Moonlight Players Theater in Clermont is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Founded by Jan Sheldon, who is president emeritus, the theater has been a popular place ever since. Shows are sponsored by internationally known comic book artist George Perez, who performed in community theater productions in New York before moving to Florida. Future plans include increased seating as almost all shows are sold out now.
Amber Jessee came to the Moonlight Players at age nine when she was in the first official show, “The Sound of Music.” Her mother worked with Jan, who invited Kathy to audition.
“She said, ‘Kathy, you’d love it,’” Amber says, and Kathy did, playing a nun while Amber was one of the Von Trapp children.
Amber’s first audition was rough. All the little girls were lined up and asked to sing.
“As it got closer and closer to me, I got more nervous. I looked at my mom and she gave me this great big smile and I choked! I started crying, but instead of crying and running away, I just kind of took a step back from the line until I was at the backstage area,” Amber says. “I stayed backstage for the rest of the auditions. I wouldn’t come out.”
Jan gave her a second chance, however, and she sang “Happy Birthday” on the phone, once again crying through it.
“For the next two years, I think I cried through every audition until somewhere around 14 or 15, I didn’t cry anymore. It was a turning point. I got used to it,” she says.
Amber says she finally realized she was having fun so auditions became easier.
“After a while I started making some really good friends here. I was very shy and I had some self-confidence issues—what kid doesn’t? Honestly, the theater helped me overcome it.”
That self-confidence helped her in other life situations too. She now does public speaking and finds it easier to introduce herself when she’s in a new situation.
“I don’t think I would have that without the theater,” Amber says.
The Moonlight Players continues to be a “family affair.” Her mother directs productions, which Amber also recently began doing. But probably best of all, she met her husband of almost 11 years, Nathan, through the Moonlight Players.
“Pretty much the moment I met her I wouldn’t leave her alone,” Nate says. He also acts in various productions, as well as helps in other ways, putting his musical training with a bachelor’s of music in vocal performances and skills to work for the theater. Local volunteers do all acting, directing, and stage craft duties.
Since there are primarily family friendly shows, Amber and Nate’s two sons are also acting. The oldest was Toto in “The Wiz,” and both boys were in “Fiddler on the Roof,” which their grandmother directed.
Amber specializes in character pieces, and is well-known for playing male roles, including a little Japanese man in “The Mikado,” and a ballplayer in “Damn Yankees” due to her deep alto voice. In her current role in “Young Frankenstein,” and first solo part, her best audience member compliment was, “I’m so glad I wore my Depends!”
Amber is also an advocate for Moonlight Players and on the board of directors. But it’s the connection with the audience that Amber enjoys most. “The part I love about this theater is that it is so intimate. It brings you closer to the action, but you feel a greater kinship with the actors.”
Amber recalls a humorous instance of “anything can happen with live theater” when the actors were presenting The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
“As part of the script, the actors shouted, ‘and now we’re going to do Hamlet again backwards.’ An audience member yelled, ‘In Spanish!’”
“Then, this actor got up and started doing Hamlet backwards…in Spanish! I can’t even imitate what he did…it was hilarious! I don’t think it was real Spanish!”
“What he was saying in Spanish was not Hamlet!” adds husband Nate.
If you want to work in a local theater, don’t get discouraged. There’s more to come! “Even if you don’t get a part…try again. And even if you only get a small part, that small part is still important,” Amber says. “I have quite the reputation of stealing scenes with tiny parts. It’s not a bad reputation, it’s just one that they know that I’ll do. Sometimes I’m asked to do shows because I can take something small and develop it.”
Amber is also on call if someone has to drop out of a show without notice. “They know I can memorize quickly,” she laughs.
“I actually had to learn a part in 24 hours and it was the leading role. It was a little rough, but I got through it,” Nate added.
Looking back, Amber says she would encourage her 20-year-old self, or youth coming into the theater today, to stay with it. Her recent experience with the production of “Young Frankenstein” had some challenges.
“I would say, ‘Just because you don’t think you can do it doesn’t mean you should stop. Maybe you don’t think your voice is so good, but why not take some voice lessons and see if you can get better? I also think there’s a little bit of experience that goes with it, that I wouldn’t be where I am if I had not gone 34 years before I got my first solo part. So, for people coming into it is basically—just keep doing it! Don’t give up. Persistence pays off!”
According to Amber, live theater can be healing both to the actor and the audience. She talked about her reaction to the shooting at the Pulse nightclub. “One of the things we said to each other backstage is we need to keep doing this because this is what keeps the world happy. There’s going to be tragedy, there’s going to be personal tragedy, there’s going to be public tragedy, there’s going to be social tragedy anywhere…and live theater is one of the performance arts that makes it worth it. Life is not so tragic. It makes us more human.”
Like everyone else, those in the theater go through personal experiences that mean difficult times and maybe even very sad times.
“Standing on the stage in the theater gives you an chance to step out of your own skin for a minute. You get to be somebody else for a little while, who does not have the weight on his or her shoulders as much as you have on yours. It’s a great escape. It’s a ‘good for your health’ addiction!”
The Moonlight Players are always looking for volunteers, whether you want to work behind the scenes or stand in front of the audience—there’s a place for you in the community theater.
“We are nonprofit and we want to make it better. Yes, we need money to do that, but I also want people to feel like they are welcome here without us seeing them as ‘walking wallets.’ I want you to come. I want you to sit out there and laugh! I want you to have a good time while you’re here. There’s something you get out of live theatre you don’t get anywhere else. It’s just pure joy!”
PHOTO: FRED LOPEZ