Art and life occasionally dovetail for actress Traci Allen Shannon. When she was cast as Cinderella in 2013 at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, she was newly married to her college sweetheart, motivational speaker Daniel Shannon.
“We were basking in the fairy-tale glow of love, and I loved being swept off my feet, both onstage and in real life, by my prince,” she said.
Now, she’s headlining the CTC stage as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” which opens Friday. The story about a young woman lost in a haunted forest resonates with the performer’s feelings as a mother seeing the world anew through her daughter’s eyes.
“Everything is a wonder to her — and, as a result, to me as I find my way in motherhood,” she said of her baby girl. “Ella loves looking at trees — the leaves that were green are now gold and soon gone. All of that is new to her, just like things are new to Dorothy in ‘Oz.’ What is this lion, this Tin Man, these creatures with wings?”
“Oz” marks a return to the stage for Shannon, one of the Children’s Theatre’s biggest stars, after a monthslong maternity leave. She couldn’t be more excited about coming back to her job.
“Any time you see a heroine doing extraordinary things onstage, it’s a point of pride for the girls,” she said. “And because of who I am, we’re adding layers of meaning to her story, beyond the teenage angst, the sense of not fitting in and wanting to find happiness over the rainbow.”
As she did with Cinderella, Shannon is the first black performer to play the marquee part of Dorothy at Children’s Theatre. She takes it in stride.
“My [‘Oz’] family is white, so I’m like an adopted child wondering how I fit in,” she explained.
‘A triple threat’
It’s different from her own story. She grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., with dreams of becoming a ballerina. Her father, who coaches basketball, and mother, a music teacher, encouraged her pursuits, shuttling her between classes as she added acting and singing to her repertoire.
She wound up studying theater at Howard University in Washington, D.C. When she graduated in 2007, Children’s Theatre director Peter Brosius recruited her for CTC’s apprenticeship program. A few years later he offered her a coveted spot as a salaried member of the company.
“I hired Traci not just because she’s a triple threat who dances and sings and acts beautifully,” Brosius said. “She has this openness, this emotional access that totally draws you in. And as we’ve gotten to know her over the years, her talent has been like a bouquet. You keep discovering new layers.”
Brosius is directing “Oz,” adapted by the Royal Shakespeare Company from the film and the book. He recalled casting her in “The Magic Mrs. Piggle Wiggle” when she was an apprentice. That production required a lot of physical comedy. He didn’t know whether she had a knack for it, so he suggested she try a roll during a rehearsal.
“She rolled off the couch and kept rolling and rolling until she rolled off the stage,” he said. “And I said, ‘How long have you been doing physical comedy?’ It was her first time and she nailed it.”
Brosius echoed other directors who have worked with her — at Park Square, Pillsbury House and elsewhere.
“Traci has this wonderful freedom to complement her elegance and extraordinary brightness,” he said. “What directors love is that she doesn’t jump into things, or leap and find the first thing, then stay there. She listens, does her research, and is constantly working to make the work the best it can be.”
A varied career
Winning talent and charisma have helped her stand out, whether playing a fiery girlfriend in “Stick Fly” at Park Square, a crunchy ’70s-style singer in “Five Fingers of Funk” or the spunky, wonder-eyed title character in “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.” The last two shows were at the Children’s Theatre, her artistic home, where her sparkly turn in “Cinderella” was a big box-office hit.
That may partly explain the heavier-than-expected ticket demand for “Oz,” which has been extended an extra week (until Jan. 10). It’s also CTC’s holiday show, which typically draws big audiences.
Of course, Shannon does not think about such things. She’s busy trying to find the balance between playing Dorothy and being a mother.
How has her life changed since Ella was born May 23? She answers with a question of her own: How hasn’t it?
“We live in the same house, but everything else is different, from daily schedules to mental space,” she said. “There’s not a moment of the waking day when I’m not thinking about my child. It’s exciting and fun in so many ways, and it helps you to learn a whole lot about yourself.”
Returning to work has stretched her even further. “Lots of actors have the dream where they’re onstage and go up on [forget] their lines,” she said. “In that situation, you start making things up until you find your way back. That’s a description of motherhood, too.”
She’s even found inspiration in her latest character.
“Dorothy goes in search of the rainbow to find out that she’s enough, that she already has everything she needs to succeed. It’s something that I’m trying to learn as a new mother.”