October 10, 2003
When told the subject of this article would be performers persevering after health crises, cabaret performer Deborah Downey laughed a little. "Well, I'm perfect then. I just got out of the hospital a week ago, and I'm doing a show on the 16th of October." The show is Here's To Life, a concert performance combined with the release of her first solo CD. The title is somewhat bittersweet; she happens to mention in an upbeat tone that just 15 days earlier she was unable to walk.
Downey began singing and performing at the age of 9 in her native Chicago and was only 15 when she moved to California to pursue voice lessons with well-known vocal instructor Florence Russell. She had worked regularly in theatre and television, appearing in programs as varied as Knots Landing and Scared Straight, Another Story. But around 1989 she noticed she was having difficulty walking. "My gait was off," she recalled. "It hadn't impacted my life much, but occasionally I'd look like I'd had a couple of martinis." Soon the UCLA Medical Center diagnosed it as multiple sclerosis. "They told me to just go live my life," she recalled.
Living her life as normally as possible soon proved harder than she had imagined. Downey was appearing in The Blue Dahlia at the Coronet Theatre, in which she played 11 different characters with countless costume and wig changes. "I found I was becoming less and less stable on my feet, which is where most performers keep their energy, and that was unnerving," she said. Perhaps worst of all, her confidence as a performer was hampered. "When I was officially diagnosed, I stopped auditioning for things. I was 34 years old and already thinking that when you hit 35, there are already a lot fewer roles for women. So the fact that the MS was starting up and the roles were getting further and fewer between, I sort of went into a place where I wasn't thinking about acting so much."
A friend recommended Downey look into the cabaret world, something the longtime singer had never considered. She began taking classes from Karen Benjamin, an established teacher who is also married to frequent cabaret performer Alan Chapman. Through them, she made a valuable contact in Todd Schroeder, her frequent musical director. "He's directed almost all of my shows since I started cabaret three years ago," enthused Downey. "He's taught me everything I need to know."
With cabaret, she soon discovered she had an outlet for performing in which she could define her own rules. During her first year, she did a new show almost every month. "What's wonderful about it is, it blends my acting and my singing and I don't have to run all over the place," she noted. "I tell stories about myself--I tell on myself. That's what's so fabulous about cabaret; you really get to take material and make it your own."
Downey has become such a fan of cabaret that she hopes to encourage other performers. She is taking over the Circle Theatre, which is being renamed the Deborah Downey Theatre, and she will serve as its managing director in addition to performing her own shows. "I'm very much into supporting my fellow actors, singers, and comedians and giving them a place where they can do their thing," she said.
Many of her stories involve her struggle with MS. "I've never been one to hold secrets. My life's an open book," she said, before adding that her show is not strictly about the disease. "I talk about the MS, but my whole thing is to not be defined by my MS--to get over myself. My attitude basically is, You have brown eyes, I have MS, so what did you want to talk about?"
She admitted she wasn't always so positive. "I think, initially, in
the first year, I thought I would have to give up performing. I'm human,
and I had a couple of blue days, and it was very daunting." But one mantra
has kept her going. "My attitude has always been to expect a miracle every
day," she said. "I have a five-story house in Marina Del Rey, and everyone
says, 'Did you have MS when you built that house?' When I say, 'Yes,' they
say I must have been pretty optimistic. But whatever age you are, there's
going to be health issues. I just happened to be kind of young when it
hit, and you don't have to be defined by it."
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