Exit stage left to happy days at Malibu East

Posted on Mon, 06/01/2015 - 12:30pm

By Tracy Poyser

You probably know our neighbor Carolyn Bowyer as the better half (sorry, Michael!) of our gregarious pool and sun worshipper Michael Assim, who’s never without his hat, a tan and a story to share. The two were married a couple of years ago after nine years of dating so that Michael, who has lived at Malibu East since 1972, finally had his favorite leading lady and travel companion make her permanent home in Malibu East also.

Now that they’ve come to ground for our pool season after regularly spending the fall in Michael’s native Greece and three winter months on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Carolyn graciously agreed to be profiled for the Dialogue. I had heard vague rumors about her connection to the stage, but without knowing how, why and when.

I wanted to start our interview by taking a few photos – and we didn’t make it out of her hallway for the first half hour. The reason: Her entrance walls are covered with playbills and photos from Carolyn’s numerous engagements in both leading and supporting roles with local, mainly North Side theater companies and stages.

Carolyn’s sunny and wacky sense of humor belies her success as a serious dramatic actress in complex and difficult parts: Mrs. Dalton in Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” Maria Josepha in Federico Garcia Lorca’s “House of Bernarda Alba,” Liz in Kevin O’Morrison’s “Lady House Blues,” Fonsia Dorsey in D.H. Coburn’s “The Gin Game” (one of her favorites), Mom in Sam Shepard’s “True West,” Daisy in Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” and Grandma in Edward Albee’s “Sandbox,” to name just a few.

Her last one was Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap” in 2005, after which she quit the stage in favor of traveling with Michael. “Getting a casting call when you’re hiding somewhere in Costa Rica isn’t really practical,” she laughs.

Carolyn interjected a bunch of great anecdotes about her auditioning and acting experiences while showing me her playbill wall – like confessing that she had no clue what Edward Albee’s “Box” and “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” were about. (At least I wasn’t the only one totally befuddled by those interrelated plays.)

However playing Grandma in “Sandbox” was great fun, and she learned from playwright Albee that he wrote that play for his grandmother, whom he described as “a mover and a shaker.” And, when she was auditioning for Albee during a five-day “cattle call,” each actor was supposed to read two short pieces. But, she was the last applicant on the first day – and, since Albee and his director and producer were hungry and wanted dinner, she was allowed to read only one two-minute piece. So, she decided to just turn up on the second day, and when they told her she’d already done her reading, she responded that she wasn’t finished yet. Sure enough, she got the part! Albee, who likes to maintain tight control over productions of his plays, was frequently in Chicago for rehearsals.

Carolyn’s passion for acting started early in life. She was born and raised in Glendale, in Southern California. Her dad made his living in the film and recording industry as a self-trained sound engineer, and even got an Oscar in the early ’60s for his contribution to sound engineering, one of the technical categories not included in the televised portion of the Oscar ceremony.

Little Carolyn started with a speech coach, elocution and public-speaking training when she was five years old. She was fortunate to have the same coach from grade school through college, and she turned out to be so gifted that, as a teenager, she sometimes did her coach’s overload jobs. Her mom, although supportive, didn’t have a particular interest in the entertainment industry and never even saw her daughter perform. Both parents were devout Seventh-day Adventists, so several of Carolyn’s childhood roles included educational films her dad made for the church. She fondly remembers having to wear a two-piece period costume of green taffeta with a hoop skirt and a bonnet as a little girl.

Her younger sister lives in Oregon and was more interested in music than acting. She plays piano and guitar.

After Carolyn got married at 21 and moved to Chicago in 1963 with her husband and two children, she pulled away from acting until her kids were grown. (Her son, Jack, now lives in Crystal Lake and her daughter, Elizabeth, in Southern California.)

She knew that returning to the stage would not be an easy thing after such a long hiatus. So, she got herself a scholarship for Chicago’s Columbia College in the late ’80s to get her bachelor of fine arts degree in theater. She particularly relished studying with Chicago stage and Broadway musical actress Barbara Harris and Albert “Bill” Williams, the Chicago Reader’s theater critic and a professor at Columbia College. Carolyn got her re-entry to the stage with Pegasus Players on Bryn Mawr as a stage manager and dresser while auditioning for every roll call she could muster.

You have to be pretty immune to rejection – for every 100 auditions you may get one serious casting call,” she says.

I always wondered how on earth actors learn to remember their lines in very complex plays. Carolyn explains that her method included taping everyone else’s lines in a play and leaving a gap where she had to come in, and then just playing that tape over and over while filling in her part. “It’s easier when you can really bounce things off the other actors, but way more difficult with two-actor plays and, of course, long monologues,“ she explains. For “The Gin Game,” for instance, she and her counterpart actor even had to play a credible game of gin rummy while performing their parts.

Did she ever really trip up? “Absolutely,” she says, “but the trick is to improvise so the audience doesn’t notice – and actors help each other regain ground.” Her worst experience was in “Lady House Blues.” She had just been mugged and pretty badly hurt, but in the true spirit of “The show must go on,” she went fresh from Edgewater Hospital’s ER to Columbia’s New Studio Theatre. However, she learned early in the run not to take pain pills beforehand so she wouldn’t get dopey on stage. One segment of the play has very repetitive lines, and she just rearranged all the lines in one scene. Her counterparts on stage just flowed along, and only the director noticed. But, crying at the end of the play was also part of the script, and she didn’t have to act for that.

Her all-time favorite part was Daisy in “Driving Miss Daisy,” and the last role she performed was Mrs. Boyle in Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap,” which was performed in one of the Berger Park mansions just up the street from here in 2005. She had met her Michael the previous year and found out that both had been divorced and lost their mothers in the same year. Rehearsals and performances take too much time away, not to mention the hours and days of memorization and auditioning. And she enjoys her travels with Michael. Although she still misses the theater, she and Michael have made the world their stage with their frequent travel adventures. Nevertheless, she’s working with a local director right now on a play called “Love Letters” that doesn’t require memorization.

There’s much more I could tell you about Carolyn, including her love for Edgewater and her volunteer work for the Church of the Atonement and neighborhood community groups such as Edgewater Community Council. But, now that you know a bit about her, say hi and talk to her when you see her in her usual spot at the northeast end of our pool deck while Michael swims his laps. Applause is definitely in order for this real treasure of Malibu East, and maybe even a standing ovation!