The Springer Opera House opens its season this week with “Sister Act.”
The musical is based on the classic ’90s film starring Whoopi Goldberg, who plays nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier. In the story, Deloris witnesses a murder and is forced into protective custody where she literally goes undercover by hiding as a nun named Sister Mary Clarence. The comedic plot line and upbeat musical tunes have made “Sister Act” a hit musical across the board.
For the Springer’s production, Shane Hall cast a fresh new face in the role of Deloris Van Cartier. Jeanette Illidge is hardly new to acting, but she is making her debut at the Springer in “Sister Act.”
Illidge recently sat down with Ledger-Enquirer Sunday Arts reporter Carrie Beth Wallace to discuss her career’s dynamic start, why she’s excited to play Deloris, and what patrons can expect to see in the upcoming Springer production of “Sister Act.”
Here are excerpts of that interview, edited for length and clarity.
Q: Where are you from?
A: I was born in Lawton, Okla., but that was because my dad was in the military. I spent the first five years of my life in Nuremburg, Germany. Then we moved stateside and hopped from place to place. Most of my memories are from Fort Campbell, Kentucky and Tennessee. I was about 10 when we left there and then we moved to Fort Stewart, Ga.
Then, my dad retired from the military after 20 years. I went to public school in Hinesville up until seventh grade and then went to private school in the eighth grade. I was raised a Seventh-day Adventist Church so I went to a denominational school. Then, my freshman year of high school I went to Savannah Christian Preparatory School, which is non-denominational. Then grades 10 through 12, I attended Georgia Cumberland Academy in Calhoun, Ga. It is denominational. It’s an Adventist boarding academy.
Q: What an interesting background you have. I take it you’re used to relocating and it doesn’t bother you to travel from show to show?
A: Oh yeah. Not at all. Wherever I go, I make it home.
Q: What else do you want people to know about you?
A: I guess where I am from. My parents are from the West Indies. That’s my heritage. My mom is from St. Lucia and my dad is from St. Maarten. They met and married in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. My grandmother is in St. Croix and my dad’s mom lived in St. Maarten until she passed away. I love that it’s my heritage and where I’m from.
Q:What is an interesting experience you’ve had that people might not expect?
A: I was doing some work with the Atlanta Opera and I was in the chorus of “Porgy and Bess” in 2008-2009. They asked a few of us to come out for a Tyler Perry film. They needed some extras in the background. It was “For Colored Girls.” He was doing the film version of it. I came in with the rest of the cast. They had mentioned to us that they had needed a third principal diva, but I was just there to be an extra. I was really excited about that and just to be on a set. I was just living in the moment. Then this man came up to me and was just looking at me. He said, “How tall are you?” And I said, “I’m 5’2.” And he said, “OK.” Some of the other ladies were talking to me about another experience I had just had. I had just won a vocal competition I’d just walked the red carpet at the Tony Awards.
Q: Which vocal competition did you win?
A: It was called Macy’s Ticket to the Tony’s. It was this fan-inspired vocal competition where you just submitted a video. I did it the last day that you could submit, and I did it on a whim. I got in the top five and they flew me to New York and I won. It was just one of those things that you don’t plan. It just sort of happened.
Q: What song did you sing to win?
Well, they gave you songs and I sang “Maybe” from “Annie.”
Q: Back to Tyler Perry. What happened with that audition?
A: So those women and I were talking about that because it had just happened. Then all of a sudden someone just pulled me over and put me between the two principal divas. And then he looked at me and said, “Congratulations, you’re our new principal.” So I went from an extra to a principal in a matter of seconds. And that’s how I got my SAG eligibility.
Q: Let’s go back now to the beginning of your career. How did you get your start as a performer? You said you moved a lot as a child?
A: Yes, and I was raised Adventist. So you know, it’s encouraged to sing in church and things like that but as far as public performance — we’re like Biblical Jews. From Friday sundown until Saturday sundown is the Sabbath and so you don’t perform during that time. But when I started to attend SCAD, I wanted to do shows. So I got into my first production, which was “The Pirates of Penzance.” I loved it. I fell in love and I decided that this is what I wanted to do. By the time I graduated, I had done six main stage productions. After graduation, the Alliance Theater came and auditioned our graduating class and I booked “Disney’s Aladdin” on their main stage right after I graduated and got my equity status. It was very dreamy.
Q: Was your family supportive of that?
A: Yes. At first, my mom in particular wanted me to think very carefully about that decision. But once I made the decision, she has been 150 percent behind me. She has been so supportive.
Q: That is wonderful. Many people don’t realize what a big deal it is to have a supportive family behind you. Do you agree?
A: It really is. It’s a huge thing.
Q: What are some of your favorite roles that you’ve done?
A: Let’s see. My favorite role was definitely Princess Jasmine. I mean, living my Disney dream. And then after that, I loved being Sarah in “Ragtime.” That was with the Atlanta Lyric Theater. It was a wonderful experience. I loved doing “Porgy and Bess.” I was in the ensemble, but it was just such a wonderful experience. We toured. They did it in Atlanta years before, and then they decided to do a touring production. It was the Atlanta Opera and the Opéra-Comique in France.
Q: Did they take the production to France?
A: Yes. We went to France and Spain and then to Luxembourg.
Q: You have been so fortunate. I saw on your website that you also have other ventures that you’re involved in. You are very mufti-faceted, which I really respect in an artist. What other things do you do?
A: I have my master’s in media design. I did that because I feel very strongly that there’s a real stigma attached to having a Plan B or having secondary source of income — or a first source of income. The older I got, the more I realized that I needed that for me. So I am also a graphic designer and a portrait photographer. I started taking my own headshots because I kept having photographic disasters. I kept meeting with photographers and getting photos back and saying “This is not me.” So I started shooting myself and then expanded my portfolio to friends. I basically shot anyone who would let me shoot them. And then I went back to school and started designing websites. I did design for print and web and marketing collateral. Pretty much anything graphic design related. I am fluent in Adobe Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop.
Q: So what are some of your favorite projects that you’ve done? Do you work mainly for other artists or all over the place?
A: It’s started to expand. Initially, it was for other actors. I did a lot of free stuff just to really get my portfolio going. But I just finished a portfolio website for Camille Friend. Camille Friend is the head hairstylist for Marvel Films, and I did her whole branding concept.
Q: How have you been influenced by your creative communities — both in theater and in design?
A: I get inspired by truth and storytelling. You can see authenticity, and when it’s present it’s truly inspiring. I think my first big moment of “aha” was at SCAD. It was actually my senior year. We got a new musical director and vocal coach whose name is Aaron McAllister. He just came in and kind of revamped my whole way of thinking. He also really helped me find my voice. I don’t really fit into the box. I’m classically trained and then I also have the traditional, I guess you could say, “black girl voice.” You know? So he really just came in and said, “Listen. Let’s find your belt and your belt mix. Let’s help you discover you. And make each role authentically yours. Don’t listen to what’s been done. Find your story in that story.” So he was amazing. He is in New York now. As far as design, I love faces. I love photographing faces. I love eyes. For me, I just get inspired by finding people’s true self through photography and just bringing that out.
Q: OK, tell me about “Sister Act.” Is this the first time you played Deloris?
Q: Did you grow up loving Deloris like I grew up loving Deloris?
A: Yes. Absolutely. I love “Sister Act.” “Sister Act 2” is probably my favorite movie. But yeah. I never thought in a million years that I would play this role. I loved watching it but I just didn’t think it was for me. Then, Shane called me when Springer put it in their season. He said, “I really want to see you for this. I really think you’re perfect for it.” He apparently had been following my career. I didn’t really realize that. He is just so nice.
Q: So what is your favorite thing about the role?
A: I love her audacity. I love how she doesn’t have a filter. There are no boundaries for her. Which, of course, gets her in trouble — but it also helps her to bring out that aspect in other people. Especially the nuns. They are so fun. But yeah, I love her audacity.
Q: Is this your first time wearing a habit? Is that a fair question?
A: (laughing) Yes, that is a fair question! And yes, it’s my first time wearing a habit.
Q: This is your first Springer experience. What are your thoughts?
A: I love it. It has been really nice to get away from Atlanta and delve into a new market. The people are so warm and so welcoming. The theater is beautiful. At night, it’s a little creepy. I’ll be honest. I’m in the housing upstairs.
Q: How’s that going? What’s it like staying upstairs in the Springer Opera House? You know there are rumors. …
A: Yes, I know. Sometimes I think I see something out of the corner of my eye and I’m like “Oh my gosh!” But you know, it’s just such a beautiful space. I try not to tip-toe around at night and just kind of stay with other people in the housing area. Paul Pierce, the artistic director, is such a very nice man. He is so genuine. I mean, I only have good things to say about my experience so far. It’s been wonderful.
Q: What are the challenges of playing Deloris? She’s quite a presence but she’s also got to carry off the persona of a nun? Is that challenging for you?
A: Yes. It’s super fun to play, but it’s completely different from me. I mean, there is of course a drive and audacity to me, but it’s completely separate from Deloris. I mean, I would never wear a purple mini number with high boots up to my thighs. Of course it’s based in the ’70s, but that I just wouldn’t do. I am a bit more conservative in dress and in behavior, but I love that challenge. As actors, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We become the character and really live that character to bring truth to the story. So the challenges there are actually really fun. To make discoveries throughout the rehearsal process and delve into finding Deloris — my Deloris, and not someone else’s version. Of course the range as well. The songs are all over the place. Principal roles are always super challenging when you have back to back songs. So just maintaining vocal health and making sure I know what’s coming next is important.
Q: What about the cast? Tell me about the nuns. Is it fun to be with them?
A: Yes. The comedic timing. … The sisterhood that’s already developed in the two short weeks we’ve been rehearsing… I mean, it’s a really great group of women, and a really talented group of women. The principal nuns: Mary Patrick, Mary Robert, and Mary Lazarus — ah, they’re just dreamy. And Mother Superior is Christy Baggett. She and I actually did Ragtime together, and last Christmas we did “Little Princess” together in Atlanta. I love working with her. She is a phenomenal performer. It’s just super fun.It also got super emotional the other night when we got to the scene where Mother Superior tells the nuns that Deloris is not Sister Mary Clarence, she’s Deloris. Deloris tells them her story about how she witnessed a murder and everything. It was our first time we running and the first time blocking it, but the emotions just got so real. One of the young ladies said, “This is my first time working in a cast where I just love everyone so much already.” That real emotion was a beautiful moment. The story is already present. And it was just that fast. It doesn’t always happen that way. It was really magical.
Name: Jeanette Illidge
Formal Education: Bachelor’s of fine arts in performing arts from Savannah College of Art and Design and master’s of fine arts in media design from Full Sail University
Hometown: Born in Lawton, Okla., but moved around a lot with the military.
Family: Father, mother and an older sister.
If you go
What: “Sister Act”
When: Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22-24, 29-30, Oct. 1, 6-8; 2:30 p.m. Oct. 2 and 9.
Where: Mainstage, Springer Opera House, 103 10th St.