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Shelley Sanders thrives on re-inventing herself


Settling into a blue upholstered seat in the back row of the Foulds Theatre prior to the final dress rehearsal for Murderers, Shelley Sanders quietly surveys the stage. It’s not one of Bill Taylor’s more elaborate sets. Just an armchair flanked by a round end table centered on a rectangular area rug set against an unadorned mustard wall interrupted by two spired doorways. But little more is required for the Jeffrey Hatcher comedy, consisting as it does of three 35-minute monologues by a trio of Riddle Key Retirement Home killers.

Sanders is the last, but the most prolific murderer of the group.

“I like being on stage,” she effuses. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a comedy, tragedy or drama.”

Or musical.

“The great thing about musicals is that they give you a chance to work out without having to go to the gym,” she quips. She works out with a group of friends at Custom Fitness, but it’s not her preferred method of staying in shape. “Between the dancing and moving around, musicals get you in shape doing what you love to do.”

Musicals are also what Sanders knows best. She appeared in several while in high school, both in her hometown in Friendswood, Texas and here at Cypress Lake Center for the Arts. Her folks relocated the family to Fort Myers just before Shelley’s senior year. The move forced her to say good-bye to a coterie of classmates she’d gone to school with since kindergarten. “Friendswood is not a very big town; everyone knows each other,” she says wistfully. “But then again, it was kind of nice coming to a new place because the impressions people have formed about you over the years don’t follow you. You get a fresh start, a clean slate.”

It’s not that there’s anything untoward in her past, but rather that Sanders thrives on regularly re-inventing herself. That’s a big reason why performing live theater is not just a hobby, but an avocation.

“There’s something about learning a character who is apart from yourself,” she elaborates, her hazel eyes sparkling in the diffuse Foulds Theatre light. “It takes you out of the routine of your everyday world and day-to-day existence and lets you be someone else, whether it’s for 35 minutes or a couple of hours.”

In contrast to her first 17 years, Sanders has gotten the chance to re-invent herself both on and off stage continuously since landing in Southwest Florida as a high school senior. After graduation, she enrolled in the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach, where she added a bachelor’s degree in hospitality, focusing on restaurant management and accounting. She worked as a bar manager and in a number of fine dining restaurants in West Palm. But a couple of unanticipated events brought that phase of her life to a sudden close.

“I’d probably still be there today if the economy hadn’t tanked,” she points out, referring to the subprime crisis in 2008. But while the majority of her customers may have been insulated from the Great Recession that ensued, many had invested huge sums, if not their entire life savings, with Bernie Madoff. The restaurants and other establishments they patronized began closing one after another. Sanders was forced to return home.

She initially tried to stay in hospitality, but encountered more of the same. “I’d get a job, and the place would close. I’d get a job, and the place would close. It was very frustrating.”

But then the dad of a close friend from Cypress Lake offered to employ and train her in his podiatry practice. She’s been there ever since.

Having a 9-t0-5 job came with an unexpected perk. “It gave me the freedom to get back into theater,” Shelley explains, noting that in hospitality, you’re working evenings, weekends and holidays, which precludes appearing in musicals and plays.

Her first role after the 10-year hiatus was Dinah in South Pacific at Cultural Park Theatre. Roles in other musicals followed. She played Cassie in A Chorus Line and turned in a memorable performance as Lulu in Lab Theater’s production of Cabaret. (Her other musical theater credits include Grace Farrell and Lilly St. Regis in Annie, Mona in Chicago and Fermina in Man of LaMancha.)

But there aren’t a plethora of singing or dancing roles for a working girl like Sanders, who cannot attend rehearsals during the day and is disinclined to make the long commute back and forth to Naples after getting off work (even assuming she could get to rehearsals and performances on time). So she’s gravitated of late to comedies and farces (although she’d jump at the chance to do another musical if the opportunity comes her way).


“[Comedies are] actually a lot more fun than musicals,” Sanders shrugs, putting her characteristic positive spin on the matter. Blessed with impeccable timing, drole delivery and a refined sense of humor – to which her fiance’ (Grant Cothren), sisters (she has two, Caitlin and Marla) and bevy of friends and patients will readily attest – she’s predisposed to the genre. It doesn’t hurt, either, that she possesses the same fun-loving, unassuming, girl-next-door qualities as Cameron Diaz (however, unlike Diaz, Sanders can hold a tune, as evidenced most recently by the little a cappella number she did as part of her monologue in Murderers).

Her outlook on life is premised on not taking either herself, other people or life’s challenges too seriously. She loves to make other people laugh as much as she likes laughing herself. Beautiful, captivating and possessed of a smile that could stop the hands of time, Sanders exudes a self-assurance that marries intelligence with keen self-awareness. Her confidence in her own abilities serves as a springboard for seeking and accepting challenging roles. For example, when the female lead in Cultural Park’s The 39 Steps dropped out just ten days prior to the opening, Sanders stepped in, mastering the lines for the three parts in a mere matter of days.

Prior to Murderers, her longest monologue was just a couple of minutes long, which she performed at auditions rather than in front of a live audience. “It’s a little scary being up there by yourself,” she concedes. “When you’re on stage with other actors and you miss a line, someone else can pick up the slack. With a monologue, there’s no one to bail you out.”

And then there’s the intimidation factor when you first set your gaze on a huge hunk of lines. “But once you break it into story sections, it’s a little easier to swallow.”

No worries. Her performance on the night of final dress rehearsal was perfect. But that’s hardly a surprise.

She took the role of Bitsy Mae Harling in Lab Theater’s production of Sordid Lives because it required her to learn the guitar.

“Dena Galyean’s husband, Ryan, taught me,” she says, quick to credit his instruction with her success in the role. “He can play any instrument he picks up. He showed me a way to just play chords instead of a whole bunch of notes. That helped a lot.”

But still, her debut took place on a stage in front of a live audience just weeks after picking up the instrument for the first time in her life.

But her most challenging part, to date, was that of Cassie in A Chorus Line, which she did for Creative Theater Workshop on Sanibel.

“It was a super stressful role,” Shelley freely admits. “I wasn’t a strong dancer coming into the show.”

The part calls for an older, more experienced dancer, and since Creative Theater is a children’s theater company, founder and director Michelle Hamstra asked Sanders to audition for the role.

“I was an okay dancer at the time, but could barely do a single pirouette and Cassie’s dance numbers called for double pirouettes and all these advanced dance moves. After all, she’s supposed to be the best dancer out of all the people in the chorus line. And so I walk in, and [the choreographer] who was 16 at the time, is teaching me all these dances. It required a lot of extra hours, but it worked out. I definitely learned how to dance. I always had an affinity for dancing. I just never learned how to do it, I was never in dance class, before.”

And when she performed in Cabaret, she was clearly the best dancer on the stage.

But risk of failure is a necessary corollary of re-inventing yourself. And Sanders’ need to constantly push the envelope as she refines her talents and redefines herself as an actor has also prompted her to venture into roles which possess definitive dramatic overtones. There was some of that in The Country Wife, in which she played Marjorie Pinchwife opposite Jim Yarnes. There will even more when she portrays yet another Marjorie in Hand to God later this month.

“It’s a really funny show, but there are some very intense moments in it that are not so funny and require some really serious soul-searching acting,” Shelley notes.

By their very nature, interviews require the person being interviewed to take themselves seriously, something Sanders is normally loathe to do. But she’s gracious and forthcoming. Over the course the half hour or so we spend chatting, it becomes clear that her charm and equanimity flow from uncanny ability to maintain balance in her life.

Her job is important, and she takes pride that the patients she sees like to come to the office because she and the rest of the staff keep it lighthearted, and even joke around a little. She takes pride in her acting, but never forgets it’s a hobby and not the fulcrum of her life. Her relationships with her fiance’ and family remain her top priority, and she adores her circle of friends just as much as they adore her.

This latter point is amply underscored when she’s asked what role she’d like to be remembered for if (perish the thought) she could not perform anymore.

The Taming,” she answers without hesitation, but not for the reason you might think. That show was a spoof about the electoral college and the numerous ways in which our Constitution could benefit from a makeover to take into account modern times and technologies. But a team player and consensus builder, Sanders does not consider herself terribly political. That’s way too divisive for a woman with her temperament and sensibilities. In fact, she barely remembered that Bill Taylor prophetically staged the show in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

“It was a lot of fun and I loved the costumes,” Shelley ticked off on the fingers of one hand, “but I got to do it with Lisa [Kuchinski] and Anna [Grilli].”

She doesn’t just regard them as friends. They’re family. Part of her extended theater family. And while being on stage alone for a 35-minute monologue has its rewards from a growth and theatrical perspective, being on stage with other actors is better. Even if they’re not already part of her theater family, they just may be when the show closes.

That’s Shelley Sanders, an emerging talent in the Southwest Florida community theater scene. Look for her in Hand to God later this month. And she’s slated to play Marian in a return engagement at Theatre Conspiracy at the Alliance later this season.

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