by Tom Lowrey, Education Program Assistant
She has been a martini-chugging overachiever, a murderess on trial for killing her cheating husband and sister, an addled and ailing family matriarch, and the crazy sister who dances on the table. She’s even played some normal people. And over the years, Midlanders have had the privilege of watching her play each role to perfection.
Susie Polito got the acting bug many (well, not that many) years ago while playing one of the royal children in “The King and I.” And after a childhood full of onstage fun, she attended Adrian College, where she majored in theatre and minored in interior design. The latter became her career, but theatre became her passion.
After moving to Midland with husband Tucker, Susie was cast in “Hello, Dolly!” in 1981. “I was in the chorus, and I didn’t know anybody!” She wasn’t an unknown for very long, however, because her talent and hard work led to many more roles, in musicals, dramas, and comedies. She especially enjoyed playing Velma (the murderess) in “Chicago.” Other favorite shows, to name a few, were “Company,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Dancing at Lughnasa,” “The Sugar Bean Sisters,” and “The Dixie Swim Club.”
Susie enjoys all the camaraderie with her fellow actors. She said this about working with the cast of “The Dixie Swim Club”: “All of us know each other pretty well and worked together in the past. I suppose we all have our idiosyncrasies, but there aren’t any divas. In rehearsal, we attack it like any other group, taking time to find our character.”
Susie’s approach to her roles has been pretty consistent over the years. At Adrian, she was strongly influenced by the acting theories of Uta Hagen, a highly renowned acting teacher at New York’s Herbert Berghof Studio, and the author some important acting texts. The method must work, because Susie has won numerous acting awards and a lot of critical acclaim:
“Susie Polito is excellent in her role. She is everything her character is supposed to be and expected to be. Her song is strong and well-delivered. It is a stand-out performance.” – “Company,” 2002
“Polito when she is drug fueled slurs her words, is addled and makes absolutely no sense, and when she locks her radar on someone, she belittles them totally. Yet for as awful as she is, there’s also something charming about her. What a performance.” – “August: Osage County,” 2020
Susie’s fellow actors are some of her biggest fans. “I have been in numerous plays over the years with Susie,” says Trena Winans, “and she is always one of my very favorite people to share the stage with! She is a true pro. Even when things are going crazy, Susie can always find a way out of it, and always with a smile and good humor!”
Recently Susie was asked, “Are there any roles that you haven’t done, but are dying to do?
“I did have a bucket list,” she replied, “but I’ve been quite fantastically blessed because I’ve been able to hit most of those bucket list shows. One show I have always wanted to do was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” However, the character of Martha is so similar to Violet in “August: Osage County” (though the characters’ addictions are different), that I’m not sure
that show is on my bucket list anymore.”
Susie has some very interesting backstage stories. “During a performance of ‘42nd Street’, I had a real quick costume change. We had been having trouble with the costume, and I kept telling the costumers, ‘We’re going to have a problem. When I have to make a certain move, this thing is going to fly open.’ And they said, ‘Oh, we don’t think it will.’ The first time I wore it was for the final dress rehearsal, and indeed, during the big number, I did that move with my arms, and the dress just w-o-o-o-p fell all the way down! So there I was in my underwear.
“In a different show, I had all the time in the world to change clothes, and I was in the dressing room and I changed and hung around a bit, and then went up to the wings, ready to go on, and suddenly realized that I was in the wrong costume! So I went flying back, spouting expletives all the way, and yelled ‘I’m in the wrong costume. Somebody help me!’ Thankfully some people helped me, and I flew to get back onstage for the scene.”
In addition to acting in many productions, Susie has directed several shows for Center Stage. Her favorite was “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 2008, which was very well received:
“Directing this play was clearly a labor of love for Susie Polito.
With a large cast and huge themes it can be difficult to maintain control of the story, but Polito is up to the task. The play moves well and is staged creatively within the small amount of room afforded by the large set.”
Of course, Susie has acted for some very good directors. Among her favorites have been Mary Jane Wagner (“Chicago”), Rodger Henderson (“Company”), and Adam Gardner-Northrop (“August: Osage County”.)
When asked whether she prefers acting or directing, Susie really has no preference. “They are both extremely fulfilling, and I enjoy both equally, but just in different ways.”
There’s a good chance you’ll see Susie around town. When she’s not acting or directing, she does some interior decorating and also helps to run estate sales for Treasures on Townsend. But whether she’s onstage or offstage, she gives her role one hundred percent.