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Continued: Living with characters: Sally Wingert, 2013 Artist of Year

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 29, 2013 - 7:56 AM

“We have so many young performers in this show who are gaga over working next to Sally, and during break she is over there with them asking them about their lives,” Rothstein said. “She’s great in building an ensemble.”

Dowling echoed that thought, recalling an incident when Wingert spearheaded an effort to rally around an actor who needed help on a personal matter.

“Those are the kind of things that go way beyond what she can do on stage,” Dowling said. “She knows the wider implications of being part of a theater community.”

Wingert, now in her 50s, is one of the rare Minnesotans who make their living in the theater. She emerged as an actor in the early 1980s with Actors Theatre of St. Paul and caught the Guthrie’s attention. A regular for 25 years at the big stage, she’s also found fruitful work at Mixed Blood, Eye of the Storm and Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, among many others.

“I look for parts that Sally would really relish playing — things that she wouldn’t get to play at the Guthrie,” said Hensley, citing a production of “Twelfth Night” in which Wingert played the Duke. “She enjoys the risks and dangers that are part of Ten Thousand Things.”

With “Cabaret,” Wingert has ventured onto the unfamiliar turf (for her) of musical theater. Rothstein said she has used her inexperience to form a camaraderie with the young cast, respecting their familiarity with the unique needs of performing and singing, and casting herself as something of a fish out of water.

Yet, there is the undeniable experience Wingert brings to the table in her process of finding a character and her willingness to be directed.

“She’s an instinctive actor who relies on her emotional core,” said Dowling. “If she doesn’t find that instinctively, then your job is to help her think her way through. Roger Rees [director of “Primrose Path”] told me that he’s never worked with someone who is so open to all the ideas in the room.”

Family, work and women

Hensley, who often takes walks with Wingert, said they share stories about family and work — about their thankfulness that they can make theater their full-time job.

Hensley is an artistic director, so she enjoys a bit more stability. Wingert and other actors — even those who work as much as she does — live in fear that it will all dry up some day. That’s what she’s talking about when she says her career will retire her. There comes a time when there just aren’t a lot of parts left.

Asked to what she attributes her good year, Wingert said, “Thanks to Joe Dowling for selecting a season that had women of my age in it.

“And not just me alone,” she continued. “I worked with Michelle Barber and Candace Barrett [Birk] and Suzanne Warmanen. Often you’re the token woman.”

Wingert and her husband, Tim Danz, a St. Paul schoolteacher, recently became official empty nesters. She barks a quick “No” when asked if the adjustment was tough. After another of those big cackles, she talks about how much purpose in life she has found in her family — which includes two sons.

This sense of middle-class homeostasis runs throughout a conversation with Wingert. She’s curious about holiday traditions, what you make for the big meal, when you get your tree. Hers is up but not trimmed and she despaired that her house needed to be cleaned for a photographer’s visit later in the day.

Wingert entertains out-of-town acting gigs more eagerly now that the kids are grown and gone (elder son Truman still lives in the Twin Cities). Interestingly, she discusses such excursions in equal parts as theater opportunities and how they fit into her family life.

For example, she’s pleased that in March she will act in “Henry V” at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Her younger son, Wyatt, is a video producer in the Windy City so she gets to spend springtime with her baby.

“It’s easy enough to get out of town, and Tim can come and visit,” she said.

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  • Sally Wingert, the Star Tribune 2013 Artist of the Year.

  • “The Primrose Path”: At the Guthrie, Sally Wingert was the daffy and comic Maria in this adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s novel “Home of the Gentry.”

  • “Other Desert Cities”: Wingert played Polly Wyeth, the ferocious matriarch of a California Republican family, seen here scolding her son Trip (Christian Conn).

  • “Tribes”: As Beth, the mother of three children — the youngest of whom is deaf — Wingert (in kimono) tried to keep peace in her family, and still find room to express her own artistic sensibilities.

  • “The Receptionist”: Wingert, shown with Sara Marsh, is currently playing the title role in this tiny production, running through Jan. 4 at the Traffic Zone Center. She’s “had a gas” portraying Beverly, a woman whose simple life gets caught in ominous circumstances.

  • “Pride and Prejudice”: Wingert wore the imperious glare (and imposing costume) of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, aunt of Mr. Darcy.

  • About the artist

    Background: Born in Duluth. High school in Robbinsdale. Attended University of Minnesota.

    Family: Married to actor-turned-schoolteacher Tim Danz. Sons Truman, 26, and Wyatt, 23.

    Early success: Wingert calls her years with Actors Theatre of St. Paul (1982-85) “my graduate degree in theater.”

    At Guthrie: Became a company member under Garland Wright in 1986. Has since performed in dozens of productions.

    Elsewhere: She has frequented Mixed Blood, Eye of the Storm, Ten Thousand Things, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Plus, film and TV work. Acted in “La Bête” with Mark Rylance in London and on Broadway in 2010.

    Quote: “It’s a puzzle how you keep yourself employed. I never take it for granted.”

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