by Lorie Lewis Ham
With theatre still on pause, which of course means no shows to review, KRL has been interviewing some local actors. This week we chatted with Visalia actor and director Nancy (Pollard) Holley who is a part of the Visalia Players. Nancy has had a long and varied career full of interesting stories.
KRL: Are you from Visalia? If not, where are you from and how did you end up here?
Nancy: No. My home town is Martinsville, IL. Actually, I came to Tulare first in 1971 with my ex-husband. We had harness horses at the fairgrounds. I fell in love with the area. In those days, you could see the mountains every day, and it was gorgeous. After my divorce, I decided to come back, and spent 1972-1979 in Visalia working for the County. Over the years after I left, I came back for visits at least once and sometimes twice a year, maintaining friendships I had made. When I was nearing retirement, I decided I wanted to retire here and moved back to Visalia in 2003. Now I’m here for the duration!
KRL: Current day job? And other jobs you have had?
Nancy: I’m retired now, but my work life was long and varied. For the first 20 years, I took whatever job I wanted and stayed in it as long as it interested and/or supported me. I was a secretary, an insurance marketing administrator, a management trainee, an analyst for Tulare County (the first female analyst by the way), and a Community College Teacher. In 1984, it occurred to me that I hadn’t constructed a very good retirement plan (in fact, none at all). For the next 26 years, I worked for software firms managing documentation and quality assurance departments, and for the last 20 years was a traveling consultant to insurance companies supporting training and modifications of software systems.
KRL: Schools attended?
Nancy: I attended elementary and high school in Martinsville, IL, but after that my educational career, much like my business career, came at me in fits and starts, based on what I wanted to do at the time.
Being from the middle of nowhere in IL, deciding which college to attend was a big deal. Between my junior and senior years of high school, my mother and I went to LA where I looked at the possibilities of UCLA and Pasadena Playhouse. I wanted to do the latter in the worst way, given my early love of theatre, but I had little confidence in my ability to succeed. During Christmas break of my senior year, my mother and I went to Florida where I examined the possibilities of Rollins College. Trusting my intellect more than my creative abilities, I chose Rollins over Pasadena Playhouse.
Once at college in Winter Park, Florida, I learned to my dismay that Rollins was a private school to which rich kids went who didn’t have the scholarship to get into Ivy League Schools, but still had an enriched private school back ground, against which my public-school education in a very rural area was only a dim glimmer. Examples: My chemistry lab partner was Cary Kresge as in K-mart, Circle K, etc. (although I was the one providing the passing lab results). My big sister at the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority was Francie Heinz as in Heinz Ketchup (we won the Big-Little Sister scholastic award based on my grades), and one of my fellow actors was Peter Kellogg of the cereal folks! He subsequently went to England and became a successful Shakspearian actor.
I managed to survive (based on my scholastic abilities), but decided Rollins was not the life for me and spent my sophomore year at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, IL. Toward the end of that year (in those days education and dress were very strict), I was told that I had to select a major before entering my junior year. Having no idea what I wanted to be or do, I chose to quit and go to Chicago for my first job and living on my own. My mother was not pleased to have an honor student drop-out as a daughter. “Get that piece of paper and then go seek your fortune” was her motto.
For eight years, I did what I wanted, went where I wanted, and thought as little about school as possible. I learned that I was the type of student who was very good at figuring out what the teacher wanted to know and thus, could ace tests with no problem. However, the result was that in the end I knew far less than my brother who made average grades, but learned, remembered, and applied. He was the real scholar.
In 1972, I went to work for Tulare County as an analyst. My boss at the time, Dave Ogden, thought it ridiculous (and stupid) that I didn’t have a college degree. I explained to him my issue with learning and that I just could not go back into a regular class room and end up “knowing nothing.” Within no time (it seemed to me), he threw a brochure on my desk and said “no more excuses.”
The brochure was for a Master’s Degree Program in Public Administration being sponsored by the California Consortium of Colleges and Universities. It was an experimental program. Their big push was that they would accept individuals into the program who didn’t have a bachelor’s degree, if they had work experience, which, when added to whatever higher education they had, could qualify them for the program. Dave was sure I would qualify. The draw for me was that the classes were going to be held at the County on weekends, and that the classes would be taught in such a manner as to encourage creativity and collaboration (both VERY experimental in the early ‘70s).
I applied and “in theory” was accepted. What bothered me a bit was that although I was enrolled and participating in classes, I had never received any “official” document saying I was IN the program. However, I decided that was probably just an oversight and continued my work. After the first semester when I made an A in both classes, I received my official acceptance documents! I later learned via organizers of the program, that my application had been carried around in the brief case of the head of the program until I made the As, proving I was qualified for the program. It appears I was one of a few (if not the only) who had applied to the program without a bachelor’s degree!
After graduating with an MPA in 1977, I never wanted to “study” again. Nevertheless, while I was teaching community college in the early ‘80s, I started to feel “stale” (it’s the only way I know to describe how I felt). I was lunching one day with the College’s counselor who instructed students on higher education, and I mentioned this to her. I told her about my learning issues and explained that If I could find a doctorate program that was flexible and creative like my master’s program, I might be interested.
Once again, fate was on my side. A couple of days later she brought me a brochure from The Fielding Institute based in Santa Barbara, CA. The program was very expensive, but it sounded perfect to me. It was a distance learning program (basically unheard of in the ‘80s) with semi-annual sessions in Santa Barbara that one was encouraged to attend, but not required, AND the student negotiated what he/she wanted to learn in the various knowledge areas, as well as how it was to be learned. Perfect!
The catch? One had to go to Santa Barbara for an “orientation” session. At the end of that week, you would be told whether or not you were accepted into the program. It was an eye-opening experience. Once again, I was really out of my element, but decided to persevere, and I’m convinced that my experience in the theatre is what pulled me through. Multiple presentations were required where my acting skills proved extremely useful!
I began the program in 1983, and through 1986 managed to complete half of the knowledge areas, but the program was so expensive that I had to withdraw. In the meantime, I had changed jobs (now working for a software firm) and was making too much money to get student loans and not enough money to pay the tuition on my own. I tried to get help from my company (many Fielding students were being given a free ride by their companies), but was unsuccessful.
However, I kept in touch with the school and hoped to be able to return. In the fall of 1990, I was told that if I didn’t re-enroll by January, 1991, I would lose the credits I had already earned and would have to start over. I re-enrolled and prayed for a way to pay the tuition. I tried once more to get help from my company going a different route, and this time was successful. It wasn’t a full ride by any stretch of the imagination, but it was enough so that I could manage. I graduated from Fielding in 1994 with a Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems.
Oh, I forgot to mention that while I was teaching at the community college, I got an AA in performing arts. Theatre was never far away.
KRL: When did you first get involved in acting and why?
Nancy: I started in grade school. I guess it is in my blood. I have a playbill from 1904 for The Old Maid’s Return: A Farcial [sic] Entertainment, including the cast of characters. I am related in one way or another to a number of the cast members including two great-grandmothers and a great-grandfather! ?
KRL: What was your first part?
Nancy: At age six, in a school production, I played the farmer’s daughter in The Early Bird Catches the Worm.
KRL: What are some of the shows you have been in, parts you have played, and with what companies?
Nancy: As you can imagine, beginning early and loving it, I was in numerous productions throughout grade school, high school, and college, but my major accomplishments thereafter were in three locations: Springfield, IL, Robinson, IL, and Visalia, CA.
In Springfield, I was a member of the Theatre Guild and the Municipal Opera. At Muni, I had minor roles in The Pajama Game, Brigadoon, and Camelot. My major roles were with the Theatre Guild—some more successful than others in the opinion of some of the reviewers. My two favorites are worth a mention.
The first is Lo and Behold, a play I almost missed because of a serious illness. I had just recovered, and the lady who had the part I had wanted fell and broke her arm. I was asked to do the part three days before opening. It was quite a challenge, but I loved the part. I played Minnetonka Smallflower, a ghost. The following from the play’s review says it all:
But the blithest spirit of them all is Nancy Pollard, whose Minnetonka Smallflower, the Indian maiden pushed off Lover’s Leap, easily steals the show. Perhaps the playwright John Patrick really gave her the funniest lines in the play or maybe it just seems that way, but she doesn’t miss a chance to make heap big comedy of every one of them.
The second satisfied the first of my theatrical goals. I had early on set my sights on having an ingénue lead, a dramatic lead, and a musical lead. I had decided that once I achieved those goals everything else would be gravy.Barefoot in the Park was on the Guild’s season in 1968. I was determined to play the part of Corie, but I knew that without a tall leading man I had no chance. When I went to auditions, I looked around the room searching for a tall man, hoping against hope that there would be one. Then I spotted him.
Across the room was a man I had never met, but I knew would be perfect if he would audition with me. I walked over to him and said, “Hi! Will you audition with me?” Rather surprised he asked, “Why?” I replied, “Because you are the only man in the room tall enough for me to be Corie, and I really want the part.” He laughed and said, “Sure. I’m Gary.” Relieved, I replied, “I’m Nancy.”
We were cast and I was thrilled. The show was well received with a review that began:
With Barefoot in the Park, the Springfield Theatre Guild and director Sara Feuer, may have presented the funniest, slickest and all round most professional and thoroughly entertaining play the local group has ever done.
In Visalia, in the 1970s, the Visalia Players were my life outside of work. I did everything from working backstage, to making costumes, to acting, and even renovating the Ice House into the theatre it is today.
My favorite roles were Maggie in The Man Who Came to Dinner and Julie in The Royal Family. In the former, I had the pleasure of working with Ron Liden and Jana Ridenour among others, but the latter was very special.
With the role of Julie, I achieved the second of my theatrical goals: a dramatic lead. The play is about the Barrymore family, and Julie is the character who represents Ethel Barrymore. The reviewer at the time commented:
Miss Holley had the lead role of Julie Cavendish…Glamorous in the slinky clothing of the period, Miss Holley depicted the beauty who cannot give up the adulation she has known all her adult life as an actress.
I had a gorgeous dress designed and made by John Leffingwell, who portrayed the character representing the John Barrymore role.
In the early ‘80s, at Lincoln Trail Community College, in Robinson, IL, I achieved my third theatrical goal, while receiving my AA in Performing Arts. I was involved in a number of productions at the college, but when I learned that Mame was to be the musical for the year, I went into high gear.
At the time, I was singing in the college choir and the madrigal chamber group, but I thought that wasn’t enough to win at tryouts. I began to take private voice lessons. I knew that Mame would require dancing as well, so dancing lessons prior to auditions were also on the schedule.
When I was cast, I was ecstatic! I had numerous costume and wig changes which were a challenge, but I had a young cousin as a dresser who was spectacular. The lessons of both kinds paid off and the show was a success.
My one real surprise once we got going was how vulnerable I felt “out in front.” In all my previous musicals, I had been in the chorus or at least an ensemble and always in the back because of my height, but not this time. I was the leader of the pack! It was thrilling and scary at the same time.
After Mame, I figured that any theatre I got to do would be gravy, and gratefully, I have had lots of gravy.Once I started working for software firms, my ability to do theatre was limited as I was on the road most of the time. Directors frown on actors missing rehearsals. I was able to do a melodrama version of Sweeny Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre in Dallas, but then had a 20-year hiatus.
Once I returned to Visalia in 2003, I was able to return to my first love: the theatre. In the last 17 years, I have been involved with many productions and have been honored by winning two Lizzies: Best Actress in 2007-08 for Dancers, and best Supporting Actress in 2014-15 for Other Desert Cities.
I have had two special opportunities that I never dreamed would come to me. First, in 2012, I had the privilege of being in a two-person show, The Gin Game, with Donny Graham. To play the role made famous by Jessica Tandy was an honor. Donny and I had such fun, and from all reports, the audience did as well.
Then in 2017, Director Irene Morse gave me the opportunity of a life time: a one woman show! The Amish Project gave me the opportunity to stretch my acting abilities. I was to portray seven characters: two men, two women, two teenagers, and a child. It was indeed challenging! The audience responses lead me to believe that I was successful.
KRL: When did you first get involved in directing, why and how?
Nancy: My first directing experiences occurred when I was involved with the Springfield Theatre Guild. One of my fellow actors was a drama instructor in a small town outside of Springfield, and he asked me to help direct Bye-Bye Birdie at his school. Shortly thereafter, the Guild wanted to start a children’s theatre program, and I volunteered to help. I was asked to direct a children’s production of Alice in Wonderland, which was a challenging experience.
Then in the 1970s, I was the assistant director for Gypsy, the opening show at the Ice House (my consolation prize for not getting cast as Mama Rose!) and the musical director for You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown a few years later.
KRL: What was the first show you directed?
Nancy: My first solo directing effort was The Diary of Anne Frank at the Ice House in 2008, for which we did three special performances in addition to our normal nine-show run. Since then, I have directed, assisted directed, and been music director for a number of shows. My favorite directorial efforts other than Diary have been To Kill a Mockingbird and Outgoing Tide.
My most recent directorial effort has been curtailed by COVID-19. My production of 20th Century Blues was scheduled to open in March, 2020, just as the state was shut down. We are hopeful that we will be able to present the play with the same cast and crew in March of 2021. It is a wonderful play, and I have an extraordinary cast.
KRL: Do you have a favorite type of show, both to be in, and to direct?
Nancy: From both an acting and directing perspective, I like shows that have a message and are challenging theatrically. Shows that make the audience think, laugh, and grow. Unfortunately, the shows I enjoy do not draw large audiences in Visalia, so they have to be spaced out with shows that help the Players make money so the organization can remain viable.
KRL: What do you like best about acting/directing?
Nancy: With acting my favorite part is the challenge of becoming the character. I never want anyone to say “oh that was just Nancy”. I want them to believe that I am the character I am portraying and see beyond me to the essence of the play.
With directing, it is bringing the play alive, helping the actors grow into their characters. Creating a living, breathing experience that enfolds the audience.
KRL: What is the hardest?
Nancy: The hardest things about acting and directing are ensuring the actions and results that I like best come to fruition. (See question, What do you like best about acting/singing/directing? above)
Nancy: I have always admired Katharine Hepburn and Angela Lansbury. Both are incredible actors. I have always been impressed by Lansbury’s versatility and ability to reinvent herself as she aged (e.g. the success of Murder She Wrote).
KRL: What do you feel has helped you the most in growing as an actor and director?
Nancy: Time and experience. One cannot become a better actor or director without continuous opportunities to improve your craft. I have been fortunate to have options for different experiences in both over the years.
KRL: What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into acting?
Nancy: Remain positive! Auditions can be daunting and humiliating. I know of no worse personal feeling than wanting a role desperately and being turned down. It is even unpleasant to not be cast in the smallest of roles, even those you didn’t really care about. But you have to keep trying, hanging around and doing supporting tasks can often open doors.
My favorite story in that regard is from the University of Illinois in the early ‘60s. Gypsy was the spring musical and I was desperate to be part of it. As you can well imagine with a school that size, there were many aspiring young women. To even be considered for the chorus, you had to participate in singing and dancing auditions. There were literally dozens of us filling the rehearsal hall on the day of tryouts.
For me the dancing auditions were the most daunting since I had had little instruction or experience. My father thought dancing lessons were a waste of money, so my mother would enroll me, and I would have a few weeks of lessons until he found out and then I would have to quit. This happened multiple times when I was young.
But back to the real story. I managed to pass the singing and dancing auditions and was cast as one the Minsky Girls (probably because in those days I was tall and thin). Never mind why; I was in. But walking down a stair case in the final scene was not my idea of “participating.” So, I decided to spend time at rehearsals. I would go and sit and study. Once in a while one of the directors would say, we need “X” is anyone available? And there I would be!
By the time the show opened, I had six costume changes, was in scenes from beginning to end, and had one line: “Gladys!” I was very proud, and the other Minsky Girls were very jealous. They wanted to know how I got all those parts. I said, “Just being willing to hang around!”
KRL: What is your dream role? Dream show to direct?
Nancy: As I have said before, roles I get now are gravy, and of course as I get older, there are fewer and fewer appropriate roles. But there are two for which I believe I am age appropriate, and I hope to be able to do one day: On Golden Pond and The Lion in Winter—both Hepburn roles.
As for directing, a number of years ago I saw my first August Wilson play and fell in love with his work. Wilson wrote a canon of 10 plays, one for each decade in the 20th century, about the Black experience in America. I would love to direct his plays. The major problem, of course, is that the majority of the roles in his plays require Black actors, which are not plentiful in the area.
I have been attempting for years to lure Black actors to the Visalia Players. Just when I think that I may have something going, there is always a snag. Nevertheless, I am hanging on to my dream, and maybe one of these days, it will come to fruition.
KRL: Is it hard balancing a job and acting/directing?
Nancy: I no longer have that issue, but looking back, I’m not certain where I found the time or the energy. But when something is important to you, you make the time and the effort.
KRL: When did you first get involved with the Visalia Players?
Nancy: The 1970s as indicated above, and then during the 20+ years that I was elsewhere, I retained my membership, getting the newsletter when there was one, and seeing shows when I visited if there was anything on the boards. Thus, I felt as if I never really left.
KRL: What is your role with them?
Nancy: These days I’m responsible for membership, sending tax letters to our donors, and helping maintain our on-line ticketing database. I volunteer in the box office and monitor the phone reservation line whenever necessary. I am also frequently involved with proofing our season brochures since that information has to be included in the database.
Nancy: Other than theatre, when there isn’t a pandemic, I play duplicate bridge three to four times a week, and a couple of years ago I took classes to become a Braille transcriber. Thus, I spend some time most days transcribing material into Braille and proofing the work of other transcribers.
If you love local theatre, be sure to check out our new Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors. You can check the podcast out on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts, and also on podbean.