Helen relates that her life was filled with fortunate accidents. She looks back now in these middle years and follows the many roads that have led her here, wherever that may be, and sees how one little change of path, one small turn, one stop to admire the landscape has landed her here, now in this life she calls hers. One accident was how she started on this path to music-her parents bought a house that had an old piano in its basement. Her mother always wanted her kids to have lessons so they paid for that old upright clunker, banged away on that thing for many, many years and has always wondered what would have happened had they purchased the house next door which they were considering, instead of the “Piano” house. Would she have been a doctor, lawyer, or chef? Who knows what path she would have trod; certainly a much different one than music, theatre, and art?
Her illustrious career began in Tucson, AZ at Schumaker Elementary School. She was cast in the school’s production of “Mary Poppins” as Mrs. Banks, the suffragette. She was already accompanying the 5th and 6th grade choruses and somehow got talked into auditioning for the show. It was the beginning of a love for performing and theatre. Junior high sped by and she landed at Sahuaro High School, in Beginning Girls Chorus and in Mr. Burgess‘ Beginning Drama class.
Her freshman year was agony as all she wanted to do was perform. She hated sitting there watching the “big kids” perform. Her accident came during “The Lark” when one of the ‘Joan’s’ backed out of the play and she was chosen to replace her. Her scene was ‘Joan in Prison’ and Helen would tell you that she was hooked by that time. High school continued as well as lessons with Mr. B. Roles were auditioned for, roles were lost but the lesson of “…there are no small parts, only small actors” and “spit and sweat” were learned and relearned.
She continued into the U of A in music as scholarships were given, pianos were practiced and she found work as a rehearsal accompanist and eventually as Music Director for the U of A Drama productions, Playbox Community Theatre, and finally, The Gaslight Theatre.
A move to New York turned out to be life changing – she continued to work as a Musical Director and was able to combine music and theatre. She worked a lot – in summer stock-a lot of sweat; dinner theatrebad food; and finally a return to school, Ithaca College in New York state. Mr. B’s alum was Cornell University, the other college in town, with a bigger reputation and a bigger price tag. Eventually, she worked for Cornell through their Dance and Theatre Departments. Returning to college at the grand old age of 30 turned into another accident. She met a young, ambitious, composer, David Bucknam, and a fellow lover of music, collaborator, teacher, and friend. New York Theatre Workshop picked up his production of “The Waves” and she was on board as Musical Director and Orchestrator. It was her first Off-Broadway experience and still to this day her most precious.
David and Helen taught for New York University through the Playwrights Horizons Theatre School. They watched as enrollment grew from 20 some odd (and they were old students) to 200 kids. They pummeled and cajoled these young people into believing that anything was possible, especially acting and singing at the same time. She often thought of Mr. Burgess and his patience when working with some of the more stubborn students. She understood, now, what a great experience she had had in his teachings and only hoped that she could be worthy to carry the torch.
While in New York, she worked a lot Off-Broadway and found that it wasn’t as glamorous as it sounded in Tucson, but it was always very interesting. New York Theatre, The WPA, The Vineyard, Lemma ETC, Hudson Guild, Playwright Horizons, were some of the theatres she found herself at. A stint as a vocal and dance arranger for American Movie Classics helped her learn that you can do anything you put your mind to, even if you don’t know what you are doing. Then she discovered the world of touring. The Troika Organization found her and she was hired as a musical director and supervisor for “Oklahoma”; “Will Rogers Follies”; “Carousel”; Brigadoon” and finally, they got her to travel with “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Grease”. Touring was fun; touring was a blast; and touring gave her a chance to do her favorite things-travel and perform musicals. She loves being a Conductor on a show. She says it gives her a chance to marry her musicianship skills and experience in theatre. It is the “spit and sweat” of both worlds.
Now she finds herself in Durango, Colorado, as the result of another accident–one of love and affection. She met and fell for a theatre technician, the head carpenter on “Joseph… “. They were married on April 29, 2000 and have yet to spend more than six weeks together. If she’s at home watching their three dogs and generally being blown away by the beauty of the mountains in southwestern Colorado, then he is off putting some show together in Topeka, Kansas. And if he finds himself home, alone, then she’s off acting as the Kid Wrangler for the National Tour of “Godspell”. Helen says it has been a wonderful ride, so far, and she expects many more miles on this roller coaster.
She thinks back, always, on her days at Sahuaro with fondness, perhaps, erasing the difficult memories and inflating the better ones. Her “accident” of falling in with the drama and choir kids was part of who she is today. Her love and feelings of joy for the performing arts is a result of her “accidentally” walking into that first day of Beginning Drama with William Burgess. She hopes that someday, she would be responsible for causing the same wonderful, amazing, joyful accident of needing to perform in some other young person’s mind as he did hers. It is a gift she cherishes, now and always.