In the fourth grade, in Lafayette, Louisiana, Sarah Newport was cast as the mother in a Hansel and Gretel operetta. What she thought was a stomachache due to stage fright turned out to be a ruptured appendix, and it took Sarah until she was 45 years old to get back on stage as an actor. She does remember going to see a touring production of “Life With Father,” and being transfixed watching the two little boys who were just her age, wondering, “How in the world did they get to do that?” Her desire to act was born then and there.
Wanting to Minister through Music
Growing up in the choir loft of the Methodist church, Sarah learned to read music and sing alto. She studied in college to become a minister of music. During her senior year, the federal government sent the school choir on a good will tour of Asia, where they spent a semester touring 20 Asian countries. In 1956, they spent Christmas in Saigon, and Sarah visited a refugee camp with her host. It changed her life, and confirmed her desire to minister through music.
Becoming Sarah Newport
After graduation, Sarah got a job as minister of music and youth director in a little church in Wheeling, WV. During her fourth year there, Sarah fell in love with a woman. She says of that time: “That was the first time I knew who I was, and it was shocking. It wasn’t okay; I worked for the church. I didn’t know any lesbians; there was no community. I couldn’t tell my minister, I couldn’t tell my best friend. I had never heard of women living together, but I hoped that she would leave her husband and live with me.”
Sarah was totally isolated, trying to stay in her church, and decided that she needed to do penance and live a “right life.” She married her husband, Jim, and vowed to be perfect in her new role. Sarah says that’s where she really learned to act. Her husband was transferred to Chicago. By then Sarah had two daughters. When her older daughter was in preschool, Sarah took a swim class at the YWCA and fell in love with her teacher. Sarah decided that she would go crazy if she stayed married to Jim while loving someone else, even though she felt guilty about hurting him. Sarah and her new partner, Julie, moved to LaCrosse, where she got a job teaching music at Cathedral School, before moving on to a job as a music teacher in the Onalaska public schools.
After 11 years, Julie fell in love with someone else. Sarah didn’t know any other lesbians. She was 44, and super-closeted because she didn’t want her girls to suffer, and she wanted to keep her job (there weren’t any out lesbian school teacher in 1974). Once Sarah started to recover from the devastating breakup, she realized that her daughters were worried about her health, since she had lost so much weight. Sarah says, “I sat them down and told them what was going on, and that I didn’t have cancer, but that Julie and I had broken up. Their response was ‘Thank goodness you’re not going to die, you’re just a lesbian.’ Over the next few months, they started deciding about which of their friends to come out, they started talking to me more openly about their lives and their friends. When they got to college, they were really pleased that they could be more out about me. One of the first things they did when they started dating someone was make them pass the litmus test of being okay with mom’s being gay.”
Many years later, now married/divorced, the mother of two girls, and an out lesbian, Sarah decided that she wanted a little part in a play, “just to be on stage for a few minutes.” She auditioned for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, not wanting a role, but just to practice. “I was scared, but told myself that I don’t know any of these people and it didn’t matter if I made a fool of myself,” she said. “Well, lo and behold someone I knew well was there. The director called my friend and me up to read first. Being in the theater, under the lights, was magical. I didn’t want to stop when the director called time on us. I got the part of the school principal.”
Sarah and her daughters moved to Madison in 1975, but she didn’t do theater again until Another Round six years ago. She saw an audition notice for this play set in a lesbian bar, and I thought, “I could sit at a table and be an extra.” She was cast as the bartender.
Megan Cavanaugh, who came in from LA to direct, pointed out the Hannah Free listing on the StageQ season poster, told Sarah that she was a natural and needed to keep acting. Sarah thought, “Well, it’s about older women, I can go get a small role. I didn’t realize it was just two older women.” Sarah was offered the role of Hannah.
“I fell in love with the play, with Hannah, with Rachel. That month of rehearsals was the hardest month I can remember,” she remembers. “I felt so imperfect. All of the other actors seemed to know what they were doing, and I didn’t. I was trying to be Hannah. I struggled and struggled and worked and worked. I didn’t know what a big deal Sarah Whelan, who played Rachel was, and here I was a total neophyte. I was bawling all the way home from every rehearsal because I was so afraid I was going to wreck the play.
Hannah Free director Roseann Sheridan gave Sarah two solo rehearsals; one was just before final dress rehearsal, and she told her the time had come for Hannah to find her voice. Hannah, at the end of her life, was older than Sarah, and so Sarah needed a more elderly voice for that part of her role. She visualized an old friend of hers, and tried his voice. “Roseann loved it, and from then on it was so easy. Right after that rehearsal, I just sang and laughed and did my lines in that voice,” Sarah said.
Ultimately, Sarah said, “I loved telling Hannah’s story; I wanted everyone to come hear it.” People still tell StageQ that Sarah’s performance as Hannah Free is one of the most memorable roles they’ve ever seen.
Into the Future
Sarah hasn’t looked back. She says that she fell in love with the Bartell Theater, and went on to roles in Gays of Our Lives, Walmartopia, The Crone Show, Queer Shorts, and Riot Acts. And she continues her involvement in community theater. Why? “I feel that my head and my heart and my spirit are finally connected.”