Actress Offers Homeless Women Starring Roles

Five years ago, Stephanie Cotton-Snell, a professional actress in Cincinnati, had a career worthy of a standing ovation. She appeared in independent movies, commercials and plays, and was co-founder of a local theater company. So when her husband received a job offer in Boston, she thought “What on earth am I going to do in this new city?”

What the petite, soft-spoken redhead did was have an idea: to combine her love of acting with helping women down on their luck. The 47-year-old, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in theater performance, had always been drawn to women who struggled, especially the homeless and impoverished. “I come from a very poor family, and this could have been me,” she says.

A New Role 
Enter the actress’s second act, creating Girl Talk Theatre. In 2006, Cotton-Snell began teaching one acting class a week at a Boston women’s shelter. That effort has grown into a 15-member theater troupe, where a participant or two has been known to show up in a bathrobe or with a tent to take her cues.

The women perform five times a year at community centers, shelters, and even on a professional stage. Much of the show material comes from their own lives and explores such issues as homelessness, addiction, poverty, mental health problems, domestic violence and sexual abuse. The Nora Theatre Company donates its space for Girl Talk’s annual production.

“I’m struck by the courage of these women and by Stephanie’s generosity of spirit,” says Mary Huntington, artistic director at The Nora. “She is using her skills to illuminate lives that don’t have a voice.”

A shelter that offers acting lessons is rare. That an arts nonprofit would be dramatically impacted by the recession is not. Last year, when many of the company’s funding sources bowed out–Girl Talk receives most of its $18,000 annual budget from foundations, individuals and donations at performances–Cotton-Snell’s salary was eliminated. (Yet she still pays the women $50 to $100 per show “as tangible evidence that they worked hard,” she says.)

All the World’s a Stage 
Until a year ago, Cotton-Snell toured as an actress with a professional repertory company twice a month. She stopped traveling so that her family and Girl Talk could take center stage. But then her husband lost his job, prompting Cotton-Snell to look for a paid, part-time teaching position. She is about to begin a stint as theater director at a local school. That will be in addition to putting in 20 hours a week with Girl Talk and about twice as many hours in the weeks before a performance.

“Whether it’s to push themselves to memorize lines, be on time for rehearsals or help with costumes, the women are doing things they didn’t know they were capable of,” says Cotton-Snell.

And so is she. In addition to being the company’s founder and fundraiser, Cotton-Snell writes (with extensive input from the group), produces and directs the shows. Her biggest role, though, is that of advocate for women like Candy, 47, who lived on the streets of Boston for 23 years, spent time in prison and currently battles mental health problems.

“From the first class I took two years ago, Stephanie has made me feel nurtured. I never got that as a child,” Candy says. “It was the first time in my life I could say ‘I belong somewhere. I’m important.’ Girl Talk has been therapeutic. It frees my gut and my soul.”

While Cotton-Snell insists, “I’m not a therapist and don’t pretend to be,” you can’t persuade Lois Frazier otherwise. The 54-year-old has had alcohol and drug problems and was involved in a “sick relationship.” Three of her four sons are in prison. “When I act, I’m showing that it’s never too late to turn your life around,” she says. Frazier hopes to become a probation or parole officer so she can help others. She has been part of the theater group since it began.

Says Cotton-Snell, “The women and I firmly believe that every time they perform, there is someone in the audience who is homeless or addicted, and they can look at my students and say ‘They’ve been there and they’ve come out of it, and I can, too.’ It empowers them.”

In class, members briefly talk about how their week went; many ideas emerge from these discussions. Cotton-Snell leads the women in stretches, relaxation techniques and a series of trust-building, memory and voice exercises. Then it’s time to act out moments as a group from a member’s life.

Coming Attractions 
The shelter class is creating an original piece the group plans to debut in September. Cotton-Snell also teaches a second “alumni class” at a nearby church, and those women are working on a longer play on invisibility–what it’s like to feel invisible in society, and the times they have wished they were invisible.

After one recent performance, a Girl Talk actor told Cotton-Snell: “I didn’t used to feel good about myself, but now I do.” Beaming, the veteran actress remarked, “Now how simple and beautiful is that?”