BWW Interviews: Dawn Trautman of THE BIKINIS at Gretna - Taking Risks and Breaking Rules

Recently at Allenberry in Happy Days and in THE FULL MONTY, actor Dawn Trautman is back in the area at Gretna Theatre, opening in THE BIKINIS, a look back at a girl group that's now older but not, perhaps, wiser with age. Trautman's a mistress of multiple trades, though, not just a triple-threat actor/dancer/singer. With two graduate degrees, including one from NYU in organizational psychology, she's also a speaker at conferences, a professional life coach who carries her trade with her, counseling her clients on the phone and on line as she travels, and the author of the book "Urban Nomad", containing her advice and wisdom from her life on the road.

We caught up with her between rehearsals at Gretna Theatre, as the professional coach/counselor who also starred as Mrs. Tottendale in the New York revival of THE DROWSY CHAPERONE prepared to do the thing that's fueled her life since her childhood - perform on stage.

BW: You have such a varied background and you've been so many places - and not just for theatre work. Can you tell us a little about where you come from - both in your history and in your mind?

DT: I've lived in New York for ten years, so I tell New Yorkers I'm from Minnesota. I've been told that after ten years you can say you're from New York. I still have ties to Minnesota, though - emotional ones and people both - and I went to a performing arts public school in Fargo that's now in Moorhead, and that's part of my background. I went to college in Indiana - I majored in English, not theatre - and then grad school in Minnesota and at NYU, where I studied organizational psychology. My first grad work was at Luther Seminary, and I worked in church organizations, so I was interested in how to make these structures operate and work with people in a better way. I've made my seminary and psychology studies work for me by doing life coaching for people who come from faith backgrounds. It's coaching, though, to be clear - it's not spiritual direction; that's very different.

It lets me take parts that I want to do, rather than just to act because I need the money or a place to live. But New York really is my home base, not just a place to go to auditions. I have very deep relationships there, though I have relationships in a number of places.

BW: Which really came first? Psychology or acting?

DT: I was into theatre as a child. It's family legend that I saw a dance performance on television and loved it, and I began dance lessons at three. It's always been a part of me.

BW: Psychology and acting - it's an interesting combination.

DT: Blame that on the ANNIE national tour! As a child, my first toehold in psychology was being in a university study on how children learn. I was paid fifty dollars for participating. My parents asked me what I wanted to do with my money, and what I wanted was a ticket to ANNIE.

When I was in church work, I worked for a very large church with six hundred children. That was what made me interested - how to create structure, which people need, and how to teach others. It was almost a corporate training angle - and I've done corporate training, as well.

BW: But performing is your first love?

DT: I was into theatre as a child. There's a family story that I saw a dance performance on television and I loved it - I don't remember this at all - and so I started with dance lessons when I was three. It's always been a part of me. I used to put on plays in the back yard, or on the deck, and cast the neighborhood kids in them. I'd try to rewrite the plays I saw, but I'd only write the parts I liked! I'd loved ANNIE so I did that - with only the orphans. So naturally my first professional choreography job was with a production of ANNIE. It all keeps coming back to ANNIE, doesn't it?

BW: Aside from the acting, you've mentioned that you're also a life coach. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

DT: I like to tell people that a therapist fixes your past, but a life coach works on your future. We help you assess emotional goals, skills, what you want to do. We set up action-oriented plans. How do you meet goals and get rid of roadblocks? It's not about how to be happy. Happiness is a transitory feeling. It's about how to do what makes you feel meaningful and content. You can set up structures to make that possible.

BW: You have regular clients as part of that - how do you keep that going while you're on the road with shows? You don't have an office.

DT: I have clients from all over the country. I run my coaching online and on the phone. If I'm in the same town as my client for some reason, we might meet, but schedules can prevent that. Most of my clients and I meet up online, especially in groups or Facebook chats. With my smartphone I can keep up with clients even when I'm in rehearsals.

BW: Speaking of travel, you've also written a book called "Urban Nomad". What does that term mean? How does it apply to you>

DT: The term's been used elsewhere, of course, but I decided I'd own it for myself. I'm always on the road - I haven't had an apartment for four years. When I'm in New York, I cat-sit, I apartment-sit, or something like that. I may be a speaker at a convention, or I'm in a show for a month; there's always someplace to be and someplace to stay. In January I spent a week in each American time zone with my work. I work it out - I take responsibility for making the connections to make that possible.

The book is kind of a "Chicken Soup for the Soul" for the modern traveler through life. It's not a how-to book, but my observations on travel and on what I've learned. And also on what I've learned from my characters on stage.

BW: Learning from your characters? Is it possible to learn from Mrs. Tottendale (from THE DROWSY CHAPERONE)? She seems so scattered.

DT: She's not in the book. I didn't learn much from her at the time. But she has a sense of fun and a sense of trust. She believes that everything will be okay. She's maintained a childlike sense of wonder about the world. And she's generous - she opens up her home for a huge wedding party. She's rich, but she's happy to be wearing her favorite party dress, not a new one. She breaks rules, too - she's willing to admit she's fallen in love with her butler.

You know, every great musical has at least one character who takes a big risk of some sort by stepping out of line or outside of their regular space, and they grow. It also invests the audience in the show, by making them wonder what will happen.

BW: That's part of theatre as transformation. That's a psychological process, but it's also sometimes considered a spiritual one. In classical - Greek and Roman - tradition, theatre's part of religion. Is that true for you?

DT: Good question! Aside from teaching an audience or allowing them to experience something by watching it, there's what happens to the performer, too. There's a connection to a wider universe, certainly. It's a reason we bring the arts into church work and church education. But it's also true for the performer - when I dance, I do feel aligned with something much larger - with all the other people on stage, yes, but with something larger than that as well.

BW: What motivates you to perform?

DT: There are so many things, all on different levels. At the most basic level, I have permission to do things on stage I can't do ordinarily. On stage you can run around, dance, sing as loud as you can with an orchestra. If you do regional work, and you enjoy travel, as I do, there's the outside incentive of seeing the country. Then there's the work itself - first, there's the challenge of learning the lines and then nailing them, then of making the whole thing work. There's the inner satisfaction of getting it right, of trying to make it perfect, of becoming better each time. And then there's the communal relationship - the experiences with working with fellow actors, and the relationship you build every night with an audience. The audience is a leading player in any live performance. I love that - they make the performance different every night. And it's fun to make people laugh; it's fun to take them somewhere with you in a show.

BW: Do you have a favorite role, or type of role?

DT: I like to say I'm the one with the apron - the mom part, the waitress. I like mid-century plays as well - MEET ME IN SAINT LOUIS is perfect. And MARY POPPINS would be amazing to do; there's a lead who's an apron part as well. I like the mother in A CHRISTMAS STORY, and it's not an apron part kind of show, but I like WHITE CHRISTMAS as well.

BW: I have to ask - you're a Minnesotan with a Lutheran background, and you've been in CHURCH BASEMENT LADIES. Do you feel any real connection to the show? Is it authentic for you?

DT: It feels very close to me and to who I am. It's more my mother's story and not mine, but the writers have nailed the attitude, how Minnesotans interact. And the Lutheran connection is there for me. Plus in that show, I'm in an apron! When I did the show, I did call my mother to ask her about a few of the points. I started living in Minnesota when I was eight, so the show is pretty native to me.

BW: And now you're in THE BIKINIS at Gretna. What can you tell us about the part and about the show?

DT: It's fun. It's a new genre for me. It's all songs people know - mostly Sixties and Seventies songs that don't make it into this kind of revue. Our director's really researched the period and the girl groups' moves. Although my character is kind of the mom of the group, the one who takes care of everyone else.

BW: Outside of your stage work, you have some nice clips on YouTube. You're talking about inspiring places, while you're at those locations. What's it like to be a web star too?

DT: I meet people who feel like they know me personally because of my web clips! It's fun, though, and it shows off my talents. I'm acting, of course, and I'm trying to inspire people with the thoughts about that place, which is part of coaching. And if it makes someone interested in evaluating their life through coaching or other self-assessment, that's great! Life's supposed to be about having fun and improving yourself, isn't it? It's what I try to do in mine.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Trautman

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