Curtain Call: ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ piano lessons at 3 propelled Gwen Overland to the arts
When Gwen Overland was growing up in Tacoma, her mom took her to see many children’s theater plays at Pacific Lutheran University.
“My absolute favorite was ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ who would always appear on stage and exit via a trap door in a puff of smoke,” she said.
Seeing that bit of stage magic might have been what helped propel Overland toward a life in the arts. But being raised by very creative parents certainly had something to do with it as well. It’s in her DNA.
“My mom loved opera and ballroom dancing,” she said, “and my dad had a brilliant wit and great jazz chops. He was a trombonist and headed up his own dance band.”
Currently, Overland is in rehearsal for “Camelot,” the musical, slated to run Feb.16 through March 13 at the Camelot Theatre in Talent. She’s directing the epic masterpiece that triumphed on Broadway, had numerous revivals around the world and, as a film, was a box office hit.
Overland got an early start in the arts. She started taking piano lessons from her dad at age 3 and began acting in middle school.
She says she knew at an early age that she would be an actress, a stage director, and a college teacher.
In college, it was mainly about the performing arts for Overland. She received bachelor and master of music performance degrees at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, with a double major in piano and voice. She earned an MFA in theater acting from the University of California, Irvine, and a PhD in Theater arts from UCLA.
She also holds an MA and PhD (all but dissertation) in clinical psychology from Meridian University in Petaluma, Calif.
Her first job out of college was teaching part time at Mission Viejo Community College.
“That was perfect at the time,” she said, “since I had moved to L.A. and wanted to pursue an acting, directing and musical career.”
In the intervening years, she acted on stage and television, performed on the piano, wrote books, and taught college classes.
Her most recent performance as an actor was as Kate Keller in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” at the Camelot theatre. She wrote and performed as Mae West in the Camelot’s Spotlight series. She also did musical direction for several of the theater’s Spotlights — Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Judy Garland, The Mamas and the Papas, and Glen Campbell.
During her LA years, one of her jobs was as a studio pianist at a recording studio. She still plays today, but for her own enjoyment.
“One of my favorite acting memories in LA was playing a hairstylist by the name of Sara Lee Turnover in ‘Cheatin’,’ an original play by Del Shores.” It was the first play written by the American director, producer and actor, whose best-known play is probably “Sordid Lives.”
Her writing started out connected to her work in higher education — academic essays, journal articles, dissertations and the like.
“I also self-published a nonfiction book, ‘Soul of Voice,’ which describes what I do, coaching singers,” she said.
She came to Ashland in 1994. “I wanted to raise my 3-year-old son in a safe and loving place,” she said. “I also wanted to be in a place where I could work in the arts as well as in the university setting.
She taught psychology at Rogue Community College for 11 years, retiring in 2020. Before that, she taught freshman English and some film and theater courses at SOU for nine years.
She has worked as stage director at Oregon Cabaret Theatre, Collaborative Theatre Project, the SOU theater department, and Camelot.
She first started writing fiction in 2018.
“I write contemporary romance under the name Gwen Overland, and cozy mysteries under my grandmother’s name, Cunigunda Valentine,” she said.
“These were the genres my mother, who passed away in 2012, loved the most. And since she was an avid reader, in order to have a deep conversation with her and not having it be about family junk or medical issues, I started reading the same books.”
After her mother’s death, she made a promise to herself to try writing in the same genres.
“It was a way of honoring and remembering her and our best adult moments together.”
Her first fiction was published by Soulmate Publishing in 2018, and last June they published her third novel in that series. She self-publishes the mysteries.
She enjoys writing her romance series, “Salmon Run,” because the stories take place in her native state, in the verdant locales of northwest Washington.
“I also find it highly therapeutic to write about love, redemption, and moving through the grief process,” she said.
“My ‘Millicent Winthrop’ series is fun, sweet, quirky, and for some reason I identify with the main character more than I’d like to admit.”
She is contracted to write five new books for two new series in the next year.
“And although I have nothing slated for stage direction or acting,” she said, “I’m open to whatever may come my way.
Meanwhile, she is enjoying helping bring “Camelot” to the stage in Talent.
The music is the same as in the original production and will be performed with a live, eight-piece orchestra. However, the storytelling has been modified a bit.
“The story is told by a group of seven revelers, enacting certain moments in the King Arthur legend,” she said. “Early on, when working on the script, I had to ask myself, who tells this story today? And is it still a viable story to tell to today’s audience?”
Overland got to thinking about the fires and how the story could relate to those who are still working hard to put things back together.
“The themes of love, forgiveness, community, and choosing peace over war are just as important as ever,” she said. “So, I made the revelers into a group of fabricators who want to tell the story as much for themselves as for their audience.”
Featured in the production are Alex Boyles as Arthur, Kelly Jean Hammond as Guinevere, and Trevor Pekas as Lancelot.
“So far, rehearsals have been hard work, but fun,” she said. “We have a super cast and crew.”
Tickets, $20-$30, are available at camelotthatre.org.
Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org.