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Desert Companion

For her next act: a profile of Mindy Woodhead

Mindy Woodhead

Fiery-haired gypsy Mindy Woodhead is putting down roots in Las Vegas. This classically trained actor’s mission: to help train the next wave of actors and directors for the coming theater renaissance

Mindy Woodhead describes herself as a gypsy. Yet, as the CSN theater teacher shows me around the nest she and wife Jeanette Farmer have made of the house Farmer bought in Northeast Las Vegas 20 years ago, when there was no surrounding neighborhood yet, the only thing even vaguely nomad-like that I can find about Woodhead is her loosish cargo pants and flouncy shirt. For our interview, she shows me to the kitchen table, where a spread of snacks awaits, and offers me a glass of fruit-infused sparkling water. At six months pregnant, her round belly softens her lean frame. Even her legendary bolts of auburn hair are banded at the nape of her neck, decidedly domestic.

How did you choose your sperm donor?

Totally random. We thought about some close friends, and (Farmer) has a brother — we thought about all that. We just thought it would be too complicated, you know, to have an extra person that wasn’t part of the nuclear family be a part of the nuclear family.

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What was the process like?

It was hard. It took us eight months to go through the California Cryobank’s website. It’s really funny; you can go by anything. You can look for someone with freckles who was a business major. … She wanted musical and fun and athletic, so they’d be fun to go hiking and camping with. I wanted brilliant and ambitious and tall. … The person we ended up going with isn’t really any of those things. He just seemed like a good fit with us.

With the pregnancy, are you still running CSN’s one-act play festival this semester?

I am. Of course, with my maternity leave, I’m going to be more of a consultant or something we haven’t worked out exactly. I won’t be teaching, because my due date is only six weeks into the semester, but I’ll definitely still be at the helm of the one-acts, and I’ll have somebody else, probably, step in to run it, still going by my system.

Tell me about the one-act festival. What is it? How did it start?

When I was first hired, Doug Baker, the head of the theater department, presented me with the idea of having a play festival, some sort of one-acts. The idea was to provide opportunities for students who wouldn’t otherwise get to perform on the main stage. There are so few main-stage shows at CSN each year, and there is a very large student body taking acting classes.

What do you do?

I’m auditing rehearsals, guiding them, seeing how they’re working with the actors, being very hands-on if they have any issues, but really talking just to the directors, you know, letting them filter things down to the actors, giving them a lot of space as well on their own to experiment when I’m not there.

Why the focus on directors?

We have so many acting classes; we don’t have directing classes as of yet. My dream is to have directing classes in the fall, and then rehearsals and production in the spring. But as of now, we’re doing directing classes and the production process in the same semester, so, for me, it is a lot about the directing. At the same time, students who are in acting classes are a part of those productions and learning the tools. … The (theater) department has nine classes times 30 students, so that’s about 270 acting students in any given semester.

Why do we need actors and directors, anyway?

I imagine that Las Vegas is going to have a theatrical renaissance in the years to come, and I see it at a very nascent stage at this point. You have the people, you have the spaces, you have all the resources, and what I would love to see, and what I encourage my students to do, is to have some fundamentals that you are working off of, a foundation of training that makes it so you’re not out there reinventing the wheel.

It sounds like you’ve left performance for education.

No! I never will. It’s so deeply a part of me — I love seeing theater as much as I love doing it. … It fulfills me on such a deep, fundamental, tribal level. … In my future I want to continue to act and direct throughout the valley and be a part of the educational initiatives at the same time.

As we talk, I sense that, beneath Woodhead’s tame veneer of an expectant mother living in the suburbs, a wild heart still pulses. It took her a while to settle in Las Vegas, but not long at all to know seemingly everyone who’s ever had anything to do with a staged show here. She has taught at Fern Adair Conservatory of the Arts, acted and directed with Insurgo and Cockroach Theatre, and has a handful of private clients whom she coaches and advises in acting and directing. And I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting a few other theater-related things she mentioned, too. Now fully immersed in the local theater community, she’s got some pretty big ideas about how to help make it more active and cohesive. Trouble is, the community might not have the big bucks it takes to turn such ideas into reality.

Tell me more about those people, spaces and resources you mentioned.

There is a ton of energy, some really great producing bodies — Cockroach Theatre, the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Nevada, the Las Vegas Shakespeare Theatre, the Las Vegas Little Theatre, UNLV and CSN. There’s a lot of really great people, and a ton of spaces — I mean, there’s stages in the back of music stores and theaters and libraries.

So CSN will generate the actors and directors to fill those spaces?

I love that CSN is an open campus. I think of it as the epicenter of the community of Las Vegas, where absolutely everybody from every walk of life, every milieu, is coming together and has access to receive that kind of training, to be as good as they can be.

And your role is to give them that?

I see my role as twofold. I see it as providing skills to the performers and directors who are seeking them to perform work inside the theater. … and also, providing a growth opportunity for anyone in the community who’s looking to access more of themselves or find an outlet of creativity. I initially went into it for the former cause, but I have found it incredibly rewarding to meet members of this community that I would otherwise never have an opportunity to.

Have you felt the pinch of the budget cuts to higher education?

I am aware of the department’s needing to provide as much opportunity as possible to the students while taxing the department’s funds as little as possible, so with the one-acts, I’ve really tried to make it cost not much of anything at all to the department. … The very first semester, it was just, “Bring whatever you have in your closet for costumes.” We were just black boxes and black space. And that was it.

Is it depressing to work that way?

No. This last semester, we got to dive into the costume department resources at the college a little bit more and have some set pieces, so it’ll continue to grow and develop, but I’m always very conscious to make it more about the educational opportunities for the students and less about the spectacle. We have plenty of spectacle in Las Vegas, and this is about the acting and the directing.

Do you teach elsewhere? The Smith Center, maybe?

I’m not right now, but in the years to come I really see being a part of all of those avenues — CSN, UNLV, the Las Vegas Academy and The Smith Center — to reach as many people in Las Vegas as possible. I want to share the amazing opportunities that I’ve had that not everybody has, what’s going on in the theater world outside of Las Vegas and Ivy League conservatory training — bring it all here and share it with everyone.

The “all” that Woodhead wants to share here is also the product of her wanderlust. She took the cake of a B.A. in acting from Cal State Fullerton and iced it with an MFA in acting and movement pedagogy from a joint Harvard University-Moscow Theater program. Then, she used these platinum-plated credentials to go on multi-month stints around the country, playing characters as diverse as Snow White and Lady Macbeth, mainly in theaters belonging to the Actors Equity Association (trade union). When that got old, she joined the Peace Corps, traveling to Africa, where she both helped groups of women build their crafts into sustainable businesses and taught theater at an English-language college.

You’ve moved around a lot. Why is that?

My mom is a gypsy and my dad is a hot air balloonist. They aren’t together, but I have the gypsy roots. My mom pretty much moved every year for spring cleaning. So, I took up on that myself and moved around a lot.

And how did you end up in Las Vegas?

I did theater professionally all over the states — resident shows in different places. When I was in Washington, D.C., I met some friends from the theater community out here. And after the Peace Corps, I was traveling around just visiting with family and friends and in October 2008 came through Las Vegas to see them. One of them is the CEO of an automation company for the entertainment industry. I just stopped in to see them, and the CEO asked me to stick around for a few weeks and come to some special events that they had, so I did. And I just fell in love with this town. I could really see myself here. It is a tough city, because of my training being in classic theater and post-modern physical theater and equity productions, and none of that existed in a strong way here.

There’s enough stimulation to keep someone of your cultural and intellectual curiosity and ambition here?

Yes. … I find it especially stimulating and exciting to be in Las Vegas at this time, because it takes more than to just show up and do your work. It takes commitment to conceptualize where we’re going, what the theater community is heading toward, how we can combine the resources … and tell the community that we’re here. That is a huge part of producing any show at this point, because there isn’t a steady flow of community members going to see theater. You really have to reach out, tell people you’re here, beg them to come and see it.

What are some other obstacles?

Las Vegas has this very interesting paradigm that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the country. It has so many employed performers and technicians that it creates its own problems. It’s sometimes called the entertainment capital of the world, and it has a remarkable number of technicians and performers working on the Strip. In most cities, you have a lot of people starving to find work. Here, you have well-employed people who are starving for creative stimulation.

So, theater is their outlet?

They’ve created wonderful late-night showcases for music, choreography, dance, improv — all of this happening at 11 or 12 o’clock at night. And the theater community is really looking to support it. Everyone I know wants to provide them with resources. The problem, though, is there’s not a consistency in performances for mainstream audiences that want to see things at 7 or 8 o’clock at night, so, I really see that being the avenue of opportunity in this Las Vegas theater renaissance.

Is there really a “theater community,” people collaborating and talking about how to foster the scene?

Yeah, everyone I know in the theater community here knows that audience begets audience, and the more people go to see, the more they will continue to go and see, and I do feel a strong sense of community with everyone that I’ve encountered.

Who are some of the key players, either individuals or organizations, who are doing that?

Those that are the pinnacle in developing that sense of community are, I’d say, Troy Heard at the Onyx, Dan Decker of the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company, Erik Amblad with the Cockroach Theatre, the Las Vegas Little Theatre, of course, and CSN and UNLV — all of these people, I feel, are circling around and trying to generate a strong centrifuge for a theater scene that has momentum and sustainability.

What will it take to reach the tipping point?

Three things: I think the people who want to be a part of it have to continue to train. Everywhere I’ve worked, the professionals continue to train. It’s important to keep yourself charged and viable and keep your tool of your body, your voice at the height of its abilities, and your skills as a performer honed. Then, I think the community has to get out and see the theater on a consistent basis. Anyone who’s going to Utah to see Shakespeare every summer should definitely invest some time here. And the third part is the producers pursuing excellence, which is something that is a part of the mission statement of all these theaters I’ve talked about. All three are symbiotic and intertwined, so as the audience gains consistency, as the performers and directors gain consistency in quality, and the producers are requiring excellence, it grows.

In the current chapter of Woodhead’s life, her wanderlust has brought her to a theatrical desert. Rather than play a part and move on, as she used to, she’s chosen to stay, make Las Vegas her home and help build an oasis of good theater in a city that, ironically, favors those passing through. Even more important than growing a community, she’s growing a family. That’s a lot of roots for a wanderer.

How does a gypsy settle down?

I’ve always wanted an artistic home, and I found that here in Las Vegas, and a very nurturing personal home, so now we take vacations. It used to be, when I wanted to go see someplace, I’d find a way to work there. I’d do shows in exotic locations or join the Peace Corps or find a valid way to connect with artists in Africa or Europe and go and stay there and work there. Now, I take vacations.

You think you’ll be able to stay put?

I do, and it’s funny, my partner has been here for her entire life, so I don’t think I could pull up her roots if I tried. It’s a fun adventure.

Have you and Jeanette picked a name for your baby?

She really likes Genoa.

Like the city in Italy?

Yes, and we have a sailboat on Lake Mead, so it’s a big decorative sail, “The Genoa.” But to anyone on the East Coast, evidently, it’s a sausage. We’re like, “No, no, like Genoa, the city.”

What will being a mom change for you professionally?

You know, I just don’t know what it will change. It’s uncharted territory, a brand new voyage.

It might be harder to go to those 11 o’clock shows.

I think that remains to be seen, but I really hope that our daughter and our children — we may have more — grow up in a house where they see their parents pursuing their passion and, through that, get inspired to never settle or find excuses not to do anything that inspires joy in their lives. 

CSN’s one-act performances are 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26-27 and 2 p.m. Oct. 28 at CSN’s BackStage Theatre on the Cheyenne Campus. Tickets $5. Info: 651-5483. Auditions are Sept. 18. Info: mindy.woodhead@csn.edu.

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