Camille Gaston’s raucously good voice, smart comic timing and magnetic stage presence has made her a mainstay in local musical theater. Now she’s tackling one of her dream roles: the larger-than-life Deloris Van Cartier, aka the “Whoopi Goldberg character,” in the Good Company Players production of “Sister Act.”
Gaston can be a little on the shy side when she isn’t belting out a song in front of hundreds of audience members. (Lots of actors can be that way.) She’s not the kind to brag or tell self-aggrandizing stories. But with some gentle persistence from me, and a little bit of help from a couple of her closest friends, I’m able to compile this list of Ten Things to Know About Camille as she opens her newest show.
Thirty-four. That’s the (whopping) number of local productions in which Gaston has appeared. Her first was “The Wiz” for GCP, in January 2009, and since then she’s done work at GCP, StageWorks Fresno, Fourth Wall Theater, Selma Arts Center, and a “few other companies” within the central San Joaquin Valley.
Her favorite role? “Gosh, I have so many. But, I have to say my all-time role was Camae in “The Mountaintop” with StageWorks Fresno. Talk about a character with depth and range. That was such a challenge, but I loved it!”
She isn’t Catholic. But Gaston, whose character of Deloris in “Sister Act” sets up the show’s narrative when she seeks protection from an abusive boyfriend by holing up in a convent, did go to a Catholic high school: Junipero Serra High School in Gardena. And, yes, she wore a uniform there. Sometimes she got in trouble for rolling up her skirt, which could be no more than 2 inches above the knee, too high.
It was in high school, by the way, that she first got involved in theater. “I was such a nerd back then – quiet, shy, totally not cool. It wasn’t until the second semester of my 11th grade year that I broke out of my shell. I mustered up the courage to audition for our high school production of ‘A Chorus Line.’ I played Maggie.”
She can now sing “Love to Love You Baby” on command. It’s part of Gaston becoming a Donna Summer fan for this role. While the movie version of “Sister Act” is set in the 1990s, the stage musical moves the action back to the disco era of the 1970s. (Nuns and disco: It’s an automatic audience-pleaser.) Because her character dreams of becoming the next Donna Summer, Gaston took a crash course in the singer. One thing she learned: Summer had a very religious upbringing. And ‘Love to Love You’ is a very provocative song. If she had a chance to ask Summer one question, it’d be: How did her family react when they’d hear that song on the radio?
She was no disco neophyte before starting rehearsal, however. “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees is one of her all-time favorite songs. Though she wasn’t around when disco was at its peak — she figures she was born about two years too late — her parents, Andrew and Cynthia Gaston, kept the beat going for her. “I’m very familiar with the sound of disco, and I’ve always loved it!”
When she isn’t playing a counterfeit nun on the run from a gangster, you’ll find her by day at her job with the Department of Motor Vehicles. “So, I work with the public every day and encounter so many different kinds of people,” she says, diplomatically. “Believe me, theater is a great escape from my day.”
She’s an only child, and she’s thrilled that her parents moved to Fresno three years ago to be closer to her. And she has some great friends whose names will be recognized by local theatergoers, including Dominic Grijalva, Greg Ruud, Daniel Hernandez and Brandon Delsid, whom she calls her “core faux family members.”
“These guys I’ve known since I started doing theater, and have all made a name for themselves within our tight-knit community,” she says. “They have really been a great support system over the years. I love them so much.”
Watch out for the “Camille Face.” That’s a look she’ll flash if you do something she disapproves of, Ruud says. “All of her friends know just what that is, even though she denies doing it,” he says.
She makes a killer macaroni and cheese. “Literally,” Grijalva says. “There is so much cheese involved. But it’s oh SO good.” Add to that her famous fried chicken and jumbalaya, and you’ve got quite a party. “Anyone who knows me knows I love to laugh, sing, play music, dance, eat, cook and just have a good time,” she says. “I love having people over, preparing the best comfort foods, and playing games.”
She believes in the power of theater to create change in society. “I love doing shows that deal with race and diversity. Whenever I can be a part of a show that dispel myths and conceptions about a particular group, it is so fulfilling.”
Most embarrassing moment:
For an entire weekend of shows, I went on as an understudy for Lorell in a production of “Dreamgirls” at Roger Rocka’s a few years ago. On the first night I went on, I was in place on stage to perform our first number, “Move,” with the characters in the show, Deena and Effie. There was a blackout that occurred right before the number, which was to mask a curtain or backdrop coming in. I somehow placed myself too far upstage of where the curtain was to come in. The lights came up, and there was only Deena and Effie on the stage because I was lost behind the curtain, and I couldn’t find my way back on stage in time. I missed the entire first number.
After she’s done with “Sister Act” (it plays through Sept. 10), there are other roles on her bucket list. If she were banished to a desert island and could only take along one Broadway cast album, it’d be “The Color Purple.” (Sorry, Deloris.) “I love that show!” she says. “It’s another dream show I’d love to be a part of.”
“Sister Act,” opens Thursday, July 13, and runs through Sept. 10, Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave. $32-$60.
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