Ask a director who has worked with Traci Allen to assess her talent, and you get an answer that makes you want to caution the speaker against overstatement.
“The first time I saw her it was like the first time I saw Elizabeth Taylor onscreen,” said Peter Brosius, artistic director of the Children’s Theatre Company. “Your eyes just go to her.”
Brosius first encountered Allen about seven years ago when he went to Washington, D.C., to audition college seniors for a yearlong apprenticeship at the Children’s Theatre. He picked her for that one-year program and later cast her as the title character in “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.”
“Because she’s so magnetic, so gifted and emotionally open, she becomes the conduit for the audience,” he said.
Yet for all the high praise and faith that others have for and in her — she credits her parents with believing more deeply in her stage abilities than she ever did — Allen rises every day with a question: “Did I make the right choice?” she said.
“If I can answer yes, and I have been able to so far, then I can go on,” she said. “I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t tell you that every day I have doubts.”
Who wouldn’t? Theater has glamour and praise for those successful few. But even then, it is a tough business with little pay, unstable job prospects and constant rejection. Imagine changing jobs every three months.
Allen’s doubts may be at lower volume these days. She recently won a coveted spot as a member of the acting company at CTC. The theater’s maintenance of a salaried, versatile acting ensemble with guaranteed roles is a rarity in the theater world. Allen joins veterans Gerald Drake, who has been a company member 43 years; Dean Holt, 20 years; and Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund, 14 years each.
All company members are in “Cinderella,” which opens Friday and in which Allen plays the title character.
“I feel excited, honored and blessed to be a company member,” she said. “I get to play a fairy-tale princess. What girl wouldn’t love that?”
That Allen remains a stage presence is a story not just of talent, but also of tenacity.
Early dream of dancing
Allen is the second of two children born to a music teacher mother and a basketball coach father in Winston-Salem, N.C. She enrolled in dance classes before kindergarten, when she, like many a tyke, wanted to be a ballerina in tutus and ball gowns. But as she grew, she thought of alternative career choices, even as she added singing and acting to her skill set.
“I’m a practical person who wants to make a living,” she said. “I thought then that I might do communications as a career and acting as a side thing.”
In high school, Allen became something of a star, with prime roles in school productions. Her sense of how she measured up changed when she enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a school where she would meet her future husband, motivational speaker and coach Daniel Shannon.
“Before I got to Howard, I stood out,” she said. “I was the pretty black girl who could really dance and sing and act. I was special. I go to Howard and everybody [in the theater program] can sing and act and dance. And on top of that, they’re all beautiful. I felt like I could either shrivel up like a cut flower or go deep to distinguish myself.”
She opted for the latter, and sharpened her dedication to researching and rehearsing until she gets her stage characters to emerge as fully as possible. Howard, she said, helped shape the work ethic that her castmates and directors notice.
“We’ve got some pretty special people here at CTC, but Traci’s always making suggestions, trying things,” said Brosius, who is directing the production in a holiday slot that has traditionally been the theater’s biggest box-office earner. “She’s fearless. This Cinderella is going to be very special because of her.”
Marion McClinton, who directed Allen in three plays, including “Stick Fly” at Park Square Theatre, had similar sentiments. “She makes her characters so human, you want to reach out and give them whatever they need. In a town that’s full of national talent, she stands out.”
Peaks and valleys
Allen also has known some valleys. After graduating from Howard, she was hired in a yearlong apprenticeship at CTC, an experience she describes as “a fifth year of school.”
“I learned so much.” But then that came to an end, and she moved to Chicago, where her then-boyfriend Shannon was living. She had no work and few prospects. When she went in for auditions in the Windy City, she had to steel herself for rejections that cut to the core.
“I would walk into an audition and say, ‘I am Traci Allen’ and the person would say, ‘Who, really, are you?’ ” she recalled. “The acting community in the Twin Cities is really open and special. I was nothing in Chicago at first.”
She worked odd jobs and kept auditioning. Allen eventually landed a role in the tour of the musical “The Color Purple.”
“I got to use my acting, singing and dancing in one show,” she said.
Allen will use those skills again in “Cinderella,” which is being revived in the wacky, over-the-top pantomime style of musical theater. She acts opposite Nathan Barlow, who plays the prince. Barlow, a graduate of the Guthrie Theater/University of Minnesota’s BFA training program, grew up at the theater.
Allen also gets to perform with fellow company members. Drake plays the narrator while Ness, Dean Holt and Reed Sigmund play Cinderella’s tacky stepfamily.
At the Children’s Theatre, now her artistic home, Allen has already done impressive work. She rocked out in Will Power’s “Five Fingers of Funk.” She played a teenager in “Bud, Not Buddy,” which was directed by McClinton. And she posed as a tomboy-ish hipster in “Fashion 47,” staged by Diane Paulus in 2007, years before she won the Tony for “Pippin’.”
“Cinderella” marks a new chapter, one that she describes as being like a dream.
“I do believe I was born to do this,” said Allen. “But I always check to make sure.”