photographs by karen pulfer focht
There’s a warning sign posted just outside Cecelia Wingate’s front door. It reads, “What happens on the porch stays on the porch,” and within certain spheres of Memphis’ growing theater and performance community, this humorously painted directive is taken as seriously as gangland omerta, the Bible’s Ten Commandments, and the first rule of Fight Club.
With three consecutive Ostrander Award wins for best production of a musical in Memphis, and a Jeff Award she picked up in Chicago earlier this year, it’s probably fair to describe Wingate as a regional power player. And when she’s home — an idea that’s grown more flexible with regular travel — she likes spending time on the porch, where an ornery artist can speak her damn mind. That porch is a magnet for creative people, and over time the modest Midtown stoop has become legendary for good food and gossipy, cocktail-fueled conversations about the state of theater in Memphis and points beyond.
“Every time I see Margo Martindale I just want to throw up,” Wingate drawls; kidding/not kidding? — hence, the sign. “Bitch stole my career,” she adds with a raspy chuckle. If you don’t catch the reference right away, it’s not surprising. Martindale (August: Osage County, Million Dollar Baby) is an earthy, Emmy-winning character actress who makes jokes about how people love her work; they just don’t love it enough to learn her name.
Martindale occupies the kind of niche Wingate — a sincere fan — can imagine occupying someday, when she closes her eyes and imagines a transition to film. “At my age, if people want to stereotype me as the strong Southern woman, let ’em,” she says, noting that interest has been apparent and offers have been made.
Wingate’s never been easily stereotyped. She’s never stood still long enough. Over the decades, she’s been a reluctant rock star singing with The Bouffants; a committed mother; a respected actor; and an acclaimed director of musical extravaganzas like Young Frankenstein and The Addams Family. She’s also a proud FedEx retiree, having spent 36 years working full-time in information technology. “Whenever a plane flies over, I’m thankful,” she says. “I get a pension.”
But the hot topic on Wingate’s fixed-income porch these days is how much everybody in Memphis theater hates her because of her currently fabulous life, and a rapidly expanding collection of awards and accolades. Kidding/not kidding.
At 60, Wingate’s lifelong theater hobby has blossomed in a spectacular second act that finds her splitting time between Memphis, where she’s the go-to director for Broadway-scale musicals, and Chicago, a certifiable capital of American theater. There, she’s turned the heads of audiences, critics, agents, and theater judges as an actress performing in — and elevating — the new work of Memphis playwrights Jerre Dye and Evan Linder.
“Every time I leave Chicago it gets harder,” Wingate says. She loves the Windy City. She loves the people. She’s even looked at real estate. But she loves her porch, and can’t quite bring herself to pull the trigger. The winters are too cold for a girl from North Georgia who’s spent most of her life in Tennessee. She doesn’t like driving there either. And while Chicago may be known for its influential comedy scene, there’s something about the Southern sense of humor that lures her back to Midtown again and again.
“But damn, they sure do love their theater up there,” she says, weighing her options. “There can be three feet of snow on the ground and they do not even care, the theaters are full.”
Wingate missed this year’s Ostrander Awards, which were held at the Orpheum Theatre Sunday, August 21st, and where the actor/director was honored for her work as a director on The Producers at Theatre Memphis, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for the McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College. She was in Chicago closing a successful revival of Linder’s Byhalia, Mississippi, in the Steppenwolf Theatre’s new 1700 Theatre. Wingate, who was first nominated for a Jeff in 2014 (for her performance in Dye’s lyrical play Cicada), finally won Chicago’s coveted theater prize for her performance as a racist mother in Byhalia, Mississippi, whose married daughter (played by former Memphian Liz Sharpe) surprises the whole Rebel flag-flying family when she gives birth to a biracial baby.
“I don’t think I could have written Celeste in Byhalia if I didn’t have Cece in mind when I wrote it,” Linder says. But even if Byhalia, Mississippi moves to New York — and given the attention this new Southern script has received, there’s every reason to believe it will — there’s no guarantee that any of the original cast will move with it. That’s just how the business works. So while her two shows from the 2015-2016 theater season were being honored here in Memphis, Wingate chose to keep her head in Byhalia, Mississippi, and concentrate on the task at hand.
“Besides,” she says. “I’d heard Memphis [the musical] was really good at Playhouse on the Square. So there’s no way I was going to win Best Musical, or Best Director of a Musical, three years in a row.” She describes the Ostranders, which after 33 years has a regulated judging system that aims to circumvent politics and reward quality, as a show. And she makes a reasonable case that nobody wants to get gussied up year after year and buy tickets to Cecelia Wingate’s big play-prize night. “I’m smart enough to know how it works,” she says.
The day before the Ostranders, Wingate used social media to contact all the actors and crew members who’d worked on The Producers. She wanted to tell them there wasn’t the slightest chance that they were going to win. She wanted to assure them it wasn’t because they weren’t the very best things in town. It was her fault. A hat trick for best musical was unprecedented. There would be no “threepeat.”
There’s a reason why The Producers was such a smash on Broadway and why it continues to attract audiences to regional productions. Mel Brooks’ showbiz parody is a throwback to the golden age of the Great White Way, when musical scores were big, casts were enormous, and the costume room’s sequins and rhinestone budget was the biggest thing of all. From its illuminated swastikas to its spinning illuminated swastikas, Theatre Memphis’ “Springtime for Hitler” sequence was an all-you-can-eat Bavarian buffet of bold choices and bad taste — right smack dab in the middle of Wingate’s directorial comfort zone. The Producers loomed large over a field of strong contenders, not only because of its enormous scale, but because of its sheer audacity. Whatever Wingate may think about the judging system, nobody else ever had a chance. And, as the Ostrander Awards presentation progressed, and the production began to collect awards — seven in all — Wingate’s phone started ringing.
“I mean, it was just blowing up,” she says. The additional six awards Spelling Bee picked up in the college and university division was an excellent dessert.
Is this really my life?” Wingate asks, recalling the first time she walked into a rehearsal (in the summer of 2016) at Chicago’s famous Steppenwolf Theatre and saw an enormous banner with a picture of Forrest Gump actor Gary Sinise — the Tony-winning playhouse’s most famous co-founder. It was really her life, of course, and the hits kept coming.
In the middle of Byhalia, Mississippi’s summer run in Chicago, as Wingate met with agents, lunched with “fancy people,” and made audition rounds, the recipient of the first $10,000 Memphis Film Prize was announced. Not only did Wingate play a pivotal role in the winning adaptation of Memphis writer/actor McGhee Monteith’s stage play, He Could’ve Gone Pro; it was shot in her house where things that happen on the porch are beginning to find a larger audience.
Wingate’s come a great distance. The first time she ever acted in a play, she fell off the stage — twice. That’s when she was a high school sophomore in Southaven, Mississippi. Instead of being deterred, she was smitten. Shortly thereafter she saw Jim Ostrander, the actor for whom the Memphis theater awards are named, performing the title role in The King and I, opposite Memphis stage veteran Ann Sharp at Theatre Memphis.
“And I wanted to do shows like that,” she says. “I wanted to do shows in that theater.” Years would pass before her first time working on the main stage at Theatre Memphis, the place she now thinks of as her artistic “home.” In that time careers both glamorous and ordinary blossomed, bloomed, and fell away.
“We had some pretty glamorous gigs,” Wingate says of her time singing and shaking her stuff with The Bouffants, a girl band revue that still performs today, though all of the original members have moved on. “But I don’t miss it a second,” she adds, launching into a nightmare monologue about spandex and sweaty sequin fabric, the gluing on and ripping off of false eyelashes, and having to wear two wigs stacked on top of one another during outdoor shows in the summertime, “with wet rags literally underneath to keep from fainting.”
“I remember playing some outdoor barbecue festival in Corinth, Mississippi, and it was hot, and our stage was a flatbed truck, and my heart began palpitating and I remember thinking, ‘Dear God, please don’t let me drop dead in Corinth, Mississippi, on a flatbed truck smelling like dead pigs.’”
Although The Bouffants evolved into a professional endeavor, the band was initially formed to play fundraisers for the Kudzu Playhouse, an ongoing North Mississippi theater company that Wingate helped to launch in the late 1980s. “Boy, we got a lot of pushback on that name,” she says. “They had had something down there already called the North Mississippi Theater Guild, and it sounded like something for a bunch of little old ladies.”
At Kudzu, Wingate directed a production of On the Verge; or, The Geography of Yearning, Eric Overmeyer’s time-traveling romp through the history of modern womanhood. The production was named best of show at the Southeast Theatre Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, and went on to take fourth place at a national competition in Omaha, Nebraska. The group received an invitation to perform at the Canadian National Theatre Festival in Victoria, British Columbia.
“That’s when I started thinking I might be good,” Wingate says. But that’s not entirely true. She knew she was good when she turned down her first professional offer to join Playhouse on the Square’s resident company performing the Judy Holliday role in Born Yesterday. “This is back when Playhouse was still located where Lafayette’s is today,” she says.
She didn’t turn down Playhouse’s offer because she didn’t want the job. She’d just started working for a successful, but still relatively new, company she didn’t know much about called Federal Express. “It’s the first time in my life I was making real dough,” she says. For advice, Wingate, who launched her career in overnight delivery working as part of a switchboard pool, went to FedEx president Art Bass. She knew he was a big supporter of the arts in Memphis and figured if anybody would understand her situation, he would. He told Wingate, “You know you do. But there’s a lot to be said for doing what you want to do and not being completely destitute while you’re doing it.” That made sense to the struggling artist, who believed financial stability might even allow her to help others.
Letters from the University of Memphis sometimes arrive at Wingate’s house, acknowledging her achievements and how positively they reflect on the school even though she never took a single class there. While working at FedEx she did walk on campus to do shows, take in afternoon lunchbox performances, and absorb what she could from professors like Gloria Baxter and Josie Helming. She was never enrolled as a student, but that’s where she first came into contact with the founding members of Voices of the South, and with that small but ambitious company’s best known playwright, Jerre Dye, who created roles in Cicada and Distance with her in mind.
(A retooled version of Distance just completed a successful run at Chicago’s Factory Theater without Wingate, who was unavailable because of her commitment to Byhalia, Mississippi.)
What makes Wingate such a good director? And what makes her dream of someday taking all the roles Margo Martindale doesn’t want seem so plausible?
Justin Asher, the technical director for Germantown Community Theatre describes Wingate as having an “intense vision” that never waivers. “It’s a literal battle in her brain until she gets what she wants,” he says. Asher knows how demanding she can be, having acted in key roles in Young Frankenstein, The Addams Family, and The Producers. Asher also writes, and Wingate is slated to direct the second production of his play Haint, a promising Southern thriller originally produced by the New Moon Theatre Company, and now being produced by Germantown Community Theatre. “She constantly says, ‘Find the funny,” Asher adds. “She never misses an opportunity to make an audience laugh.”
Theatre Memphis’ executive producer Debbie Litch concurs. She thinks Wingate has a unique ability “to see the big picture” and still focus on the funny. “To me, it’s also that she focuses on the details,” Litch says, “whether amusing or poignant.”
Evan Linder initially describes Wingate as “a force of truth onstage,” but then he gets down to the things that really make her special as an actor, director, and person: “She’s an attention hog, silly at inappropriate times, and extremely gassy.”
I guess I just see things wrong,” says Wingate, who adores Mel Brooks, and accepted her prestigious Jeff Award with a gracious, and attention-grabbing, “Holy shit!”
“You know, they’ve got a lot of amazing actors in Chicago but they don’t have anything like me,” Wingate says, her deep voice dripping with honey mixed with barbed wire and magnolia blossoms. What happens on the porch may stay on the porch, but it’s too small a stage to contain this woman who frequently inhabits its southwest corner.
Cecelia Wingate’s got places to go. “I’m going to get me a Tony,” she says.