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Young theater artist Bess Moynihan to St. Louis: Love ya, gotta go

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 24, 2012 - Ambitious and versatile theater professional Bess Moynihan has big dreams. But just five years after graduating from Fontbonne University, she’s pretty much achieved all she can in St. Louis.

You’ve heard of a triple threat: someone who acts, dances and sings. Moynihan’s something like a nine-fold threat. Her repertoire also includes production management (currently for HotCity Theatre, Fontbonne’s student shows and its Mustard Seed Theatre), adjunct faculty member (at Fontbonne) and master electrician and shop supervisor (for Mustard Seed).

“I teach, I design lights, I hang all the lights, orchestrate all the work calls, deal with all the designers and help with the budget,” Moynihan said.

But a young woman with all this get-up-and-go likely has to, well, get up and go -- away from St. Louis -- to reach her potential in theater production.

“All the bigger jobs are taken and those people are going to keep them forever,” Moynihan said. “I’m 26 years old and in a time of major transition where all the decisions I need to make need to be for me -- and that’s terrifying.”

Lessons forged in fire

Growing up in Columbia, Mo., in what Moynihan described as “a family of lawyers and accountants” (Gov. Jay Nixon’s her uncle, her mom’s a CPA), she enjoyed tap, jazz, ballet and soccer as well as a fortunate birth order.

“The middle child and the only girl -- it’s the sweet spot,” she said.

She got her first break in theater and dance at the age of 7 when the Dallas Ballet auditioned her for a local presentation of “The Nutcracker.”

“I was the baker’s child, and the next year I graduated to a mouse,” Moynihan said.

Theater camp filled several summers. Puppetry was also a passion. But when she was 14, a real-life drama changed her life when a clothes dryer caught fire and burned her family’s home to the ground.

The Moynihans were away and unharmed but they lost their chocolate Lab, Mocha, as well as many important mementos including family photos. What Moynihan gained was a deeper appreciation for the people she loves and a determination to live life, not just make a living.

“I’ve decided to pursue something l love to do, instead of finding a career that supports a certain kind of lifestyle,” Moynihan said.

Electrifying determination

Fontbonne’s director of theater Deanna Jent -- whose play “Falling” recently opened Off Broadway -- first noticed Moynihan’s intense drive when she decided to branch out from her chief interest, acting, and add lighting to her skill set.

“She just dove into that,” Jent said. “She was up on the catwalks, reading the drawings and moving the lights around, and I thought, ‘Wow, she can do anything she wants.’”

But even a hardworking, level-headed young woman can’t escape societal pressures to also be beautiful and thin.

“Do I look skinny?” Moynihan laughed, emphasizing a clavicle as she turned to the videocamera to talk about the St. Louis theater scene.

But despite being a “blonde bombshell,” as some have described her, Moynihan prefers playing characters who emote intelligence and depth rather than sex appeal. Her favorite role, as a Fontbonne sophomore, was that of Catherine, the brilliant, disheveled daughter of a mentally ill math genius in “Proof.”

“That was a really awesome opportunity for me to be something other than the silly sister or the pretty bimbo,” Moynihan said.

After graduating college in 2008, she kept her hand in acting, but lighting gigs at Opera Theatre and other venues paid the bills.

“To make a point to my family and myself, I decided I would really, really try to make my living in theater,” Moynihan said.

Now that she’s also working as a production manager, teaching and more, Moynihan’s goal is to narrow her focus.

“My dream job is to have just one job,” Moynihan said. “I have to do a thousand things in order to make enough money to live on.”

‘New York State of Mind’

Several of Moynihan’s friends are beckoning her to New York City. Although she appreciates the opportunities she’s found in St. Louis, she often thinks about joining them in the Big Apple or venturing to another larger city. But first, she’s getting her ducks in a row to be ready for the right moment.

“My life has been sort of serendipitous in a way that things have kind of unfolded and worked out, and I don’t want to go to New York on a whim,” Moynihan said.

Moynihan’s already into a “New York State of Mind,” according to her friend, stage manager Danny Maly, who relocated there from St. Louis. The Billy Joel song is a staple when Moynihan sings karaoke, an activity Maly and Moynihan enjoy over their favorite vodka, soda and lemon cocktails.

If Moynihan does join him in New York, she'd find plenty of theater opportunities, Maly said.

“She could get a lot of work here,” Maly said. “She has the driving force and the glue that can hold a team of collaborators together.”

Jent agreed that Moynihan will go far, no matter what her destination.

“She’ll be a success wherever she wants to be,” Jent said.

Whether in New York, L.A. or in between, Moynihan expects to enjoy every minute of making the magic of theater happen with others who share her dream.

“Everything’s always changing,” Moynihan said. “You’re always meeting new people, working on new projects and going on new journeys together.”

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