Her Second Life Is Under the Lights

After Hours, Šowyn Mader of the Graduate School of Education Becomes Actress, Producer, Publicist, Janitor

by Cathy Cockrell

At Tolman Hall, Šowyn Mader's role is "Blank Assistant I." Later the same day it is "Anna," a literary scholar turned kids' sitcom scriptwriter in "Tomorrowland," a dark comedy playing on a San Francisco stage.

Mader has lived her double life as actress and staff person in the Graduate School of Education since she graduated from Pomona College in 1989.

In the seven years since, she has assumed dozens of personas -- from Julius Caesar's wife, Calphurnia, to a store manager in a sales rep training video.

In 1995 she took a six-month leave from Berkeley to do a season with the California Shakespeare Festival in Orinda. She's also performed in three productions by Signal Theater, a company she founded with fellow actress Carolyn Doyle.

Of all her roles, Mader's favorite was her stint as Honey, the "comic relief" in Edward Albee's classic, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" with the San Jose Stage Co.

"I got to transform myself," she says. "Honey is so screwed up, so different from me. She giggles insanely, sleepwalks, gets progressively drunk through the evening."

After the performance, members of the audience would say, "You must be exhausted." Not at all. "To have a real night like that would be awful," Mader says, "but to do it on stage is exhilarating."

The edgy and non-linear "Tomorrow-land" by playwright Neena Beber is a "very different" work and Anna is a very different character. ("Tomorrowland" runs through March 8 at the 450 Geary Studio Theater in San Francisco.)

Thirty and sophisticated, Anna juggles personal loss, a professional crisis (the child star in her sitcom is hitting puberty and Anna is under pressure to write her out of the show), and memories of the academic life she left behind.

"As a woman almost 30," says Mader, "I can relate to those plans that didn't come true."

Mader-as-Anna delivers heady monologues with heightened gestures, describing her blitz at the shopping mall and quoting liberally from her abandoned dissertation on the role of the parenthesis in "Middlemarch" and "Mrs. Dalloway."

The play runs for two hours and 20 minutes with intermission and Mader is on stage virtually the whole time. Playing smaller parts, she remembers, "I used to have stage fright. I was never on stage long enough to get used to it."

Like many actors, Mader describes herself as a "very shy." As her office's resident dramatist, she was asked to present a staff gift to Bill Rohwer when he retired as dean of the School of Education in 1995.

"'Write me a script,'" she recalls protesting. "'I'm not going to get up there and talk as me!'"

Performance is in her blood -- her father being a blues guitarist, her mother a singer and her brother a heavy metal musician -- and making a living as an actress is her dream.

For every hour under the spotlights, she puts in countless unpaid hours marketing herself, auditioning and practicing her lines in the Xerox room while making copies.

For actresses in their 20s, who are plentiful, the prospects of landing a role are particularly grim. Mader and coproducer Doyle founded their company, in part, to beat the demographic odds.

"We wanted to produce shows we could also act in." Signal specializes in provocative plays, written by women, that have not been done in the Bay Area.

The producer role brings with it a whole new set of responsibilities -- everything from making sure the stage floor gets painted to taking reservations off the phone machine and calling the reviewers.

The company works on a shoestring, in 50- to 75-seat theaters, and despite full houses and good reviews, never breaks even.

"I play the lead," says Mader, "and then, after the show, I clean the toilet. It's not very glamorous.... There are times when I say 'this is too hard.' But, then, nothing else appeals."


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