By Bill Wolcott<br><a href="mailto:email@example.com">E-mail Bill</a>
Debra Cole, a 46-year-old native of Buffalo, spent years on and off Broadway as an actor, but an illness she kept secret for years has brought her back to the Niagara Frontier where she gives acting classes for These Working Actors.
Her career has included doing voice-overs, performing on Broadway, the Lincoln Center, television and soap operas. She taught performance in New York City and worked as Artistic Director at the Smith Opera House.
Cole founded These Working Actors in Buffalo and has moved classes at the Second Presbyterian Church on Van Buren Street in Lockport. The classes are held Sundays from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.
Cole began acting as a teenager in Buffalo and received the Jane Keeler Scholarship while a student at St. Joseph’s Academy. Keeler was the founder of Studio Arena Theatre. Cole received a scholarship to the New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
She has worked with James Earl Jones and Mario Van Peebles on Arts and Entertainment Network and with Kevin Bacon on a soap opera. Her soap opera appearances include “Guiding Light,” “As the World Turns” and “Ryan’s Hope.”
At 46, Cole has progressive multiple sclerosis and now lives Lockport with her significant other, Mike Marion. She is house-sitting and dog-sitting for a friend who is going to medical school in the Netherlands.
“I never expected to fall in love with a guy from Buffalo,” she said. “I left Buffalo when I was a 17-year-old and I would have bet you $5 million I’m never coming back ... I’m starting a whole new round. If people are interested, they should call.” (717-2649)
Question: Why did These Working Actors relocate to Lockport?
Answer: Lockport is kind of fertile ground. There are a lot of families here. It gets tougher and tougher in Buffalo to do theater if you’re not one of the big three.
I don’t know if anybody can make a living as a professional actor in Buffalo. It’s not like New York where you can do commercials and soap operas. There are different ways to make money. It’s more challenging in Western New York.
Q: Who attends classes?
A: I have adults who are professionals, students in high school. We have high school kids now going to Children’s Hospital and Roswell for story-telling gigs. I thought it was important for students who work with me to start giving back to the community. I’ve already put children from my acting class into productions at Shea’s, at Amherst Players and Upstage.
Q: What’s in it for teens?
A: These classes are great, especially for teenagers. It’s a way for them to get their self-confidence levels in line. It’s such a scary time being a teenager. I like to have all those ages together because they feed off each other and they focus each other and work well together. Older ones give direction and the younger ones are sort of fearless, inspiring the older actors to take more chances.
I want people who are serious about the craft and want to learn something. Now that I’m in charge, I can say this is what you’re going to do. I admire someone who wants to learn something new.
Q: How did you land at Second Presbyterian?
A: Tim Reinsel of Lil’ Robin took my acting class at the Amherst Museum. Tim said, we’ve got to find you a space. He found the Second Presbyterian Church on Van Buren.
Q: How do you make your living?
A: It’s challenging, but I’m doing my best. I do voice overs on the radio. You’re selling something. It’s the voice that they buy.
Q: Any memorable voice overs?
A: My favorite was Korbel Champagne of California. It went for 11 years. It was their holiday spot. For 11 years you could hear me laughing. It bubbles. It’s so much fun.
They liked the way I giggled. That’s why I got the job. It was my first voice over audition ever in New York City. I made a mistake and just went “haaaa, haa, haaa,” and they loved the laugh and I got the job. If they would have told me they were looking for a laugh, I don’t know if I could have done a laugh.
I tell my students, you never know. It’s a whole new world. That’s how you keep paying your rent in New York. Those jobs are the money gigs. Theater jobs are not money jobs necessarily.
Q: Did you have many adventures?
A: While I was acting on “Guiding Light,” (the character) was kidnapped and then got pregnant. I was walking home from a dinner date in midtown Manhattan and I was surrounded by prostitutes. They said, “You had the baby! You look good.” I said, “Yes, it was a girl.”
They all thought I was the character of the show. I was eight months pregnant for 18 months. I had a belly pack on the show that weighed 35 pounds ... I’m dead now. My character died of cancer.
Q: You have a serious illness?
A: I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was 15. My big dream was to be on Broadway, so I kind of had blinders on my eyes. I was told, never have children, don’t ever drink, don’t do drugs. You will be in a wheelchair by the time you are 20. I went to NYU because my parents insisted that I get a degree.
Q: Did you obey the doctors?
A: I basically listened to what they said, but ignored it. They said don’t get into stressful situation, but I was auditioning all the time. That’s pretty stressful. I didn’t do anything that they said. When I founded MCC, I worked 16 hours a day. It was great. It was so much fun, because I always knew what was stalking me was this illness.
I worked with a lot of people. It was fun. I loved being a professional actor. Then it all had to go away.