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Teresa Sanderson: Finding the heart of theater’s most vicious character

Profile » Teresa Sanderson streak of choice roles continues as she takes on Edward Albee’s most vicious protagonist.

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The power of a song » Of course it makes sense when you learn young Teresa Findlay’s life changed with a song. An Elvis Presley song, to be exact.

But that’s getting a few years ahead of her story. Even as a baby, she was acting and singing, her mother told her. "I was that kid who wrote all the plays and made all the kids in the neighborhood come over and put capes on," Sanderson says.

At a glance

‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

When » June 12-14, 20-21, 27-28, 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinee Saturday, June 28

Where » Jewett Center for the Performing Arts, Westminster College, 1250 E. 1700 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets » $15 ($13 students/seniors) $12 matinee; at 801-810-5793, or pinnacleactingcompany.org or at the door; discounts available for groups of 10 or more with advance notice at the box office.

‘August: Osage County’

The Utah premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts will be directed by Mark Fossen, with Teresa Sanderson as Violet Weston. The show is co-produced by Silver Summit Theatre and the Utah Repertory Theater.

When » Aug. 15-31

Where » A new venue, the Downtown/River District Sugar Space, 130 S. 300 West, Salt Lake City

Tickets » On sale in July at silversummittheatre.org or at the door

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School days at Mount Fort Junior High were difficult. "I was really, really skinny and I had a great big nose and short hair," she recalls, the perfect target for bullying.

That’s when a song changed everything. A teacher assigned a lip-sync performance, and Teresa’s rendition of Elvis’ "Jailhouse Rock" brought down the English class. "Literally that song changed my life," she says. "From then on, I was cool."

After graduating from Ben Lomond High, she was recruited to study theater at Utah State University, where she was tapped to play a mainstage role as a freshman and went on to perform at the Old Lyric Repertory company.

For a time, she lived in California, first performing at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville theater company, then living in Los Angeles, where she mostly supported herself with voiceover work. She found out that TV and movie work wasn’t her calling. "I’m meant to be onstage," she says now. "I want to tell the story from beginning to end, and I don’t mind doing it eight times a week."

After several years, she returned to Utah, drawn back to USU by the opportunity to play Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." But a rape — by someone on campus — cut short her degree plans. She was burned out, tired of living in her Volkswagen, so she found a real job, managing a Checker Auto store in Roy. A customer came in looking for an air filter, then returned three or four times that day just to talk to Teresa, eventually asking her to a Bob James jazz concert.

She married Barry Sanderson, had two babies, and eventually the family settled in Layton. She volunteered at her kids’ schools, launching elementary-school theater programs and acting in one or two shows a year. Along the way she helped care for aging family members.

As her children grew older, Sanderson began performing regularly in Salt Lake City theaters, including Pygmalion Productions, where she serves on the company’s board, and in a wide variety of ensemble and starring roles for Plan-B Theatre Company. She volunteers at the Davis Arts Council, helping to stage manage concerts and produce theatrical shows.

"Outside of her acting, she just makes theater happen," says Fossen, who recounts the practical support Sanderson offered when his mother passed away while he was directing a show. "She gives a lot, and that’s more important to me than how talented she is."

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Sanderson’s a big actor who can easily fill a stage, but she’s also able to blend into the background as needed, says Fran Pruyn, artistic director of Pygmalion Productions, who has worked with Sanderson in numerous productions over more than 20 years. "She’s smart, she understands how to find the heart of the characters, and she’s fearless," Pruyn says. "Once she was more of a performer, and she’s now definitely more of an actor."

Bennett, the playwright, praises Sanderson’s versatility. "I think the substance of her genius is how she can transform without the ‘funny voices’ school of acting," he says. "She does it in a way that’s 90 percent internal, and 10 percent external, which is quite rare."

Now at 54, Sanderson says it feels like the theater gods are smiling on her. She laughs about the irony of finding the perfect dresses for Mama Rose and Martha among the vintage clothing in her own wardrobe.

And Sanderson credits her life experiences — nurturing a long marriage, raising children, overcoming rape and alcoholism, nursing her father and in-laws, as well as helping tend two new grandbabies — for giving her the gravitas to create such volatile characters.

Opportunity aside, playing Martha is as physically bruising as it is emotionally challenging. The character is shoved around, gets choked and slapped, and makes out with a 25-year-old as well as her husband. Plus, she downs nine drinks in the first act. "I’m not doing anything easy," Sanderson says. "I like a challenge."



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