Fresh from her scene-stealing, Tony-nominated triumph on Broadway in August Wilson's Seven Guitars, Michele Shay is again scene-stealing and triumphant Off Broadway (Vineyard Theater, 108 East 15th Street) in Lisa Loomer's melodrama, The Waiting Room. In this play, about three women -- from different cultures and different centuries -- who come together in their doctor's waiting room, Shay, portraying five characters, provides much of the comic relief. Shay is bi-coastal, maintaining a Los Angeles home to work there in TV, theater and film; and a New York apartment for her first love, theater work.

She was born in Alabama. Her father practiced veterinary medicine. Her mother was from New Jersey and, after her father died, returned to her roots. "Acting was in my blood but I didn't know it," said Shay. "I was always trying to fly through the air, so I studied ballet. Mother was quite a soprano, and I loved singing with her." She often went to plays in New York. "I caught the acting bug seeing Gloria Foster in In White America, especially the scene where she portrayed a girl at the integration of Little Rock's Central High.

She made me believe she was sixteen and cried real tears. I was amazed by the power and majesty of the stage." Shay studied theater at Carnegie Mellon. "I wasn't sure if it was my talent that got me in, or the fact that my uncle, [George Corrin,] a theatrical set designer, was the first black student admitted to their drama department. I had a passion for theater but had never been in a play. I learned that to act required more than a notion."

Summers and after college, Shay was featured in numerous plays and musicals, then toured in Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope with Nell Carter in Australia. Louise in Seven Guitars and her roles in The Waiting Room are personal triumphs. "I was known as a serious actress for so long, people forgot I could be funny." She likes theater because of the challenge. "You spend so much time being concerned about what everyone thinks," she explained, "and usually being disappointed if they don't think enough. You want to say, 'Don't you see how hard I work? Didn't you notice how great that was?' But when they finally notice, it's so nice! Then to be nominated for a Tony in the featured actress category! "It's taken me years to make a commitment to make every moment as fulfilling as I can. It can be for yourself as well as the audience, but I've learned to make it for myself. That's not selfish but self-ful. We're in a society that's so awed by stardom, we forget to honor ourselves for just breathing. That's the biggest lesson I've learned."

Shay's body of work is impressive: Broadway's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf [sic] (1977) and Home (1980, Tony nominated for Best Play); extensive Off-Broadway work at the New York Shakespeare Festival, Lincoln Center, and the Negro Ensemble Company. It was Seven Guitars that put her "on the theatrical map." She'll play Louise in the 1997 national tour and planned TV adaption.

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Key Subjects: 
Michele Shay, The Waiting Room
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
Date: 
1997