This is part of our summer series focusing on the real characters behind Dallas’ theater scene. To read other installments in this series click here.
Growing up in Dallas, Morgana Shaw didn’t experience the things that are meant to expose a child to a life in the arts. She never made childhood trips to the theater, went to summer camp, took voice lessons. Real life packed enough drama. She spent much of her youth being passed around between members of her family, from grandparents to cousins, dealing with multiple parental separations. She never really knew where or with whom she would be living next. “Making ends meet” was a familiar phrase long before she decided to delve into the life of a working actor.
But if you ask Morgana Shaw about disadvantages, she doesn’t dwell on the financial stuff. The true struggle, she tells me over a recent cup of coffee, was being surrounded by family members who did anything but encourage her aspirations.
“Whenever I was a child I was told ‘You can only do this and this.’” As she speaks, Shaw’s fair skin reddens and her petite fingers ball into fists. “Relatives and cousins would say, ‘This is your life.’ I was like, ‘No, it’s not. I want more. I want more!’”
She bangs her fists on the table.
Despite the lack of encouragement, as a young child Shaw was always pushing her own potential, and she knew that if she wanted something, she had to believe in her abilities.
“I’m the little girl who pretended she could read at five and read to all my cousins,” Shaw says, then raising her voice and shouting. “And they believed me! I believe you can do anything you set your mind to because I’ve been doing it all my life, and you can’t tell me any different.”
Her modest beginnings not only taught her perseverance, but also the importance of every dollar and every dime. And Shaw knew from the beginning that her performances were worth something.
“My parents got me an organ at a garage sale and I would charge them a quarter for them to listen to me practice,” she said. “I would just be doing bang bang bang, and they had to pay a quarter to watch me.”
Those precocious organ performances marked the auspicious beginning of Shaw’s successful career, which has seen her play a wide range of characters in film, television, and on stage, from Fastrada, the evil manipulative mother in Pippin at Theater Three to Billie Trix, the leather-clad rock icon in Uptown Players’ Closer to Heaven. She played Jim Carrey’s mother in the 2010 film I Love You Phillip Morris, and stars in the upcoming movie Seconds Apart. She has appeared in locally-produced television series like Prison Break, Friday Night Lights, and Walker, Texas Ranger. She lives in Dallas, but she has spread her network far and wide. She will soon take Camilla Carr’s one-woman play All about Bette: An Evening With Bette Davis to Broadway.
But it wasn’t until Shaw graduated from high school and left home that she was truly able to experience and understand all the possibilities that were open to her. She laughs, recalling buying the tiniest bikini she could just because she wasn’t allowed to wear one as a teenager. She lived her youth in reaction to the rigidity and negativity that confined her childhood.
“I was just, like, ‘you can’t tell me no,’” she says flashing a faint smirk. “Being told ‘no’ has been one of my driving things because I’ve been told no all my life but wouldn’t believe it.”
Acting was one way for Shaw to try and tackle the impossible. Yet even for someone who is motivated by rejection, she still had to learn as an actor to never harbor expectations. It took a lot of just-missed callbacks and being passed up by “10,000 dollar tits,” as she puts it, for her to learn an important lesson: never count, cry, or care about any audition.
“You think: What did I do wrong? What am I missing? I’m doing something wrong, but I’m doing something right because I keep getting called back. But what is it that’s not getting me over the edge?” As she speaks she keeps flipping her hands from side to side mimicking the anxiety that can build up if you allow it. Her hands drop to the table. “Well it could be nothing. You put it out there, you do your thing, and you do your best, and then go on. Because it’s so out of your hands.”
While on stage you can still see flashes of the fiery little girl, off stage Shaw is more quiet and introverted. You won’t find her socializing with other actors at auditions, swapping vapid exchanges of, “So what are you doing? What’s going on? I’m doing this and this.” You will find her watching and listening. And for Shaw, acting has become more than just the way of achieving the dream that others thought impossible for her.
“I’m so affected by stories and people’s lives,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be someone who moves. I want to make others feel that feeling.”
Shaw says she thinks of the stage as a vehicle for her voice, a way of breaking through to people and helping them experience the world how she experiences it.
“Acting is my way of talking out loud,” she says. “Hopefully through that way of speaking I’m actually affecting other people, which is what my dream has always been about.”
Image: Morgana Shaw in Uptown Players’ Closer to Heaven (Mike Morgan).