• Theresa Kowall-Shipp Submitted

Adventures And Reinvention Of A Vermilion ‘Home Girl’

Theresa Kowall-Shipp

Submitted

Is it possible that growing up a Vermilion prairie girl and a career in the entertainment industry are the best training for surviving a global pandemic?

Who would’ve thought that the little girl from small town Vermilion would take the resilience and resolved instilled by her rural upbringing and turn it into a veritable ‘how to’ lesson for not only surviving but thriving in a business that is known, at the best of times, for eating it’s young? (Laterally! Take note; the average career for a dancer comes to an abrupt end at about age 30). But Wasylik-Clarke is anything but average. She has turned her skills, earned by decades as a self employed performer, wardrobe mistress, producer, wife, mother, avid volunteer and casting director into a life lesson, a perfect life lesson for 2020.

Kerri Wasylik-Clarke grew up dancing and singing along with TV variety shows headlined by the likes of Carol Burnett and Tommy Hunter. Never dreaming you could make a career out of what she was witnessing or imagining herself one day being celebrated for her talent and versatility as both performer and producer.

It all started when she and her sister, Kym Wasylik-Nicoll, barely more than toddlers trotted off to dance lessons. Their parents, Irene & John, were determined to give the girls the opportunity no matter how challenging it was to fit dance classes into a full family life that included running the family business (J. Wasylik and Sons Construction). A long list of teachers and mentors followed as Wasylik-Clarke advanced: Georgina Tillipaugh, (from Veg), and later Alison Lamont (Alison Lamont School of Dance in Lloydminster), and Dominique Gauvin who both inspired Kerri to consider continuing her training at their alma matter: Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnic. With no fear of hard work, courage, and determination, Kerri packed her bags, and with her family’s blessing, headed to the big city.

When reached in her kitchen in Toronto’s Beaches neighborhood recently, Kerri was baking cinnamon buns and making freezer meals for her youngest son’s gymnastics coach, whose wife had just given birth, (it appears that the small-town girl is still there under the accomplished businesswoman and showbiz veteran). She laughed off the next steps in her career as ‘luck’ but anyone with half a brain knows that her success is due 90% to hard work and only 10% to being in the right place at the right time.

Finding her niche in musical theatre Wasylik-Clarke performed with numerous regional theatre companies before getting what she calls her big break: her eventual role as Bombellurina in the Toronto production (and Canadian Touring Company) of the hit musical CATS.

CATS opened doors for Kerri and she was smart enough to know how to take the opportunity and run with it. It also provided a lot of great memories and connections that have lasted a lifetime. Kerri explained: “in our business it’s often as much about who you know as what you know. When you are first starting out it is so easy to be intimidated by everyone and everything but thankfully, I started building relationships and keeping track of people. That ability to maintain connections continues to serve me because as a performer and self employed person I have reinvented myself over and over again.” Kerri went on to say: “CATS was an exceptionally gruelling show and it took it’s toll on our bodies, but I loved every second of it; it provided the foundation for my career and so many great moments. Two memories really stand out. When we were on tour, we played Edmonton and finally my friends and family were able to see what it was that I left home for- that was really important to me and my family! The other memory was meeting and getting to dance at a gala with HRH Prince Edward as he, like me, was employed by part of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s empire.

As soon as CATS ‘wrapped’ Kerri was asked to join the cast of the highly acclaimed musical ‘DURANTE, then on tour in the US. “I had a vague memory of seeing Jimmy Durante on those old variety shows and in black and white movies. I knew he was a movie star, musical performer and comedian but never dreamt that I would find myself touring the USA in a musical that told his life’s story”. Like CATS and every other production Kerri has appeared in, there are stories. Kerri had the misfortune of being with the show in 1989 when it appeared in San Francisco. If you remember your history that was the year of the big earth quake. “It was a terrifying, surreal time.” Kerri says: “The theatre we were playing was condemned because of structural damage. After having to hang out in a devastated San Fran, we were finally able to then move the tour to L.A. We enjoyed a lavish star-studded opening in LA, only to close shortly after. Ultimately the earth quake played a big part in the show’s premature closing. But as a performer you have to learn to be adaptable, and so, we were all scrambling for work again. It reminds me a lot of what is going on now with theatres being closed because of the pandemic. But at least then there were other theatres open and we could come home to Toronto and find jobs. So, I went home and hit the audition circuit. Thankfully I landed a job at Canada’s celebrated Stratford Festival. And if there was anyone in the theatre world in Canada that I had not met yet I certainty had the opportunity to with a Stratford connection! Again, I don’t think I realized it at the time but this was all setting me up for the future; connections, the ability to pivot quickly, to not have a melt down but to change direction and adapt. Those are skills that I began learning from my parents and refined through a life in show biz.”

Kerri’s resume connects her to a who’s who of North American theatre: two productions of Show Boat for Tony Award winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman and New York theatre legend Hal Prince, Brian Macdonald’s Tony award winning production of The Mikado, the original Canadian production of Crazy For You, produced by the Mirvish theatre empire and countless ‘industrial or corporate shows, which have allowed her to travel around the world.

Somehow in the middle of this busy career Kerri met and married her actor/business man husband Shaun Clarke, eventually adding two sons to the family, Owen now 21, (at Western University studying Business Management) and Ryan 18, recently graduated and following his parent’s into the entertainment industry, but as a stunt performer).

Any working mother will tell you that it is always a balance but if your work has you doing eight shows a week, sometimes hundreds of miles from home it gets complicated! “Thankfully, I have an amazing family. My mom Irene and my sister Kym have many times traveled to wherever I was performing to help out with child care. Sometimes both Shaun and I were performing at the same time and we literally learned to juggle kids! We have had to adjust to everything from taking the kids on the road to handing off kids in parking lots between auditions and rehearsals. But at the same time, we began to see that our talents and contacts could turn into a business.”

Eventually Kerri and Shaun began their own business, a corporate talent brokerage company- providing talent to, among other things, corporations for live events. Having grown up in a family business this was not an uninformed decision for Wasylik-Clarke. She knew what she was getting into was more hard work and more scrambling, But listening to her describe her adventures like traveling by Hercules to Alert, to entertain Canadian Armed Forces in minus 40 degrees and doing everything from playing a dancing lightbulb to a dancing cop for Kurt Russell as Santa, in ‘Christmas Chronicles’, you have no doubt that this woman is well equipped to do whatever it takes to get things done, no matter what those ‘things’ are!

Over the last two decades her adventures continue although, for the most part she has retired her dancing shoes Kerri still performs in everything from commercials and TV shows to feature films. Watch for her in Warehouse 13, Murdoch Mysteries, Amelia, Janek. But if you ask her what her biggest skill is, she will tell you: “it is knowing what you have to offer and what the ‘audience’ wants. Sometimes the audience is a director, a choreographer or the audience sitting across the footlights. Sometimes the audience is a corporate client. I have had to reinvent myself so many times over the years, as do all freelancers; I have had to learn to bounce not break. The biggest skill Shaun and I have to offer in our business; Exposure TnT, is our ability to see needs and find a way to deliver.”

All was going along swimmingly until March 12, 2020. That was the date that all events, theatre and production entered a state of COVID induced suspended animation. And, as Kerri says: “we know the date it started but we have yet to identify the end date, so it’s time for another reinvention”. Wasylik-Clarke goes onto explain: “For years because of the all-encompassing nature our business it’s not unusual for my friends in the industry and I to work 12 hour days for weeks on end so we find ourselves almost having to walk away from our ‘regular lives’. This leaves your world in shambles! Home maintenance doesn’t happen, dry cleaning never gets picked up, birthdays are missed, emails not returned, calls unanswered, you get the picture. And this happens to a lot of people in a lot of different businesses. So, for years a good friend of mine and I (she also a former dancer turned media professional), have talked about starting an executive concierge business. And that’s just what we’ve done, and it’s more than just our ‘pandemic project’, it’s a viable pivot using all the skills we have learned over the years: figuring out what the audience wants and delivering.”

This new business; SOMEBODY SOMETIME is already flourishing. It appears that the adventures of small-town girl turned entertainer, turned producer, turned casting directing is taking yet another turn. If Kerri did not know when she was watching variety shows on TV as a child growing up in Vermilion that she would spend a big part of her life on the stage then she most definitely did not know that the training that life would provide would turn her into a living example of pandemic survivalist. And she is not just surviving, she’s thriving because it turns out that a freelancer’s skills, a performer’s skill are just what’s needed in 2020. We can all take a lesson!


Kerri Clarke (nee Wasylik) as Bomballurina in the Canadian National Company of CATS

Crazy for you: Kerri Clarke (nee Wasylik) 3rd from left back row as a member of the Female Ensemble of the Original Canadian Company of CRAZY FOR YOU - Also 3rd from left middle row Rochelle Forland (from Lloyd, who danced at Alison Lamont’s School when Kerri was there as well). Photos submitted

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