For Chlorissa Prothro in GCP’s ‘Magnolias,’ steel can be beautiful
Chlorissa Prothro, who plays Shelby in the new Good Company Players production of “Steel Magnolias,” missed the 1989 movie version when it opened. She couldn’t help it. She wouldn’t be born for seven more years.
So Prothro, a Fresno State theater major making her GCP debut, definitely marks a new generation for this beloved and oft-performed title.
I thought it’d be interesting to talk to someone in the new production who wasn’t even around when “Steel Magnolias” first made a splash. Here’s our interview:
Donald: The movie version of “Steel Magnolias,” based on the 1987 play by Robert Harling, was a big deal. All those stars in one movie! Sally Field! Shirley MacLaine! Julia Roberts! I recall especially that women in my mom’s generation were abuzz. I’m always curious how someone who missed the debut of a famous movie because they weren’t there to experience it firsthand are able to assimilate such a pop-culture milestone into their lives. Did you see the movie first on video? DVD? YouTube? (I have to ask these days.) Before you got the role of Shelby in the new Good Company production, had you ever really paid any attention to the movie?
Chlorissa: I remember the first time I saw it (on DVD); I believe I was around thirteen. I didn’t comprehend the movie very well. The existential pain that is grief had not been something I could relate to, so, it flew over my head, despite it being a heartfelt piece. Though, the second time I watched the movie, I found myself much more invested. It was my senior year of high school; auditions for the Fresno State Theatre Arts scholarship were approaching, and, I was in need of a monologue. A mentor of mine suggested one from Steel Magnolias (in fact, it was M’lynn’s at the very end of the show). I ended up scrapping it, as I found soon after that it didn’t pertain to my age group. But, after reading the play, I hoped I could someday be lucky enough to play Shelby.
Donald: For those who need a refresher, give us a rundown on the story.
Chlorissa: “Steel Magnolias” takes place in Truvy’s beauty salon in Louisiana. It’s the 80’s, and, along with the big hair, the six women in this play are connected by their big hearts. As they navigate their lives with one another, they are faced by some of the brutal pains of existence, and, together, confront it through laughter and through tears. This show is truly special to me because of its honesty and heartfelt nature.
Donald: The title of the play is important to you. Why?
Chlorissa: I feel the title perfectly depicts the blend of softness and hardness each woman in the show radiates. Each character in the play has some sort of frail delicacy about them, whether it be their mental state, health, etc. But, despite the weaknesses they carry, they also have strong-will as hard as steel, and, to me, that is beauty.
Donald: The play is different from the movie, of course. The biggest change is that on stage we only meet the six important women in the story. (In the movie, they have to show the guys, too.) How do you think this impacts the experience of the audience?
Chlorissa: I personally feel that the storytelling is stronger as a play. The whole point of the show (and even Harling discusses this) is to portray the strong bond that the women share. When they are the only characters on display, their relationships with each other are much more dynamic and colorful. Also, because the location is stagnant in the play (solely in Truvy’s beauty salon), I feel that the changes within the women (how they are blossoming through phases of their life) are more focused upon rather than the external changes of the women (like in the movie, where the environment is built stronger upon).
Donald: Tell us about Shelby, the character you play. She’s strong-willed. Do you think she gets this from her mother? What are three words you’d use to describe her?
Chlorissa: Yes! I do think she gets her strong will from her mother. I would describe Shelby as resilient, driven, and solicitous. If I could have a fourth word, pink (of course).
Donald: Shelby’s Type 1 diabetes plays an important part in the narrative. Have you ever known anyone with the condition? Was this a learning experience for you?
Chrlorissa: It was most definitely a learning experience. When I got cast as Shelby, I became nervous, because I knew that I couldn’t fail diabetic audience members, family, friends, or most importantly, Susan Haring’s memory (the playwright’s sister, the inspiration of Shelby’s character). I wanted to give this part of Shelby authenticity and my full heart in order to respect those who struggle with Type 1 diabetes. So, I researched. I watched videos, read articles. I even stumbled upon forums online for those with Type 1 diabetes, and, read through numerous amounts of comments what hypoglycemia (a mental and emotional downward spiral spawned from low blood sugar) entailed for people personally. I even watched real hypoglycemic attacks filmed and posted on YouTube for awareness. From these, I gathered the most common reactions, and, I’ve given myself permission to embody them to the best of my ability.
Donald: To me, one of the reasons that “Steel Magnolias” resonates with audiences so deeply is because it captures two “ideal worlds.” One is the small-town world of the South, where everyone knows each other. Sure, it can be confining at times, and conflict can happen, but there’s a tight-knit bond between neighbors. The other “ideal” is the idea of a group of women who are great friends. In such a group, there are individual bonds of friendship, of course, and some of the women can pair up (or triple up) in distinct ways. But overall, it’s almost like the group together is the most powerful combination. This is a two-part question, then: Have you experienced anything like that small-town ideal? (I know you come from Tollhouse, so I thought that might be worth asking.) And: Have you ever personally experienced a “group friendship” like the one described in the play?
Chlorissa: Yes, I have. Tollhouse is a very small town, and, I am lucky enough to have graduated from a high school with only around 400 students. All of the teachers knew you by your first name, your interests, and so on. We were humanized, and, to me, that is the beauty of having a smaller community. We so often get swept up in miniscule things of society that are man-made, and, we forget about the importance of each other. While sometimes it felt intrusive and overwhelming, there was a closeness that couldn’t be rebuilt anywhere else.
Also, yes, I have experienced a group friendship like in the play and still consider these people to be my closest friends. In fact, we all met by working at our small town pizza parlor. Much later on in our friendship, I had a horrible night, one of the worst nights of my life, and, all of them showed up on my doorstep at midnight, holding a box of pizza (my absolute favorite). Though it was something so simple, their friendship was just the medicine I needed, which I feel is the exact bond the ladies share in Steel Magnolias.
Donald: Tell us a little more about yourself. Did you move to Fresno from the mountains? When were you bitten by the theater bug?
Chlorissa: Fun fact! I still live in the mountains. I commute everyday. It sounds like a lot, but, it is worth it. I enjoy living with my parents, and, luckily, since I’m doing theater/working in town as well as going to Fresno State, I can kill three birds with one stone.
I was bitten by the theatre bug when I was 13. My high school was doing a wacky show based upon “Romeo and Juliet,” and, I wished so bad to be Juliet. Instead, I was cast as a boy with a squeaky voice. Despite not having my dream of playing Juliet come to life, I found joy in being part of something larger than myself and connecting with others. From there, my love for theater flourished.
Donald: I have a memory of you in the Fresno State production of “Native Son” playing a detective with what I described as a “hard-boiled flair.” (My cliche meter must have been acting up that day.) The role was written for a man. What was the experience like for you?
Chlorissa: It was a challenge, that’s for sure. But, I truly feel it strengthened my acting, and I will forever appreciate Thomas Ellis (the director) for giving me the opportunity and believing in me when I wasn’t sure if I believed in myself. It was my first role that I’ve ever gotten that broke me free from roles I am typically cast in (innocent ingenue sorts of roles). While I enjoy roles on every part of the spectrum, from beautiful to nasty, I appreciated being able to find a new part of myself and go outside of my comfort zone.
Donald: In “Steel Magnolias,” you’re a young woman playing amongst a cast of, ahem, more seasoned actors. Do you think you take on a sort of “daughter” role with them offstage as well?
Chlorissa: Yes, definitely. I feel that they each have taught me something, whether they meant to or not. They all inspire me to be better, and, have been nothing but loving and supportive during this entire process. This is my first Good Company Players show, and, this cast immediately took me under their wing. I feel very grateful to be a part of a show with such motivated, creative, and lovely women.
Donald: What is one thing you’ve learned from your fellow cast members?
Chlorissa: I’ve learned that theater is still alive because of people like my cast. I have never worked with such dedicated individuals. On the first week of rehearsal, mostly everyone was off-book (despite all of us having a heavy line load), and, eager to dive in headfirst.
Donald: I see on Facebook that you’re dating Aaron Pierce. What was weirder for you: seeing him strip almost naked in “The Full Monty,” play a glammed-up, sadistic punk-rock drug dealer in “American Idiot,” or stomp around as a bespectacled, randy school boy in “Spring Awakening”?
Chlorissa: Yes, I am dating that one weirdo. To be honest with you, Donald, I wasn’t able to see “The Full Monty” (which makes me very sad. I’ve seen clips of his rehearsals, and, just from those, I am nothing short of proud of him). I’m happy to say I saw “American Idiot” and “Spring Awakening,” though. I’m not just saying this because he is my boyfriend, but he blew me away in both shows. He is transformative, and he puts everything into his work, which I admire. Neither were weird for me; from the get-go, Aaron and I have been weird together, and, our friendship as well as relationship has always been vulnerable and honest. I love his boldness, and I’m proud to see him carry that part of himself on stage.
Donald: Tell us one thing about yourself that most people don’t know.
Chlorissa: I am a huge geek. When I have free time, my favorite thing to do is get cozy in the solitude of my room and binge on hours of video games, from console to PC. I’ve been a video game lover since I was 5.
Thank you for the link-love, Donald! And this cast is really terrific in this show. I hope a lot of folks will put it on their calendar.