COLORADO SPRINGS. It seems that Mary Ernster has always had grease paint in her blood. Growing up in Colorado Springs she participated in community theater while attending St. Mary’s High School. After graduating from SMHS in 1974, she majored in vocal performance and then went on to have a successful theater career in Chicago. Earlier this year, however, Ernster reached the pinnacle for a musical theater performer when she appeared on Broadway in the musical “War Paint.”
“War Paint” opened at the Nederlander Theater on Broadway in April after a pre-Broadway run at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in the summer of 2016. Ernster was one of only two actors from Chicago cast in the Broadway production. She was cast in multiple roles, including Society Doyenne, and was the understudy for the Elizabeth Arden role. Lead actresses Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole and the rest of the cast were brought in from New York.
LuPone and Ebersole, both two-time Tony Award winners, are big names in the theater world but were very down to earth to work with, Ernster said. While Broadway is the epitome of the theater experience in the United States, Ernster said the work of theater is the same no matter where the show is being produced.
“Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone were not diva-ish at all,” she said. “They were both hard working and diligent. You create theater as an ensemble and everyone worked together as a team. The work itself is the same whether you are doing regional theater, Broadway or off Broadway.”
What was different about doing a Broadway show was the atmosphere surrounding it. The theaters are older, dressing rooms are small, and famous people often come backstage to say hello and offer congratulations to the cast.
“We had 11 women in one dressing room with one bathroom,” Ernster said. “I had to go up and down six flights of stairs to get to the dressing room. It’s really unglamorous, but I never knew who I would meet on that staircase.”
Ernster said performing on Broadway was an amazing experience after more than 35 years of doing theater in Chicago. But her theater experience in Chicago has been amazing and fulfilling in its own right. After earning her master’s degree in opera from Northwestern University, Ernster auditioned for a show in Chicago, got her Actor’s Equity Card, and met Kyle Andrews, whom she would marry. Ernster and Andrews, an air traffic controller, have been married for 22 years have one daughter, Isabella, who is currently a junior at Wright State University, where she studies musical theater.
“For 20 years I was at home taking care of and supporting our daughter,” Ernster said. “I never auditioned for shows that were going out of town. But Chicago has a thriving theater life.”
That thriving community has allowed Ernster to work consistently while raising her daughter. After years of working with the same directors and theaters, Ernster is now at a place in her career where she is called to consider roles and rarely, if ever, auditions. She said it’s a nice place to be; now that she’s built a network, she said work continually comes in.
A career as an actress is not always an easy road, but Ernster said she always felt that her parents and family have supported her dreams. In fact, her parents, Al and Jody, and her four siblings — Joel, Greg, Scott, and Molly —were in New York on Nov. 4 to celebrate Al’s 90th birthday and attend a performance of “War Paint.”
“While they may have wished I had pursued a different career, to my parents' credit they never told me to not follow my passion,” Ernster said. “They always supported me; I found my way and have made a nice living from it.”
One role that has come to Ernster multiple times is the role of Anna in “The King and I;” it is the role that ranks as one of her favorites. She first performed the role in 1982, then again in 2001 and 2006. She said it has been fun later in her career to have some of the children from her first turn at Anna visit her at other performances.
Ernster said another favorite to perform is “110 in the Shade” because it features a lovely score. She has performed other well-known roles such as Marian in “The Music Man” and Sarah Brown in “Guys and Dolls.” Each character holds a special place in her heart, Ernster said.
Aspiring thespians shouldn’t despair about being in a school with a smaller theater program or having fewer opportunities in high school, Ernster said. The key is to get as much experience as possible, get a degree from one of the many phenomenal theater programs in the U.S., and get out there and see what happens.
“You don’t need money to be a storyteller, and that’s really what theater is,” Ernster said. “It’s more important to bring yourself to the production, that your work is honest. To tell the story, you have to use your person; that’s the tool you need most to be successful.”
While St. Mary’s didn’t have a thriving fine arts program in the 1970s when Ernster attended, she feels that what she learned during high school has helped her succeed in theater. The academic rigor of St. Mary’s taught her how to research and encouraged her not to give up easily. Both lessons have served her well.
“St. Mary’s has a tremendous value system and that will hold you in good stead, not matter what career you pursue,” she said. “But St. Mary’s also taught me discipline, to be curious, and how to find the information I was curious about. A performance is always better if the actor understands the historical or political angles behind the story. I had great history teachers who taught me how look things up.”
War Paint closed its Broadway run in early November. Ernster is taking time off and will visit family and friends in Europe in the spring with her husband and daughter. After that, she will see what comes her way.
“It’s a new adventure,” she said.
(Amy G. Partain is director of communications for St. Mary’s High School.)