Laura Gallagher Byrne passes love for theater on to children -November/December 2010

"Peter Pan" currently in production at Theatre Workshop

by: Jill Evarts

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Laura Gallagher Byrne first arrived on Nantucket 22 years ago, hired by the now-defunct company Musicana to work as a singing waitress at the Harbor House restaurant.

"We would wait tables, and then randomly go to the piano and sing a song," she says as she mixes pizza dough in her country-style kitchen. "Then we would do a revue once dinner was over."

The pizza dough is left to rest as Byrne shares the key to good pizza. (Roll it out at room temperature). I'm served homemade oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies, tea and honey, and then Byrne sits down beside me, tea in hand, and smiles warmly.

She is a petite woman who packs a punch, with her larger-than-life singing voice and vivacious go-go personality. One is left with the impression that relaxing with a cup of tea is not a common activity for Byrne.

"All the real waiters and waitresses thought I was the worst thing they'd ever seen," she continues. "But it was loads of fun. We all lived in cottages down on the wharf for the summer."

After leaving Nantucket, Byrne spent the next six years appearing in leading roles in various playhouses throughout the East, as well as performing in summer stock and working comedy improv with The New York Hysterical Society in New York City. She then returned to the island to marry Barry Byrne, whom she met while performing at the Harbor House.

Today Byrne sits on the board of Theatre Workshop of Nantucket, a position she's held for over eight years. She is currently directing the musical "Peter Pan" (Nov. 19-Dec. 12), and just completed two back-to-back leading roles for TWN over the summer. Byrne also teaches acting and improvisational classes to children and adults, and for many years maintained a private voice studio on the island.

Her two recent acting roles, in "Dinner With Friends" and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," marked Byrne's return to the stage after eight years of directing and teaching.

"I loved being on stage this year. I loved performing," says Byrne. "I think the creative process of acting and directing are both really interesting, but there's a connection with the community with acting that you just don't get behind the scenes – and performing keeps you fresh."

Byrne's first production with Theatre Workshop was in 1992 when she played the leading role of Audrey in "Little Shop of Horrors." Her longtime friend Kate Hamilton remembers trying out for the same play, when she first met Byrne.

"I walked into the auditorium and heard Laura's voice booming out over the auditorium, and I said to my friend, 'I guess I can forget about playing the part of Audrey'," says Hamilton.

After acting with TWN for many years, Byrne decided to try her hand at directing. "It was great to perform, but actors weren't paid, and directors were," she says. "As it turned out, I really enjoyed myself. It was fun being on the other side and watching the process."

Her directorial debut was the comedy "I Hate Hamlet." She selected Dwight Beman as the lead, who was new to Theatre Workshop. "I stalked him, pretty much," she says, "because I thought he'd be perfect for the role."

Beman has worked with Theatre Workshop ever since and went on to perform leading roles in other productions.

"So I felt as though my foray into directing was a successful one," Byrne says.

Soon she began teaching acting classes at Nantucket High School.

"My first group was a boy-heavy class that loved drama, so I decided to direct 'Oliver.' With great pride I say I did show after show with those boys, and they were great – I also found I loved working with children," she says.

Byrne went on to direct many children's shows for Theatre Workshop, and also to teach musical-theater classes with Robert Behrman.

For the current production of "Peter Pan," Theatre Workshop has hired Flying by Foy, which specializes in stage flight, and has gotten a diverse group of performers off the ground, from Lucille Ball to the Black-Eyed Peas. For the initial casting call, 115 children turned out. Thirty of them received a call-back for a second reading at the Congregational Church, where Byrne sat in the fifth pew, watching with rapt attention, encouraging and cajoling the kids into growing into their parts, as they read their lines time and time again.

"It's OK to get mad here," she tells the kids. "You can stamp your feet – and let's see some facial reaction while the other kids read." And then, "OK. Let's try it one more time."

What's next for Byrne? She always has her feelers out for new productions.

"I need to be inspired by a piece," she says.

She also hopes to continue her education by working toward a master's degree in directing in a program such as the one offered at Emerson College, which is specific to working with children, and local and regional theaters, as well as maneuvering between professionals and non-professionals.

So what is Byrne's favorite play of the dozens she has performed in and directed over the years?

"It's always the one I'm doing," she says.

Jill Evarts is a freelance writer living on Nantucket.

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