There are some people, like me, who go through a “theatre phase,” and then there are those folks who are born to love it, and live it.
Paige Mattocks is one of the latter.
She loves it.
She lives it.
She is, as they say here in East Tennessee, eat up with it. After sitting down with her for an afternoon of all things theatre, I began to imagine that she is one of those folks who walk into the hush of a dark stage, and take in a great and deep sniff of the air.
To me, the theatre smells like a mix of paint, wood, make-up, hairspray, burnt dust on hot can lights, and yes, the stale body odor of sweaty casts long dismissed.
What may sound off-putting to some, is very likely the smell of home to the lovely Mrs. Mattocks.
Her childhood was spent quite reasonably for a young lady destined to fall in love with the stage. Like many children, Mattocks participated in school plays. However, she credits the drama program of First Baptist Church for her first real theatrical experiences. Mattocks has a long history of choir membership under her belt, and sacred performance became more than just a Sunday passion.
She joined the choir in her schools, too.
Mattocks reminisces fondly of two pivotal experiences that led to her development of a real love of the artform.
First, she speaks about how as a young middle schooler, she would watch the high school plays and think to herself, “Those kids are the coolest kids in the world. I want to do that!” And, she talks about a special teacher, Mrs. Alice LaFever, who each year read a dramatic portrayal of the Witches from Macbeth to her AP English class. “Watching her do that, the confidence she had, the command of such hard and beautiful language—I knew right then that I wanted to be in theatre.”
Mattocks would have many teachers and mentors along the way. She can list them readily. Some standouts that folks might know include: Micah-Shane Brewer, Ann Jones of Carson Newman, and Sheryl Lawrence-Howard of Knoxville. However, she attributes most of the support, instruction, and encouragement over the years to her fellow cast members and stage crew compatriots.
This discussion brings Mattocks to an important point she is very passionate about—namely that theatre is more than just one artist engaged in art, rather it is an entire community of artists, each doing their part. Every monologue is supported by a costume, lighting, writing, directing, stage management—there are no solo shows in theatre.
Mattocks describes the process this way, “There is this crazy effort put into creating this one moment that only exists for a short while and then it is gone. Every show is different, each audience, each performance, and we, these irrational artists, build this great drama over and over again, each time hoping to achieve this profound gestalt that abides at the intersection of imagination, emotion, and creativity. It is found through the exploration of our shared human condition.”
Theatre as an artform, is unique in this respect.
As we ponder the great roles that exemplify the human condition, Mattocks points out another unique quality of theatre as artform.
Theatre provides actual social situations in which to work on our own “stuff” (she makes quotations in the air, using her fingers).
I ask her to explain what she means, and she answers this way, “If you are a person who is say mousy or shy in real life, in theatre you can explore what it feels like to be gregarious and cocky, loud and pushy. Theatre gives us a chance to get out of ourselves and our comfort zones, which can be limiting on what we can achieve as an individual. But on stage, we have permission to try on new ways of being—to get a glimpse of how new character traits might fit with our authentic selves.” Mattocks can talk for days on the healing and self-actualizing power of theatre.
Perhaps I am ornery by nature, because at this point in the conversation I felt compelled to inquire about the ego-crushing and anxiety producing effects of the dreaded audition. I remembered my own audition attempts, and they didn’t feel very healing to me at the time. Mattocks concedes that auditions are mostly terrifying, even for seasoned performers such as herself. However, they are a necessary and, shall we say, “thrilling” part of it all.
Mattocks describes the unmistakable rush of excitement and adrenaline both during auditions, and performances, that is likely comparable to the rush reported by practitioners of extreme sports, like base-jumping or cliff-diving. She concedes that for theatre folks, there may be a strangely compelling and tantalizing nature to the special risk presented by the threat of public humiliation. We drift off in silence for a moment. Then, as if to say adieu to the bleakness of ego death, Mattocks is quick to remind folks, and herself, that “the sun rises even after failed auditions”.
Mattocks suggests that perhaps the greatest benefit of a lifetime of theatre is the ongoing development of the ability to laugh at oneself. Theatre makes us draw upon the ability to let things go—to say goodbye to a show after the last performance, to let go of our own limiting self-consciousness, to let go of the safety of complacency. Theatre demands that the show go on, no matter the circumstances—to always press forward uncrippled by shame and fear.
Mattocks suggest that the greatest barrier she had to overcome was her own powerful insecurity. She credits her experiences in the theatre for helping her in this lifelong struggle to explore and love oneself. And, she also credits her theatre family with being supportive, their readiness and willingness to give enthusiastic encouragement, and their steadfast belief in her ability to overcome her fear and limitations. Nothing in theatre exists in isolation—not even personal pain and fear. (I personally think it is because theatre people all change clothes with each other—it makes for a shared intimacy that is rare and unique to this peculiar world.)
Mattocks can’t remember exactly how many shows in which she has participated. I am guessing that is easily over a hundred. And, unlike some, she is as enthusiastic about working back stage as she is being on stage. Yet, despite this long tenure, Mattocks is no diva. She is humble, deferential to a fault, extremely well-read, and a life-long student of the human condition. This has made her empathetic and kind.
She is authentic and earnest, and given the number of auditions she has endured, I would definitely call her brave. However, don’t expect to see her play only heroines. She enjoys playing villains, too—or as she calls them, “characters with complexity.”
Mattocks latest role is a mixed bag and definitely a character with complexity. She plays Tanya, in Encore’s upcoming production Mamma Mia.
Mattocks describes the character as bold, loyal, a loving friend, and charming. The character is also a multiple-divorcee, with a penchant for increasing her net worth with each ex-husband. Mattocks describes her as unapologetic, confident, and brash. Mattocks smiles big and cheeky as she admits that Tanya is really, really fun to play.
For those of you who don’t know, Mamma Mia is a musical that charmingly uses beloved ABBA songs to tell the story of missed opportunities, blended families, and the beauty of old friendships.
Mattocks beams as she talks about the show, and her chance to play such a fun and dynamic role.
She says, “I am just so very grateful to be surrounded by such wonderful people, and it is amazing to me that we get to create really cool stuff.”
Mattocks is also quick to point out that this production, which thankfully offers some meaty female roles beyond the ingénue and bitter spinster, boasts an all-female leadership team.
The production is directed by Donna Belisle, the stage manager is Kim Wiliniskis, and the musical director is Beth Ann Noble.
Mattocks, like many women, would like to see more representation of women within the higher ranks of the theatre world.
She would also like to see more complex roles for women at a greater variety of ages, backgrounds, and experiences.
As I drive home, reflecting on our conversation, I am left pondering the following:
Does Paige Mattocks love theatre because of the people and sense of community that develops within the theater? Does she love it because of the rush of excitement that comes with performance?
Does she love it because it is a healing artform that allows for intensive self-discovery and personal development? Is it the smell? The answer is a resounding yes to all of those questions. (Well, maybe not the smell part).
But, I think that behind all the heady ponderings of the benefits, challenges, and dynamics of all things theatrical, perhaps the most compelling reason any one does it, is because, as Mattocks said several times that afternoon, “It is just really, really fun”.
You can catch up with Paige Mattocks in Encore’s production of Mamma Mia, which opens June 28th and runs through July 7th. Reservations and tickets, call 423-318-8331 or visit them online at www.etcplays.org.