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Struggling actor works three jobs, is optimistic about post-pandemic

When Hazel James isn’t working at TreeHouse Books in Ashland, she might be hosting and busing tables at the Brickroom restaurant, or working as an educational assistant at a local elementary school.

Such is the life of a struggling young actor in COVID times.

“All I’ve ever really known is balancing life outside of theater with theater,” she said. Suddenly, with onset of the pandemic, all she had was the “life outside theater” component, and everything changed.

She had been experiencing a dry spell before COVID-19 hit, but still focused much of her energy on getting resumes and headshots out into the world and trying to figure out whom to contact to try to get roles.

“Then theaters closed and there wasn’t a need for all that game-planning,” she said. “There’s a big difference in live theater being an impossibility versus not having been cast in anything for a while. But I absolutely still have hope for theater. There has never been a question of that for me.”

James was born in San Francisco. Her family moved to Ashland when she was less than a year old.

“I’m thankful I grew up here,” she said, “with nature and Shakespeare.”

But she loves the city. She likes to walk fast, talk loudly, and finds a certain kind of peace in the bustle of a big city. That’s why eventually she’d like to relocate to New York City.

She caught the acting bug early on. One of the first plays she remembers seeing was a production of “Taming of the Shrew” at OSF’s Elizabethan Theatre.

“My grandmother took me,” she said. “I was maybe 6 years old. It was a cool night, and I was underneath blankets. I became so immersed in the play that I forgot about the cold.”

Looking back, she’s not sure if she really understood what was going on, but the sounds of the words and what was happening between the actors captivated her.

Not long after that, she saw a production of “Annie” at Camelot Theatre.

“The actors in that show weren’t that much older than I was,” she said. “I realized that kids could do theater, too. I remember thinking, I want to do that!”

Her first time onstage, in fact, was at Camelot Theatre.

“I had an abundance of energy as a kid that my parents didn’t really know what to do with,” she said.

“I grew up playing softball as part of a sports-oriented family. It was a great physical challenge, but my mind and imagination were not challenged enough. So, my parents enrolled me in the summer conservatory program at Camelot.”

She found herself in her element. The mornings were spent on dance, voice and acting classes; the afternoons on show rehearsals.

The show that year was “Honk! JR.” Based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Ugly Duckling,” “Honk!” tells the story of an odd-looking baby duck and his quest to find his mother. Soon after Ugly is born, he is seduced away by a wily cat who wants to eat Ugly for dinner.

“I played the Evil Cat,” James said. “I was always a do-gooder, so playing the antagonist was exciting.”

She was so full of jitters and butterflies just before the opening performance that she considered fleeing out the back door. But she pulled herself together and stepped out onstage.

“It was like something took over,” she said, “something powerful and magical. That was the moment I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

She attended Ashland High School and became involved in the theater program there. She says she learned a lot from AHS theater instructor Betsy Bishop and from the many OSF mentors who taught seminars and directed.

A ground-breaking experience for the young actor was attending the OSF summer seminar for high school juniors, which was instrumental in propelling her to study theater after high school.

After graduating from AHS, she attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles, where she completed a two-year course, followed by a third year as part of the school’s acting company.

One of the roles she played while at AADA was in “A Lie of the Mind” by Sam Shepard, the story of two families after a severe incident of spousal abuse leaves all their lives altered.

“I played Beth, a young woman in an abusive marriage who sustained extreme physical, mental and emotional damage,” she said.

“I might sound masochistic to say this was one of my favorite roles, but I learned so much about myself and my relationship to acting. And I gained a deeper understanding and empathy for survivors.”

Apart from the internal work for the role was the physical work, which she found challenging.

“Beth was one of the most grueling, exhausting characters I’ve played, and also one of the most special to me.”

Her all-time favorite role was as Anne Frank, which she has played three times, most recently with Medford’s Collaborative Theatre Project in 2018.

“I’ve always had a connection to World War II — intellectually, emotionally and spiritually,” James said. “I’ve had a passion for Holocaust education. When I read Anne’s diary, I felt immediate companionship with this girl. I had a deep, haunting ache for her story and how it ended.”

On her bucket list, she has several roles she’d like to play. It’s an eclectic list of characters.

“I would like to play Wednesday Addams in ‘The Addams Family Musical,’ Eurydice in ‘Hadestown,’ Anastasia in ‘Anastasia the Musical,’ Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Cunningham in ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,’ the Fool in ‘King Lear,’ and Elphaba in ‘Wicked.’ And any of the women in ‘Into the Woods.’” Just to name a few, she said.

The stage will always be her first love, but she’d like to do film and television as well.

“I’m especially interested in doing independent films that address issues and tell stories that haven’t really been told,” she said. “I’d also like to write for film and direct both film and theater.”

Where does she see herself in 10 years?

“I see myself living either on the East Coast or abroad,” she said. “I’d like to be working on projects that reflect my interests in equity, racial and social justice, historical education and empathy.”

She hopes to be writing, directing, producing and acting in plays and films that make a difference, “works that have a potential for being conduits of positive change in the world.”

Meanwhile, she pays the bills by working three jobs and is optimistic about more opportunities opening up for her in theater as the pandemic subsides and then finally fades away.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.