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Theresa A. Cunningham: Charting her own path as an artist

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This weekend, theater lovers in the Baltimore/DC metropolitan area will enjoy the opening of the musical, The Color Purple - a Pulitzer Prize winning story about hope and the healing power of love.

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Toby's the Dinner Theatre of Columbia located 5900 Symphony Woods Road (21044) will host the musical which is based upon the novel written by Alice Walker, the movie produced by Warner Brothers/Amblin Entertainment Motion Picture, the book by Marsha Norman, and music/lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Baltimore's own, Theresa A. Cunningham, is starring as Sofia in the musical from September 8 - November 11, 2012.

I had the opportunity to interview Cunningham and could feel her enthusiasm through every word of her interview!

Lynn Pinder: Who are you and what do you do?
Theresa A. Cunningham: My name is Theresa A. Cunningham, and I am a performing, creative, and community artist.

LP: What is a performing artist?
TAC: A performing artist is one who participates in the performing arts in front of an audience. It includes actors, singers, dancers, magicians, musicians, and singers. I am an actor, singer, and pianist who likes to think that I can move.

LP: What inspired you to become a performing artist?
TAC: I took classical piano lessons weekly from the age of 4-16. I was in my first play at 7. I haven't known much of a life in which performance did not play a large role.

LP: What is a teaching artist?

TAC: [In terms of defining the word, teaching artist] nationally-recognized actor, teaching artist and author, Eric Booth, has developed the following definition of the teaching artist:

"A teaching artist (artist-educator) is a practicing professional artist with the complementary skills and sensibilities of an educator, who engages people in learning experiences in, through or about the arts."

I have been identifying myself as a teaching artist because I have worked (and continue to) work as such. At my core, however, I am more of a community artist - a professional artist who collaborates more or less intensively with people who don't normally actively engage in the arts. Community art is most often art for social change and involves some empowerment of the community members who come together to create artwork/s with artists.

LP: What inspired you to become a teaching artist?
TAC: I have been teaching something or other since the age of nine--fellow students in math or friends in piano, etc. I never intended to do so professionally. In 2000, I was trained by the Academy Theatre in Atlanta, GA as a "play creator" to utilize the various arts to create original work in community. I fell in love with the work. Last summer, I was part of a group that received a grant from Alternate ROOTS to co-create a performance/arts installation with multiple generations in the West Baltimore community. I am currently working with the Leaders of Tomorrow Youth Center---an organization which uses the arts to teach youth the fundamentals of leadership and promote success and balance in their lives.

LP: What is a creative artist?
TAC: I utilize the title "creative artist" to describe all my non-teaching/performance artistic endeavors - my work as a poet, lyricist, playwright, editor, speech coach, and writing coach. I also create original one-woman performances for celebrations.

LP: What inspired you to become a creative artist?
TAC: I am blessed to come from a family of teachers and writers, so my love for both disciplines came about honestly. I also have the ability to help others flesh out their ideas which allows me to help with everything from speech writing to copy editing to resume writing. I also take personal narratives about one whose life is being celebrated (retirement, wedding, funeral, etc.) and create an original one-woman work which I perform at the event.

LP: What is your current project?
TAC: I am currently in production of The Color Purple at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

LP: What role will you play?
TAC: I am playing the role of Sofia--the same one played by Oprah Winfrey in the film version.

LP: How do you feel about landing this role?
TAC: I am ecstatic! Alice Walker is one of my favorite authors. To have the opportunity to bring one of her characters to the stage is exciting beyond measure. The character of Sofia is both emotionally and artistically challenging. I am honored and humbled to step into her shoes each night.

LP: What steps have you taken over the years to prepare you for this moment?
TAC: As a child I studied drama with Encore Theatre and Arena Players. I was a member of the National Thespian Honor Society while a student at Western High School. I represented Baltimore in the National NAACP ACT-SO competition when I was a junior. I went on to study musical theatre at Syracuse University. After college, I moved to Atlanta where I performed, studied and taught for 15 years. I have been back in my hometown of Baltimore for six months.

LP: How can people support you?
TAC: Please come to see the show [at Toby's the Dinner Theatre of Columbia]! We run September 8-November 11th. We have shows Tuesday - Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., and Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 12:30 p.m. It is a dinner theatre, so ticket prices include a buffet which begins 2 hours prior to showtime. Tickets can be purchased in person, by calling 1-800-88-TOBYS or by visiting www.tobysdinnertheatre.com. [People] can also visit www.theresacunningham.com for information about [my] upcoming events.

LP: What advice would you give to anyone hoping to launch a career in the arts?
TAC: Be clear on what it is you want and why you want it. Then, be open to the myriad of ways in which you can achieve that goal. Life is so much bigger than one stage or one concert hall or one gallery. As amazing as you are in your chosen craft, I guarantee you that you can do more than you think. Just be receptive to where the techniques and gifts of the arts can take you.

For more information or to purchase tickets to see Theresa A. Cunningham in The Color Purple, CLICK HERE!

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