Characteristically, Sarah K. Chalmers, Civic Ensemble’s Artistic Director, leaps into the question: “Why I do theater? The answer to that has changed over the years. When I started out… I just knew that it's who I am, to do theatre. I think a lot of us feel that way who are in theater, that once it hits you, it doesn't go away. You might choose to go a different direction, and I've done that a couple of times, but I've always come back to it.”
This summer she pulls up her Ithaca stakes to join her husband Godfrey Simmons, Jr. and son Sam in Hartford, CT. “I'm looking forward to learning about the Hartford community, getting Sam involved with school and new friends when it's safe, and finding my way in a new place.…
“It's been a yearlong process of letting go. Godfrey, Jennifer Herzog and I started something that can go on without us and that feels good. Julia Taylor [Executive Director] and Sage Alia Clemenco [Director of Engagement] have been working with the company since summer 2018. The principles and values that Civic Ensemble was founded on will be carried on by Julia and Sage, who bring a wealth of experience, energy and love to this work.”
Chalmers’ artistic journey has weaved in and out of Ithaca for three decades, as a student at Ithaca College, as an actor and teaching artist at the Hangar, as a teacher and actor at Cornell, and as the founding member of two local companies: Kitchen Theatre and Civic Ensemble. In her journeys away from Ithaca she has acted in Chicago, Seattle and New York City.
She also spent two years as an environmental activist working with First Nation people and others fighting the slaughter of buffalo. There, she lived in a cabin with 30 people, learned to cross-country ski, chop wood, and make decisions by consensus.
“That place really forged my [understanding of] the community being bigger than the individual,” she said. Afterwards, she interned a few months with Winona LaDuke, then worked and was mentored by Rosalie Littlethunder. “I think, leaving the theater several times helped me to strengthen my practice and broaden what I eventually have come to understand that theater can do.”
Sarah first landed in Ithaca in 1990 as a student in IC’s BFA acting program. I first encountered her in an astonishing performance as Agave in “The Bacchae” directed by the late Earl McCarroll. “Earl helped me have more confidence… There's a way to own how good you are and have humility and live in the present and own your power and use it for good, both as a colleague and as a performer, and I admired and emulated Earl in that way.”
With fellow IC students Matt Tauber and Tim O’Brien, she became a founding member of the Kitchen Theatre (1992), acting in several shows. Matt and Tim “cooked it up in their ‘b*tchin’ catharsis kitchen.’ They were like, Ithaca needs this. It doesn't have a cool young thing happening.…
“And we toiled. It was like, hey let’s put on a play, but like serious theater folk with the training… It reminds me of Civic in the way of just we kept saying, yes, and we kept moving forward.”
After school, she pursued acting in Chicago and Seattle, fell into activist work, and eventually she and her sister found their way back to Ithaca. She met Rachel Lampert, and while acting at the Kitchen, Alison Van Dyke encouraged her to apply as a Resident Professional Teaching Associate at Cornell, acting in shows while teaching beginning acting. “It was like Christmas for that whole first year.”
Sarah and Godfrey met as RPTAs and actors in “Antigone” at Cornell. When the program wound down, she followed him to NYC, where she worked in NYC High Schools as a teaching artist for Epic Theatre Ensemble.
She recounts an encounter with a Black female student who accused her of never calling on her and her friends. Asking for advice from the schools’ full-time teachers, “a white man said to me, ‘Oh, don't even worry about it. They're always playing the race card.’… that wasn't the only story.”
These experiences propelled her to seek more grounding as a theater-maker and teacher, so she applied for the brand-new program in Applied Theatre at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, under Chris Vine and Helen White, “who are my mentors and teachers and are wonderful.”
It gave her a framework.
“I can name it in a more succinct way now that I've gone through that the different journeys that I've taken,” Chalmers said. “I do theater, because it has a power like no other thing, no other practice, to bring together our cognitive and affective selves, to think and feel [...] Every story we put out there has a point of view. And it matters whose story it is. It matters how the characters are painted and who's playing them.”
Her impact while in Ithaca is attested to by her students and colleagues. Irving Torres-Lopez, now at the Public Theatre in NYC says, “Sarah understands the needs of her actors with such care and compassion. I am grateful to have had the chance to work with her during my time at Cornell.”
Chisom Awachie said, “working with Sarah during undergrad helped me realize a dream that I think every PMA [Performing and Media Arts] acting major had: watching, learning from, and breathing the same air as someone who has a deep knowledge of and commitment to the work. [...] It was daunting and exciting to be treated as a professional, entering the rehearsal room with the understanding that I had something unique to offer… I learned so much from Sarah in such a short period of time, namely a confidence and stamina that serves me to this day. My time at Cornell was changed for the better because of her, and I can’t thank her enough.”
Her colleague at Cornell and frequent director Beth Milles writes, “Sarah is simply one of the most gifted and passionate artists I have ever worked with…She commands such a vast and powerful imagination,… has a remarkable emotional capability (she can level and devastate with a simple gesture)—and can suggest within a mere moment the secret depths of the human soul. Sarah is a force to be reckoned with-—who offers (willingly—and with a brave fortitude) an open heart in every rehearsal space.”
“It's hard to say goodbye,” Sarah added. “Ithaca is my adopted hometown. I've learned and grown so much here. I'm sure I won't be a stranger either so don't be surprised if you see me popping in every now and again.”