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  • Writer's pictureTim Prasil

Becoming Patsy: An Interview with Renae Perry

Updated: Feb 2

Long ago, Shakespeare penned the occasional play about actual historical figures, from Julius Caesar to Henry VIII. Centuries later, the Town & Gown Theatre produced A Man for all Seasons, a dramatization of Sir Thomas More's final days, and I Hate Hamlet, in which the ghost of the very real actor John Barrymore mingles with entirely fictional characters. Elsewhere, a parade of authentic personalities have materialized onstage: Joan of Arc, Alexander Hamilton, Oscar Wilde, Sigmund Freud, Bessie Smith, Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, and so on. Even Shakespeare himself has been portrayed behind the footlights.

Portraying a once-breathing character comes with unique challenges and specific audience expectations. Renae Perry has had to grapple with these as she rehearses for the title role of Always... Patsy Cline, which reenacts the life and music of the country-music superstar. I asked Renae to discuss her responses to those challenges and expectations.

Photo by Corbett Dalton - Renae Perry as Patsy Cline in "Always... Patsy Cline"

Tim: I know you have extensive experience in music and in theater -- and in musical theater. But what was the highlight of your last two or three years in music? In theater? In musical theater?

Renae: I love this question because it means I get to provide three totally separate answers. For me, the highlight in music has been working as the music director at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. I get to collaborate with wonderful musicians and work for a community that is very important to me. 

In theater, the highlight of the last few years was directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Town & Gown in 2022. It was the first time we tackled Shakespeare in 31 years, and I am incredibly proud of the entertaining and accessible production we presented. 

In musical theater, the highlight of the last few years was playing Reza in ONCE at the Gaslight Theatre in Enid. That was my first opportunity to do a production in Enid, and I could not have enjoyed the process more. In that show, the actors are the band, meaning that most of them play instruments live on stage while performing their roles. The character I played is a violinist, so I learned the violin for the show. It was a challenge that ended up being more rewarding than I could’ve imagined, and the overall experience was phenomenal.

Tim: How familiar were you with country music before you were cast? How about with the Patsy Cline oeuvre?

Renae: I had a pretty limited amount of experience with country music before I was cast. I knew that Patsy Cline sang “Crazy” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” but that was about it. While her songs aren’t necessarily as ubiquitous today as they once were, much of Patsy’s work is largely regarded as “the best of the best” in country and western music. Now that I have a more intimate knowledge of her repertoire, many of her songs have become favorites of mine. I’m particularly fond of her ballads, like “You Belong to Me,” “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray,” and “True Love.”

Tim: Have you done any research on Patsy Cline, and if so, what has it involved?

Renae: Nope -- I’m just winging it! As (I think) Patsy would say, “YOLO!”

Just kidding -- Yes, of course I have done research! I’ve read a lot of articles, watched hours of clips of her singing, scoured the internet for recordings of her speaking voice, and watched the biopic from the 80’s with Jessica Lange and Ed Harris, entitled Sweet Dreams. The most challenging thing to research has definitely been what her speaking voice sounded like. Recordings of her speaking are few and far between. On some level, I kind of enjoy that, though. It means that she’s maintained an air of mystery.

Tim: Has playing an actual person made inventing/discovering/developing a character a different process from playing a fictional one?

Renae: It has been different, yes. When it comes to fictional characters, some actors like to only read the text and avoid watching any one else’s performances so that their interpretation is entirely their own. Others will watch a lot of different performances and use them to generate questions and ultimately inform their own interpretation. I typically fall into the latter bucket, so playing someone who existed in real life feels rich with opportunity to me. I have a direct point of reference for my performance and I can work toward getting as close as possible. That said, playing a real person does limit the opportunities for personal interpretation on the actor’s part, so playing this role doesn’t necessarily feel as creative as my past roles have. 

Photo by Corbett Dalton - Renae Perry as Patsy Cline in "Always... Patsy Cline"

Tim: Please forgive the length here. Many audience members -- well, those who remember seeing Patsy Cline in person or who have seen footage of her -- might have expectations of you capturing her look and physical mannerisms. The many more who have heard her might count on you sounding like her. (Think of Elvis's hair, hips, upper lip, voice, and accent.) Are you giving us a Patsy imitation? An interpretation of her? Both? Something else?

Renae: I’m going to respond to your long question with a much longer answer. It’s difficult to put a definitive label on my portrayal of Patsy, I think. Similarly to Elvis, there are performers who are professional Patsy Cline impersonators, and I certainly won’t come anywhere near their level of accuracy. One particularly interesting aspect of playing a historical figure who was alive and working relatively recently is that people won’t necessarily be comparing me to her directly, but they’ll be comparing me to how they remember her. Each audience member’s memory of Patsy Cline will be colored by the contexts in which they saw her and/or experienced her music. So, to me, it’s less about having every single thing match her perfectly, and more about encapsulating her energy. I hope that my performance creates a sense of nostalgia and warmth for our audience members who were alive when Patsy’s music was most popular. I hope this show reminds them of two-stepping in a dance hall with their sweetheart, or riding in their father’s truck next to the Oklahoma pasture.

That said, I’m certainly trying to get things right when it comes to Patsy’s physical presence. Luckily, nature is working in my favor for some of it -- Patsy was the same height as me, and she died when she was my age. I also have a similar build/body type to her in general. For the differences in our appearance, namely hair and eye color, I’ve invested in brown color-contacts and a custom wig modeled after a photo of her. Our costume designer, Lucy Robinson, has done an excellent job of ensuring the authenticity of my outfits, and nearly every single costume piece I have in this show is vintage. Patsy’s mannerisms and facial expressions were extremely subdued by today’s standards, so I am trying to find a balance between being authentic to her performing style while also being expressive enough to keep our audiences engaged.

As far as my voice is concerned, it is similar to Patsy’s in some ways, but I’ve spent months identifying the characteristics of her voice that make it uniquely hers and incorporating those things into my own singing as much as possible. Patsy had an impressive vocal range, and this show will have both the lowest and the highest notes I’ve ever sung in a musical theater performance.

Tim: Is this show more about the music or the musician?

Renae: Hmm… Hard to say! I think the way that the story and music are combined in this show, it really is about both. Valerie Thrasher is playing Louise Seger, Patsy’s close friend and biggest fan. Louise tells the story of how she met Patsy and the impact she had on her life. I think Val’s performance is more about the musician, and my performance is more about the music.  I’m sorry if that seems like a non-answer.  The most intimate and touching parts of the story are simply told by Louise and then reinforced by my performances of Patsy’s songs -- it’s not like a normal musical where we’re singing songs that are directly connected to the plot. I suspect our audience members will leave with a song stuck in their head from my performance, and with tears in their eyes from Valerie’s beautiful and poignant storytelling.

Photo by Corbett Dalton - Valerie Thrasher as Louise Seger in "Always... Patsy Cline"

My thanks go to Renae Perry for granting insight into her process of capturing and conveying the spirit and physicality of one of country music's legendary figures. Always... Patsy Cline, created by Ted Swindley and directed by Linda Thrasher, runs Feb. 8-11 and 15-18 at the Town & Gown Theatre.

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