for our show.

Zimmerman: That was one of the first BTAP shows that I saw.

Rings: It was a humdinger. Peter Parkin and his wife from Valley College came, and Wayne Pére [Galaxy Quest, Oceans 13] came. Wayne had been a guest star on the TV show, Any Day Now, and a lot of my kids started to guest star on that show, too. What a sweetheart Wayne’s been; he’s stage-managed and done the hard jobs for us. He’s the real deal. Peter Parkin and his wife, Stephanie, whom I’d done theater with, said at the end of that show, “Mary, your show destroyed us! From now on, you’re going to be at Valley College, lock, stock, and barrel.” And we were happily there for many, many
years, until he retired and moved away.

Zimmerman: When you come to a wall, it’s for a reason, and then you just need to look for another opening. It’s like: “Oh, there’s the hallway. There’s the window.”

Rings: Exactly. And we’ve been blessed so many times in so many ways. We were asked to perform High School Musical at the Kodak Theater. We got to be the Wildcat pep squad on the bleachers during the big song, “We’re all in this together.” What an honor and a privilege. And then we got to do the play by the basketball
coach from UCLA, John Wooden, in our fairytale show.

Powell: I have it on DVD.

Zimmerman: Because of all the love BTAP has brought into the world, your students are now booking big jobs.

Rings: Glee, American Horror Story, Cher’s video Woman’s World. Two students were on FX’s Legit, which had them both back for another season. They’re doing independent films; it’s very exciting. And the real gift is that people all over the world who have disabilities and their families now know, “Man, we’re not just condemned to be trodden down and made fun of and ignored. We can be lifted up, and help uplift humanity.”

When I was a little girl, I read a beautiful book called Angel Unaware by Dale Evans Rogers, about her child, Robin, who had Down syndrome and who talked to God. It really touched my heart, and it was foreshadowing for my life. I would not have chosen this path, because I did not know the gifts of it, but I’m so thankful for it now.

Zimmerman: What is the dream for you and for BTAP?

Rings: Even if my dream happens when I’m no longer around to see it, I want BTAP to have its own theater. I know on the East Coast there’s something like this for special-needs performers, and it’s huge, elegant and upscale.

Zimmerman: Do you have a waiting list of people who want to become a part of BTAP?

Rings: There’s a waiting list for both of my classes. But I’m going to add some new classes after I retire in June. I don’t mind starting small and building because I’ve seen I can do it, over and over again. People start telling their friends, and pretty soon you’ve got a waiting list.

Zimmerman: But people can always come see BTAP’s shows.

Rings: Absolutely. They’re kind of like happenings. I think they inspire more than any other typical theater production. Our kids are bringing their full heart, their full emotion, they’re so excited to be doing it. It moves people and makes them cry. And this coming year will be BTAP’s 20th year, so we’re going to make a big to do about it. We’ve been around longer than any other drama group for special needs that I know of in LA. I know that the late Zina Bethune’s dance company was around before BTAP, but they weren’t doing drama before us. We were doing drama first, for 20 years as of 2014. Any Dream Will Do will be in late May.

Zimmerman: You should try to do two weeks of that.

Rings: That would be good. And the “best of” show, which will represent 20 years of joy and love and passion, will be, early November, before the holidays. It’s going to be so cool! This will be a big year. We’ll have jackets made; we’ll have shirts made; we’ll have everything made. We’re going to celebrate!

We’ve been having some major successes.

Born to Act Players
Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles

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