Carol Lee

Inducted into the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame, October 22, 2002.

What can one say about Carol Lee?

She is a legend of Dayton theatre. Carol started out with the Purple Masque Theatre in 1958 and went on to become active with:Illumination Theatre, Fairborn Playhouse, New Hope Players, Dayton Community Theatre, Dayton Playhouse, Dayton Blackfriars Guild, Dayton Theatre Guild, The K-O Theatre, and The Human Race.

As well, she's performed in a variety of dinner theatre, has appeared in television commercials, has appeared in short 16mm films which have been shown in festivals around the world, and acted for my own students at Wright State in student films and class exercises.

A list of just some of the plays she's been in reveal her incredible versatility: Veronica's Room, Arsenic and Old Lace, Mornings at Seven, Breaking the Code, The Killing of Sister George, Butterflies Are Free, The Shadow Box, Blithe Spirit, Equus, Sabrina Fair, On Golden Pond, The Gingerbread Lady, Night Must Fall, Mary Mary, The Chalk Garden, Follies, Steel Magnolias.

And dozens and dozens more.

There is virtually not a stage in the Miami Valley that Carol did not act on; and she helped christen the reopening of the Victoria Theatre in their opening production, playing Mrs. Victoria; just as she christened the Loft Theatre for the Human Race portraying Bea in Other People's Money.

When she's given a small part, I have personally witnessed Carol's ability to steal shows. Although Carol claims she can't sing, her little gem of a Madame Armfeldt was marvelous; indeed, Carol can be so fascinating, that we watched her even when her character fell asleep on stage in the middle of a song. In Jim Payne's production of Marat/Sade, Carol played a crazy inmate with very few lines, and yet she was hypnotically fascinating and I still carry indelible memories of things that she did in that performance. In The Little Foxes, her Birdie was heart-breaking.

In ensemble productions, she is a total joy, as anyone can attest who saw her co-starring, with her friend Barbara Meese in Steel Magnolias.

I have known Carol for over 20 years now, and was fortunate enough to direct her in the first production I directed in Dayton, The Hemingway Play, in which she played Luisa. As can be expected, her accent was perfect– her accents are always perfect, Meryl Streep has nothing over Carol – and I learned a lot about directing from working with Carol.

Carol tends to work differently from lots of performers–more often she works–in a more British style-- from the outside in, finding the voice, the walk, the posture, and then gradually filling in the details. And Carol is brave enough as a performer to give herself totally to her director to guide her. She invariably does what you ask her and then proceeds with the utmost discipline. If you say, "Carol, can you move a bit to the right," she might say "how many inches?", and if you ask for 7, from that moment on, she will move exactly 7 inches, not 6, not 8. With Carol, when a choice gets set, God, does it get set, and as a director, you never have to worry about it disappearing. And in the meanwhile, new things start appearing too, unexpected colors filling in the lines.

I have been fortunate enough to direct Carol several times. In one of my films, Cerebral Accident, she basically played my mother. On some level, Carol is really a second mother for many of us, probably many of us in the room, in fact.

She is a loyal friend to many. And she is generous to a fault. When I told a friend that I was going to be giving Carol this tribute, he said, "Did you know that before I even met Carol, I did something on the stage that was very risky for me, and a few days later, I got a card from Carol congratulating me." I'm sure many of us in this room have gotten these wonderful cards of support from Carol. It is that generosity of spirit that is an integral part of Carol Lee's legend.

For me, Carol's towering achievement will always be her role as Emily Stillson in Wings, a play about a woman suffering from stroke, catapulted into a disoriented world, who struggles heroically to confront her troubling destiny. Her performance, as an actress, as a woman, could not have been more brave.

She was on stage from the opening of the play to the closing; and for much of the play, I wouldn't even allow her to move anything except her head; and at least half the lines Arthur Kopit wrote appear on the surface to be gibberish, although they are really the most exquisite soaring poetry, poetry which Carol delivered with total assurance and expressiveness. And all around Carol, there were images and sound effects and sound tapes starting and stopping, so not only did Carol have to say all the lines expressively, she had to say things in exactly 18 seconds, not 17, not 19. The technical challenges she faced were amazing. And before the beginning of our 6 week run, Carol and I rehearsed separately for 4 additional weeks beforehand. That's the kind of commitment you get from a Carol Lee.

I later saw an L.A. production of wings with the actress Barbara Bain, and let me tell you, Carol blew her out of the water. I will always remember two of the audience members in Wings who came up to me afterwards. The first, was a younger woman in tears, and said that because of Carol, she now understood what her mother had gone through. Another woman, an older woman in her sixties who had recovered from a debilitating stroke herself, came up to me, sobbing, and said that Carol's performance had gotten everything exactly right, and that for the first time, she felt her own experience of stroke had been understood and she no longer felt so alone. The work Carol did was remarkable stuff.

The DAYTON DAILY NEWS wrote: "Played with compelling conviction and affecting sympathy by Carol Lee, Stillson is the focal point. Lee, who is on stage for every second of the production, characterizes the emotional devastation of a woman who is terrified, confused, and isolated. Emotionally wrenching, the role is a difficult one: Stillson must convey terror, fear, hope, despair. Most of all, she must make it believable, her portrayal must not become a sloppy emotional plea for pity. Immensely provocative, and giving one of the best performances ever, Lee's handling of the role is consistently intense and evokes such an aura of human dignity that by the time WINGS ends, we not only know Stillson, we respect her."

I respect Carol Lee.
I respect her as an artist,
I respect her as a person of incredible integrity.
I respect her as a courageous human being who is my hero.

And I am grateful to have had the privilege to have been her friend.

And so with great pride, I offer this recognition of a lifetime of achievement, to CAROL LEE.

--Chuck Derry