By Philip Pearce
For singer/actor Pat Horsley, theater is a lot more than just an optional recreation; it’s a life’s work and an essential building block of community and family life.
Raised in San Francisco by parents who counted season tickets to the Curran and Geary as unquestioned items in the family budget, Pat can hardly recall a time when she was not involved in “dance lessons and recitals, piano lessons and recitals, singing lessons and recitals.”
Early in her childhood, she went public when her mother entered her for a job modeling children’s clothes, an assignment the young Pat loved but had to abandon when problems with her ankles became problems on the job. “As I came down the runway, people started asking ‘What’s that clicking noise?’”
Temporary leg problems and a move down the Peninsula to Millbrae didn’t halt any of Pat’s lessons or recitals and introduced her to the new performance medium of precision swimming. “I was too young for the grown-up Aquacade,” she recalls, “but they allowed me to swim behind a big picture window for the lunch crowd at a big restaurant and I was excited to earn pocket money from customer tips.”
Meanwhile, as a voice pupil of Donald Stenberg, she continued to develop her singing and acting skills, including leads in high school musicals. At the same time she was involved in productions of Gianni Schicchi, Les Contes d’Hoffmann and other operatic works at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Still in her teens, she was granted an audition for the San Francisco Opera, a career move she still views with mixed feelings. “I was shaking in my boots, but I was thrilled that the director took the time to come up and speak to me privately for five or six minutes. He said, ‘You have an interesting voice. I don’t know what kind of voice it’s going to become when it’s mature, but I want you to come back and audition again.
I never went back. I still ask myself if that was an important lost opportunity. I just don’t know.”
Marriage to a music teacher named Gary Horsley brought a move to Salinas, where Gary had been hired to launch the first fine arts program at Alisal High School. Pat taught elementary, had three children and did musicals once or twice a year, initially at the pre-Western Stage Salinas Performing Arts, making her debut as the temperamental Lily Vanessi/Kate in Kiss Me Kate, a role she remembers with particular joy, together with the cockeyed optimistic Nelly Forbush in a later Western Stage production of South Pacific. (Left above, Crazy for You.)
Husband Gary conducted the orchestra for most of Pat’s early stage work in Salinas. “He had a wonderful singing voice and he did join me up on stage once, but only with several cocktails under his belt. Gary was much happier working down in the pit.”
When director Ron Danko launched Western Stage in the mid 1970s Pat played Don Quixote’s lady love Argonza/Dulcinea in the theater’s first season version of Man of La Mancha, and became a regular member of the company.
Moving a character from page to stage, she admits, always means “a lot of agony. . . But I try to work in an orderly fashion, read the script, look at how this person thinks of herself, how other characters think of her and what seem to be the thought processes. Then I walk away, give myself a bit of space to digest what I feel about all of it. Then after a day or two I re-read and start writing down my thoughts.” The process continues. “What does this person look like? What is she thinking about at this point in the action? I build up her past, her friends and her family and start constructing her back story. Sometimes I have information from the script that I can go on. More often there’s no direct information and I have to create it from my imagination.”
An added delight has been having her three children doing theater with her or on their own. Pat played the Rydell High principal in Grease, with daughter Trish as one of the show’s teen girls. Sibling Beth played in Western Stage’s monumental trilogy version of Steinbeck’s East of Eden in the early 1990s.
Pat speaks with particular pride of her daughter Trish Adair’s appearance work with Grass Valley’s Quest Theaterworks, in a performance of Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot that went to last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and earned enthusiastic notices.
It’s all part of Pat Horsley’s strong commitment to theater as a powerful building block of family and community. Today, along with recent roles in Harvey (above), Side by Side with Sondheim, (below) Woody Guthrie’s American Song and Harvey, Pat is part of Western Stage’s Legacy Players, a group of us stage-struck old-timers who produce and promote theater by and for seniors. She lists as one of her most memorable experiences (in an opinion I share) a project where Legacy seniors submitted childhood reminiscences to the theater’s Young Company and “had the satisfying experience of seeing the selves we used to be more than half a century ago scripted and reenacted by a company of enthusiastic school-age actors,” she muses thoughtfully. Along with other (mostly) Legacy members, she often takes parts in Linda Hancock’s Listening Place productions.
“We are a generation of people whose families went to the theater regularly,” Pat Horsley told me. “We need to have children raised to that same experience, theater a regular part of life, not some added extra. We need to be saying, ‘You, as a young American, can add your gifts to this greater thing that is part of our culture.’ I hope to keep doing it till I’m a thousand and one years old.”
Portrait by Nancy Thompson; theatrical photos by Richard Green