Patty Gallagher went back to her childhood to capture Corita Kent for Jewel Theatre’s new production — and found a surprise connection to her character. Esteemed for her work by her peers and much of her audience, Gallagher pays tribute to the support she’s received. “My colleagues have supported and loved me into an artistic career,” she says. “I have this enormous karmic debt to UCSC and to Santa Cruz as an artistic community.”
For her latest high-profile role on stage, veteran Santa Cruz actor Patty Gallagher will inhabit the character of Corita Kent, a real-life and quietly subversive 20th century artist who also lived as a nun for 50 years with the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart in Los Angeles.
For someone born Patricia Mary Gallagher, who grew up attending various Catholic schools and who went on to earn a Ph.D. in theater, playing a nun with a creative streak is a particularly resonant experience. But Gallagher didn’t know exactly how close she was to the subject until she reached out to one of the nuns who taught her in high school.
“When I first started working on this role,” she said, “I started thinking about some of these women in my life, and one in particular. So out of the blue — well, this is sentimental and dumb — I just wrote to her to say, ‘I’m working on this role of this nun, and it made me think about what you taught me and how much your strength meant to me.’”
It had been more than 40 years since Gallagher had spoken to her teacher. But the teacher was not only still alive and living in retirement in Arizona, she responded with what turned out to be a delightful surprise: “Corita Kent was my teacher.”
Purely by happenstance — of course, the Sisters might credit some other unseen force at work — Gallagher learned that she was merely one degree separated from this remarkable person whom she is now charged with bringing to life for audiences. Does this serendipitous connection make Patty Gallagher a sort of intellectual granddaughter of Kent, an adventurous artist whose colorful, pop-savvy work might be the last thing you’d expect from someone who’d lived her life as Sister Mary Corita?
This week, Gallagher stars in the Jewel Theatre production of “Little Heart,” a play by poet and author Irene O’Garden. The play centers on Kent, her international fame as an artist in the pop-art-inspired 1960s and ’70s, and her struggles against conservative forces within the church uncomfortable with her art and her influence in the secular world.
As a teacher in the art department at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, Kent discovered silkscreen printing in the 1960s. Already recognized as an innovative art teacher, she quickly built a reputation for her splashy style, which often incorporated ad slogans, song lyrics, and pop-culture iconography. Her art eventually evolved to embrace political and social concerns of the day, from war to poverty, a stance that brought her into conflict with Archbishop James McIntyre.
“She looked at ads as modern parables,” said Gallagher. “She would take a corporate slogan, and she would sorta tie that into God’s love, or people’s responsibility to each other.”
It’s a heady role, but if anyone in the Santa Cruz theater ecosystem is prepared for it, it’s Gallagher, a longtime faculty member in the Theater Arts department at UC Santa Cruz and a familiar face to fans of Santa Cruz Shakespeare. Last spring, Gallagher created a stir in the theater world with her singular performance in the one-person showcase “An Iliad” at Jewel, based on the Homeric epic.
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To her on-stage work, Gallagher, 59, brings a wealth of experience and training in at least two traditions that are a bit unusual in conventional acting — the uniquely expressive tradition of Balinese dance, and the highly technical and physical art of professional clowning. Both add an elemental of physicality that Gallagher has internalized in her performances.
“Because of her background in clowning, she brings such a sense of joy and play to the work she does,” said Mike Ryan, the artistic director of Santa Cruz Shakespeare, who has cast Gallagher in nearly every season of his summer festival for a decade. “But she also brings a real sense of vulnerability and wonder to it as well. When I’m looking for good actors to be part of the festival every year, the hardest thing to find is actors who bring vulnerability and wonder to their work. And Patty does both of those things so brilliantly, that I think she immediately draws people across the front of the footlights right into her arms on stage.”
Gallagher said that the faith shown to her by Ryan and Jewel’s artistic director, Julie James, has made her want to risk demanding roles. “All an actor ever wants to do,” she said, “is to be scared, and to be given a mountain they have to climb. It’s always terrifying.”
As a one-person show grappling with one of the most famous texts in world literature, “An Iliad” posed a particularly steep mountain to climb. Gallagher said that before each performance, she stood in a small room wrestling with fear and adrenaline. “It proved to me how hard I could work,” she said, “because I knew that unless I worked like a demon, there was no surviving that role.”
Gallagher, who grew up mostly in Arizona, first came to Santa Cruz in 2000 as a “trailing corporate housewife.” With her Ph.D., she was able to land an instructor’s role at UCSC, helping acclimate first-year students to college life. At the time, knowing almost no one in the area, she felt as though the university was her only hope of living some kind of artistic life. And the university came through for her. She credits professor emerita Kathy Foley for bringing her into UCSC, allowing her to eventually land a tenure-track position. “[Foley] and UCSC saved me,” she said. “My colleagues have supported and loved me into an artistic career. I have this enormous karmic debt to UCSC and to Santa Cruz as an artistic community.”
Off campus, she’s developed into one of Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s most dependable assets in both supporting and starring roles. Among the most memorable performances was as feminist icon Susan B. Anthony in Mat Smart’s “The Agitators” in 2021, and in several Shakespeare productions, including as the clown-ish twins, the Dromios, in “The Comedy of Errors” and as the duplicitous Polonius in “Hamlet.” Last summer, she was in both Shakespeare productions, “Twelfth Night” and “The Tempest.” Santa Cruz Shakespeare has yet to announce casting for its 2023 season, but, said Mike Ryan, Gallagher will be part of it if she wants to be. Gallagher said she’ll continue to be part of Santa Cruz Shakespeare even if it means playing “the 12th spear carrier from the left.”
As a teen, Gallagher did some theater, but generally, she said, she was content being on the outside looking in at the world of performance: “I began my professional performing career a lot later than most people, and that really had to do with fear.”
After college, she moved to London, just to be close to the Royal Shakespeare Company. She had convinced herself that she would be happy as a theater superfan, until a friend persuaded her to return to grad school. She was in her 30s before she decided to devote herself to the specialized fields of clown training and Balinese dance.
She was drawn to clowning, she said, because she was attracted to athleticism and precision of body movement in the service of drama. “People look at the acrobat and they say, ‘Oh, I could never do that.’ But we look at the clown and we say, ‘Oh, I’ve been that guy.’ I feel like at the center of clowning is a humility and a humanity.”
Clown training also gives her a certain versatility on stage. “It’s very much about making something out of nothing,” Gallagher said. “It’s about invention and curiosity.”
Whether it’s through her clown instincts born of training and experience, or her commitment to take on roles that scare her a bit, Patty Gallagher is in the midst of a moment as one of Santa Cruz’s most prominent actors, even though she could live a perfectly fulfilled life as a teacher and faculty member.
“I’m kinda having a life that I can’t quite believe, to be honest,” she said. “Mostly, I just feel like the luckiest dog ever. Which is why I want to work like a demon. That’s what I owe to people who have trusted me.”
The Jewel Theatre production of “Little Heart” by Irene O’Garden, directed by Susan Myer Silton and starring Patty Gallagher, is playing at the Colligan Theater through Feb. 19.