TV star remembers formative years in Milwaukee

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Many successful actors got their start at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and one of the best known among them is lending her voice to the United Performing Arts Fund’s 50th anniversary campaign.

Erika Slezak is most famous for her role as Victoria Lord on the daytime soap opera One Life to Live, a role for which she earned a record six daytime Emmy Awards for best actress. Slezak says her early experience at the Rep was instrumental in helping her develop as a performer by providing her with rare artistic opportunities for a young actress.

“It was glorious,” she remembers. “The work was fabulous, the people I worked with were fabulous. It just was a wonderfully happy situation. I wouldn’t have traded that for all the tea in China.”

During her two-and-a-half years in Milwaukee, Slezak starred in such classics as Electra, Design for Living and The Importance of Being Earnest. She portrayed Desdemona in Othello and Queen Elizabeth in Mary Stuart. Her last role during her first season was her favorite — Hedda Gabler.

“I would kill to play it again,” she muses. “Now, I’m too old.”

Then her voice brightens: “But maybe not. Makeup helps,” she quips.

In addition to the opportunity to play roles great and small, Slezak learned techniques from the other members of the company. “When you watch people who are really, really good and they know what they are doing, it helps so much because you store it away in your memory book and you use it later on,” she says. “It was such an education.”

“This was a real professional, grown-up company,” she says.

Slezak says the experience of performing with a quality repertory company is essential for cultivating each generation of actors. She notes that the year after she left the Rep, Judith Light and Jeffrey Tambor joined the company.

“It’s so important for every town in America to have a repertory theater,” she said.

That’s one of the reasons Slezak embraced the role of spokeswoman for this year’s UPAF campaign. Her wonderful memories of Milwaukee and the Rep are the others.

UPAF launched in 1967, while Slezak was performing in Milwaukee.

Auditioning for the Rep

Having recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Slezak was only 20 years old when she arrived in the city in 1966. The Rep was her first professional gig.

At the time her agent booked her audition, Slezak didn’t even know where Milwaukee was. But she not only found it, she also found it to be a refreshingly “manageable city.” She acknowledges, however, that the weather can be challenging.

“The coldest I ever (felt) was one New Year’s Eve in Milwaukee when we went to dinner down by the lake,” she remembers.

Slezak’s Milwaukee experience almost didn’t happen. The Rep was looking for an actress in her late 20s or early 30s. But Slezak’s well-prepared audition overcame any doubts that might have arisen about her youth.

“My agent said, ‘Put your hair up, put on a black dress and go,’” she recalls with a laugh.

Knowing that Electra was one of the roles the company was casting, she performed a monologue from the Greek classic at her audition — without a script. “I memorized the speech,” she says, adding playfully, “and you know Electra talks a lot.”

At one point, the casting director stopped her audition to ask, “Did you learn this?” she says. “And I said, “Of course I did.’”

“There was a lot of quiet at the end,” she recalls, “and then they asked, ‘How old are you?’”

She told them and feared that was the end of it. Slezak says she was surprised and overjoyed to learn days later that she’d gotten the position. The salary was $89 a week, the most money she’d ever made.

Family business

Even at 20, Slezak’s knowledge of theater was deep. It was also in her blood. Her father was Walter Slezak, a film and Broadway star. Her grandfather was world-famous operatic tenor Leo Slezak. She says coming from such a family meant that she had to work harder than others to prove that she stood on her own.

After her time at the Milwaukee Rep, Slezak went to the Alley Theatre in Houston for a year, followed by a stint at the Studio Arena in Buffalo. By the time she moved to New York City, Slezak was ready, she says.

In fact, looking over her résumé, the casting agent for One Life to Live said, “Isn’t it nice to see somebody who comes to New York so prepared?”

Slezak hopes that by supporting the performing arts in Milwaukee, she’s helping to ensure that actors, singers, writers, musicians and dancers will be equipped with the skills to continue enriching our culture and illuminating our world.

50th anniversary kickoff

The United Performing Arts Fund launches its 50th anniversary campaign on March 6, at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. Registration begins at 5 p.m. and performances by UPAF member groups start at 5:30 p.m. A 6:30 reception includes light hors d’oeuvres and a drawing to win a trip for two on Southwest Airlines. Admission is $10. RSVP by March 1, at bit.ly/2017UPAFLaunch.

What is the United Performing Arts Fund?

UPAF is southeastern Wisconsin’s largest fundraising organization for the arts, contributing to 15 of the region’s best performing arts groups, including First Stage, Florentine Opera Company, Milwaukee Ballet, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Skylight Music Theatre. Last year’s campaign raised $12.6 million.