Portrait of an Artist

May 25, 2008 

Lillian McLeod

Lillian McLeod as M'Lynn in "Steel Magnolias" at Stage 3.

UNKNOWN — Unknown

Name: Lillian McLeod ("Diamond Lill")

City: Sonora

Type of artist: Actor, singer, musician (piano, stand-up bass, ukulele and bells)

Daily job: Real estate assistant with Melissa Oliver and the O Team at PMZ Real Estate

Family: Recently married to Dr. Alan Peters -- "My daughter is 28 and lives in San Francisco. Johnny Weissmuller (five-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer best known for his 12 movies as Tarzan) was my great-uncle. My great-aunt was Elenore Woodford Pryor, a Metropolitan Opera singer in the 1940s. My great-aunt Alice Gibson Hornby was a famous oil artist in Hollywood. Betty Squire, my mother, sang opera but did not pursue a career to raise family."

Background: Born in Alameda -- "I lived in the Bay Area till age 5, lived in New Mexico till I was 11 and moved to Tuolumne County by age 12. I lived in Modesto from 1999 to 2002, and then back to Sonora."

Performance experience: Singing career started at age 16, sang for political functions, fund-raisers etc. Began live theater at age 24 -- "I attended American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and majored in music/theater at Columbia College and Modesto Junior College. I didn't get my degree because I kept being cast in lead roles and was a young, divorced, single mom, working three jobs and going to school."

Advice for young performers: "Respect your talents, be open to criticism, don't take your talent for granted and, most importantly, be a team player and treat every performance as an ensemble. Many times, you are only as good as the people around you."

Favorite art/music/performance: "My performance or others? If my performances, that would be recently Woman 1 in 'Woody Guthrie's American Song,' Emily in 'My Heart My Flesh' and M'Lynn in 'Steel Magnolias' (all were at Stage 3 Theatre in Sonora). All the roles I accept, I love. My acting icons have been Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke, Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Duvall, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange. Singer faves are Bernadette Peters, Rosemary Clooney and Bonnie Raitt."

Life plans: "I hope to always perform music or theater. I never want to stagnate. I would like to maintain my giant sponge persona and soak up as much knowledge and learn as much as I can about myself, life and the people around me. As artists, we make ourselves vulnerable to all the human emotions that most nonactors stuff. I feel very blessed to have my art. My life plan is to make sure the arts don't go away, even if we have to go back to bales of hay and do theater in a barn. Life is richer with all the singers, actors, musicians and artists. It's my drug of choice."

How do you reach people unfamiliar with the arts? "I'm lucky to be an actor who also sings. It is easier to reach people with music. I have two groups currently -- High & Mighty and Coope de Lill. Previous groups were Lil' Diamonds, Earth Angels, New Frontier and Lost Highway. At all my music gigs, I encourage folks to go see a play. Step outside the TV/Hamburger Helper/sports box at least once.

"It drives me crazy that there are still people in this community who have never gone to a play, yet they have all tried drinking, smoking and drugs. I've done lots of school programs, performing music, historical events and vocal seminars, plus I've done countless benefits, fund-raisers and tours."

What would surprise people about your performance? "I was told to pick whatever role I wanted in Stage 3's 'Steel Magnolias' (which closed May 18). Normally I would have played Truvy. She's funny, sexy, gossipy, a town character. Most of my roles have been either comedic, sexpots or the fluffy lead roles. Instead, I chose M'Lynn, who is calm, controlled, professional and is more grounded. I wanted to see if I personally have matured enough to play a role so different from my norm. The reviews have been stellar, so I think I achieved my goal.

"This past year, I have played a developmentally disabled adult, a disorganized theater manager and a Dust Bowl refugee. I am living my childhood dream. It doesn't get better than that."

-- LISA MILLEGAN/THE BEE

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