Sharon Lawrence ’83 – My Carolina Story

For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings, and we are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.

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“I was embraced by a radically artistic group of department heads who saw potential in me that I had not imagined.”

Jan. 13, 2018

Sharon Lawrence '83

Sharon Lawrence ’83

I want to dispel the false expectation that as a professional actress, I would be the board member most likely to have completely memorized and prepared remarks, because for the past few days I have been spending my RAM in my brain learning and relearning my closing arguments to the Supreme Court as I play opposite legal counsel in How To Get Away With Murder to an Academy Award-winning actress, Viola Davis.

For 35 years I have been an actress, and it really did give me the opportunity to play many women from power and privilege and access. That seemed to be the types of roles that came my way, certainly on screen. There are people that assume actors are like the roles they play, but I want to dispel another myth. I am a public school gal. All of my family were public school trained except for my dad who went to that small university in Evanston, Northwestern. All the rest of us are public school products. It was something I take great pride in. I also come from a family of storytellers. We were very good at that. My grandparents and all of their siblings who were educated during the Depression became doctors, teachers, accountants and engineers. We all invested in public schools and cared deeply about them. The fact that I was lucky enough to go to public school through the ’60s and ’80s was a real advantage to me and led me to my profession. The public schools in North Carolina are really committed to the performing arts. I know that is why I am making a good living today.

I participated in that world through singing in choirs and performing in musicals. It was my natural aptitude and my natural legacy being born to those storytellers. The other legacy I get from my family is pragmatism. Watching television gave me a lot of role models to aspire to as an independent, self-sufficient career woman. I want all of you here to recognize that the power of Mary Tyler Moore and her show is in evidence here in this room. Those types of role models on screen matter. They are what gave me the confidence to move out beyond a traditional role model.  My dad was a journalist in Charlotte and Raleigh, and I intended to go into that field. My aunt had gone to Carolina and several of my dad’s cousins. We didn’t spend a lot of time here when I was growing up. I did apply to several schools in the N.C. system, but I remember my interview in admissions here and it went well. That was my power zone. I knew when the acceptance letter came that I would follow in my father’s footsteps in the news business because the journalism school here was well known and still is of the highest caliber.

My first years at Carolina revealed to me there were more options than I had ever imagined. My first residence hall was Aycock, which had only recently undergone a gender transformation. It was now a woman’s dorm, having been an all-men’s dorm. We were the only female dorm in the upper and lower quad, and we celebrated the urinals in the bathroom by planting plants in those porcelain receptacles. My first roommate was from Gastonia. She and her boyfriend had a friend on the Carolina basketball team, the 1979-80 team. He was a freshman by the name of James Worthy. I didn’t grow up watching basketball. My dad was a race car driver.  That is what we spent our weekends doing. I had also never met anyone in my life so tall. I can tell you I was excited to watch him play and seeing a college game in Carmichael Auditorium for the first time. What I had not counted on was that I was also going to watch someone break their leg. It was a shocking, heartbreaking moment. The fact that it was someone I knew made it all the more stunning. What broke my heart weeks later was thinking about our insensitive visit to his dorm room. We rubber-necked at this poor, broken warrior in his bed, and it has stuck with me since: Observing people when they are most vulnerable and how we sometimes forget the human aspect to the athletes we admire.

Another awakening in Aycock dorm was volunteering for a student hotline for sexual assault. We didn’t call it that then. We called it the rape hotline that later evolved into a program called Safe Walk, which offers companions for females to get from one place on campus to another – anyplace. I had never felt unsafe in my environments growing up, and I know how fortunate I am to say that. And I did not feel unsafe at Carolina. I learned from a resident adviser in one of the men’s dorms who led this initiative that the potential for danger was really there on our campus, and it was before our culture really educated young people that “no” means “no.” It opened my eyes in a practical sense and opened my consciousness to what I realize was the beginnings of a lifelong advocacy for women which I am still very much invested in today.

I don’t want to suggest my freshman year was such a downer, although it sounds like it was. I had a lot of advantages. I had scholarships from my title in the Junior Miss Pageant, which was a scholarship pageant, now called the Distinguished Young Women of America. I paid for two years of college through that scholarship money. I was also a lead singer in a rock ’n’ roll band.  This band was formed by a talented keyboard player at Broughton High School, where I attended, and he was my boyfriend at Broughton. We revived the band here at Carolina, and we were sophisticated. We played Super Tramp and Steely Dan. He was incredibly talented. Our drummer was a brother at the Chi Phi house, and we rehearsed there in that beer-scented basement. I will never forget a very rare privilege of performing on the quad at Spring Fling. I don’t know if they even have that anymore, but that for me was an understanding that I had a place at Carolina as a performer. The band sort of dissipated, but it gave me a real sense of confidence that in such a big environment I would actually be able to hold a stage.

I needed to earn money so I found my first job as a waitress at Harrison’s – another basement restaurant next to the Rathskeller. The skills learned there proved to be important ones I had to rely on in years to come as an actress. I am still pretty good at carrying multiple plates and glasses. I lost out on the dorm lottery my sophomore year and had to live off campus. That was an impetus to look at Greek life because it was a way to stay engaged on campus. I pledged Alpha Chi Omega, was pledge class president and made a dear and lasting friendship with my big sister, Jane Stancill. She is still one of my soulmates. Together, we found our way to pursue our true passions. For her, it was medicine – she is a doctor now. And I realized I would rather spend time in the theater department than in the sorority and frat houses. That was an important thing for me to understand – that my free time was more valuable to me than my social time. I had to find that balance.

Professor Lloyd Kramer, who received our Faculty Alumni Award, reminded me why history was one of my favorite fields of study at Carolina. He talked about why the liberal arts matter and how we need to understand why humans do things in the way in which we do them. The study of history has many parallels with the study of drama, and a good history professor tells a story that engages us. One of my favorite storytellers was Professor James Leutze. He thrilled me about how he taught about military history, and I invested hard-earned money into taking one of the trips to the Civil War battlefields. I will never forget that experience. It changed the way I thought about the South, and I know how lucky I was to have had him while he was in his prime.

My sophomore year I took a speech class and was cast in the Readers’ Theatre play. I played the lead role of an elderly but romantic woman. It was a big deal, not only because it was a move for me from musicals to a straight play, but it was the first time I really considered myself an actress. I was anointed by a North Carolina treasure, Martha Nelle Hardy, who was a titan in the Readers’ Theatre and speech world across the country. She was also a beloved member of a very important cultural North Carolina treasure, our outdoor drama business. Have you ever seen Unto These Hills in Cherokee? She was in that cast for probably 25 or 30 years. I was still unknown at that time to the theater department, but some representatives from there saw me in a supporting role in the production of Cabaret that the Carolina Union did. The theater department offered me to audition for a series of Tennessee Williams plays, and through that process I learned that it was OK to risk the disappointment of not being cast rather than to sit on the sidelines. That was very tempting to me just to sit back and assume that if I wasn’t in the department that I wouldn’t be considered. I think I made up that story in my head to protect myself from the real risk of rejection and the embarrassment that accompanies it. The life of an artist is filled with rejection. There is no way to avoid that disappointment. I have learned that there is no way of pursuing your passion without putting yourself out there on the line and risking it.

I was cast and I was embraced by a radically artistic group of department heads who saw potential in me that I had not imagined, supporting roles with the graduate students and professional actors who are hired from New York to come down to play at the Paul Green Theatre Company. I became an apprentice to the craft of acting. Chekov’s Three Sisters that taught me concentration on a classic playwright. Our leaders, David Rothenburg and Gregory Boyd, were Meryl Streep’s classmates at Yale. They were so sophisticated that they developed Broadway-bound projects at the Paul Green Theatre. I had the opportunity to create original roles. That is so unique as an undergraduate. I worked with professionals from New York who stretched my abilities from Shakespeare to avant garde performing at such a high level.

I worked on excellent sets that pushed the boundaries of their technological accomplishments and prowess and developed skills for their students, off stage as well as on stage. I worked with one of the top-rated costume departments in the country. We have a stock of costumes that are built for each actor and warehoused that rivals any in the country. Those things are important for an actor. I never knew that coming to Carolina would give me this level similar to what I would have gotten at a conservatory program. Because these theater pros invited me into that creative space, I learned this technique. I was inspired by the graduate students. I also had real inspiration in the journalism department from John Sweeney ’86 (MEd). He was a pro in advertising, and that was the track I was actually pursuing at the time. I sang one of my marketing presentations, and he was impressed with my voice and took the time to contact one of his colleagues in Chicago in the ad world to listen to my vocal tape. I got great feedback and learned that I had potential to become a professional singer. Also, at UNC, we support something called the Southeastern Theatre Conference. This is a professional organization that offers audition opportunities and employment networking for theaters all around the Southeast. I was cast in really important theaters and performing in opportunities like the Farmhouse in Blowing Rock (I spent two summers there), Jenny Wiley Outdoor Music Theatre in Kentucky and East Carolina summer music program that truly is one of the best. We spend a lot of money on these programs, and we employ a lot of people who add to the economic well-being of our state and our region. It is something Carolina should be proud of.

One of the other highlights of my life here was through my Greek world of friendships. Harriet Morrison ’83 and I became founding members of the Order of the Bell Tower. It was just one of the interesting opportunities to engage with other people on different levels, and it also allowed me to attend my first football bowl game, the Cotton Bowl. We won that game and I remember celebrating. We had entre and access because we were with the GAA, and I ran into one of my speech classmates, a very happy and proud Lawrence Taylor ’81, who lovingly referred to me as “little Lawrence” all through our classes.

I benefited from not only this University, but this Chapel Hill community at large. I sang at the Miss North Carolina pageant, not as a contestant but as a filler during the judging period. A pianist there invited me to be a lounge singer at Mister Harvey’s Bistro in Durham. I learned a great classic, The American Song Book, there with him. I was invited to perform a new cabaret review at Slug’s at the Pines in Chapel Hill. Every night, I was given the opportunity to perform in front of live audiences. This was invaluable. It not only gave me a sense of what it was like to hold my own in front of a live audience, but I met someone who became my soul brother. A guy name Jeff Smith ’82, who is also a Tar Heel. He was a pro from New York. After he decided to go back to school here at UNC, get his degree in history and open his own business as a marketing executive with his own PR firm, we have stayed connected. He is now one of my best friends in Los Angeles, and he is on the GAA ballot for the position on the West Coast.

After graduation, I did a final season at Summer Stock and had made enough friends and support that it convinced me to give performing five years. If it didn’t work out, I was going to take my journalism degree, and the newly formed CNN was a place that I knew was open to women. Bobbie Batista, who was on the air at WRAL with my dad, was the lead anchor there, and I believed I could give myself this window of pursuing something that didn’t feel pragmatic but I had a passion for. I got performance work right away on a cruise ship, and I felt like I could compete in the big time. I waited on a lot more tables and had lots of auditions and invested in dance classes and voice, constantly building my equipment. Role by role, I developed my resume, some of them right here in the Triangle where I was a founding artist of the now nationally recognized North Carolina Theatre in Raleigh which for over 30 years has employed literally thousands of people from New York and the Triangle. This opened the doors to so many young people who now have had a chance to learn through our camp and find a love not just performing, but as audience members — a very key component to learn what it means to have live theater in your life.

I toured the country with Broadway shows and also played on Broadway in Zorba, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret and Chicago. I didn’t have many opportunities to come back to Carolina. Believe me, an eight-show-a-week schedule with five of those shows on the weekend, it doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility with travel. When I moved to California to pursue television, I started attending some of the events in Los Angeles. I attended some different events in different cities with alumni groups. I was invited to speak here at the journalism school about how Hollywood actually views and creates protection for our intellectual property. I had been in the Women in Film organization for quite some time at that point and had a perspective on this. I was also honored with an invitation by Holden Thorp ’86, who was running the Planetarium at the time, to narrate one of our feature programs.

In 1998, I received the Distinguished Young Alumni Award, which was more encouragement, and it brought me back into the GAA orbit and the service of the commander of its mission control, Doug Dibbert ’70. That award certificate occupies a pretty big space on my wall in my office at home and an even bigger space in my heart. Sitting on this board, I have seen leaders, advocates and people like Teresa Williams ’77, who has been the GAA chair for most of my term. They have inspired me. The people on the Enrichment and the Awards Committees gave me the opportunity to hear and learn about the accomplishments and the high level the GAA staff expects and the range of programs offered here. We all have had this same feeling. The excellence and the progressive nature of our Tar Heel network in reaching for greatness and accomplishing excellence is awe inspiring.

From Los Angeles, it takes a day to get here and a day to get back and has brought me closer again to Carolina with our Hollywood Intern Program. I have met and made new family of Tar Heel fellows, and I am a mentor to them. I am a financial contributor to the Program in the Humanities and all these meaningful experiences that take seniors and offer them internship positions with all types of Hollywood industries. These relationships have really opened doors for many people in their careers. I have watched these west coast Tar Heels gather primarily during basketball season.  he times we are winning and playing in tournaments is the time when we get together. It is such a geographically challenging region. That social club is becoming more and more engaged and doing interesting things. Bekah Brunstetter ’04 is writing for This is Us.  Rebecca Black ’08 produced a documentary on street kids in Hollywood, Andrew Carlberg ’07 produces theater in Los Angeles and New York. Two young ladies I met at The Carolina Club viewing for the championship game here in April are Morehead Scholars, one working at Cal Tech and the other at Spacex. A whole gang of young grads have migrated to LA to work for Elon Musk’s Solar City and in Silicon Valley. My cousin, John Tumbleston, who got his master’s and Ph.D. here in physics, now runs the 3D printing program for our UNC tech rock star and alumni award recipient, Joe DeSimone, at Carbon.

One of the most courageous endeavors and one that means a lot to me is The Daily Tar Heel, Andrea Pino ’17, who was one of the subjects in that powerful documentary, The Hunting Ground, about sexual assaults on campuses.  She spoke out, she took the University on, and she has laid groundwork for that cultural shift that Chancellor Folt spoke about. It brings me full circle. Advocacy for women, changing the culture and recognizing that the voice in this moment in time of the #MeToo movement could not have happened without people like Mary Tyler Moore, without this University. The leaders who I meet who come to Los Angeles are Susan King from the School of Media and Journalism, Pat Parker from the Communications School and Vivienne Benesch who is running the Theater Department and is a Julliard-trained professional. The women’s leadership here is so powerful.

These doors that opened into my life that I did not anticipate, I will keep walking through them. The friendships that I found here with my fellow Rudys, you know you are. If you are new here and you don’t, ask Greg Parent ’92, who represents the Atlanta contingency. All the teammates I served with on these committees and when I walk through the doors of this beautiful hall, where everyone welcomes not only me, but my parents. This means so much to me. They are, as my dad says, my Ubers here when I arrive. My own personal door in Los Angeles will always open to my fellow southern California Carolina alums. It all makes my life richer. I am, indeed, a woman not just playing but living a life of power and privilege and access by virtual of the fact that I received a public education right here at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.