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Curtain Call: Renee Hewitt got the acting bug looking for an easy ‘A’ in English

Renee Hewitt in an Oregon Cabaret Theatre production of "Steel Magnolias in 2020, a run cut short by COVID-19.

Looking for an easy “A” English class (she hated diagramming sentences), Renee Hewitt signed up for drama in her junior year of high school. And she was hooked.

Nearly 40 years later, she treads the boards regularly on Rogue Valley stages. She has worked for the Camelot Theatre, Ashland Contemporary Theatre, Livia Genise Productions, Collaborative Theatre Project and Rogue Theater Company.

She’s currently appearing in “Poirot, Murder on the Links,” which opened last week at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland. Based on Agatha Christie’s mystery, “Murder on the Links,” and adapted by Cabaret co-owner Rick Robinson, it features the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who arrives in France to find his client brutally murdered and lying face down in a shallow grave on a golf course.

“I play three characters,” Hewitt said: “Madame Renauld, who is married to the victim, and the mysterious Madames Daubreuil and Beroldy, whom Poirot considers suspects.”

The dinner theater show runs through Nov. 7. More information and tickets are available at oregoncabaret.com.

Besides introducing her to an art that would become her profession, high school drama also introduced her to a boy who would become her husband.

“I met Jeff my senior year while playing the hussy in ‘Godspell,’” Hewitt said. “He was new in town, so my friends brought him to the play. A couple weeks later, we had our first date. And the rest is history.”

Hewitt was a singer before she was an actor and performs professionally in that arena as well. She has been featured in several “Spotlight” productions at the Camelot which showcase famous singers and composers.

She sang tenor all through high school, but that changed to alto later on. Until she found a voice teacher, that is.

“She told me I was a high soprano and I almost laughed! But, sure enough, she was right,” Hewitt said. “When I’m in vocal shape, my range is E or F3 to D6, almost three octaves.”

She’s been in Rogue Valley performing arts since 2003, playing Nancy that year in Camelot’s production of the musical, “Oliver.”

She considers herself an actress first, then a singer.

“They fulfill me in different ways,” she said. “You’re never as exposed and vulnerable as you are when you’re singing. But with acting, I get to go deep int the psyche of a character — and learn. Acting gives me compassion for people I haven’t understood until I’ve played them, which gives me insight into everyday life. It’s made me less judgmental.”

She tried her hand at directing when Livia Genise asked her to take the helm for “Les Miserables” at Camelot in 2014.

“It was terrifying to think about being the one in charge,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt’s mindset was, “Don’t ask me what I think, just tell me what to do.” Making a choice could lead to failure. Directing “Les Mis” could be fraught with wrong choices. But that was a cop-out.

“It was a painful and illuminating realization,” she said. So, she accepted the assignment.

“It forced me to trust my training, my instincts, and the people around me. And ‘Les Mis’ was the perfect redemptive story for me to dive into.”

The project was successful and satisfying. It gave her an appreciation for the collaborative aspects of theater.

“I never could have done it without sound, lights, costumes, set design, the run crew, stage manager, the actors and the support of Livia. I absolutely love that you can’t create theater by yourself.”

Hewitt, 56, lives in Jacksonville. She was born and raised in San Jose, California, in a household where music and art ruled.

“My mom sang in choirs and was always singing around the house,” Hewitt said. “There was always music playing: jazz on the radio, or albums of Seals & Crofts, Santana, Brasil 66, Carly Simon, Kenny Rankin and James Taylor on the record player.” Her dad, a retired Santa Clara firefighter, is an artist and photographer.

In addition to singing and acting, Hewitt has also enjoyed competitive swimming and cycling. “In 1976, my dad and I went on a 500-mile bike ride from Missoula to Jackson Hole.”

She’s acted in both dramas and musicals, but there are several dream roles still on her bucket list: Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd,” Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Witch or Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods,” and Lady Macbeth.

An unexpected development during the pandemic has her thinking differently about her career. She met Broadway actor Ramona Mallory. She was in town in early 2020 with her parents, Broadway actors Mark Lambert and Victoria Mallory, who were considering a move to Ashland.

“I was the director of education at the Camelot Theatre at the time and Victoria was interested in teaching,” Hewitt said.

Covid changed the parents’ plans, but Ramona Mallory helped Hewitt get that summer’s Camelot Conservatory online and was one of the teachers.

After hearing Hewitt do a monologue from “Sophie’s Choice,” Mallory asked for a meeting. She had a question: “Why aren’t you in New York?”

“I was stunned,” Hewitt said. “She said if I ever decide to go for it, let her know and she’d do everything she could to help me.”

That encounter opened the door to considering new opportunities.

“My boys are out of the home and my husband works from home, so if I were working out of state, he could be with me much of the time,” Hewitt said.

“It feels strange at my age to ‘go for it,’ but I’ve been getting a lot of encouragement, and not just from Ramona. So — I’m going for it!”

That means putting herself out there, getting a rep in Portland or Seattle, and then maybe one in New York. It also means auditioning for roles all over the country, not just locally.

Who knows? She may fulfill that bucket list sooner than later.

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