If Sue Turner-Cray invites you to her Santa Ynez Valley home, be careful where you step. “I’m constantly folding origami cranes,” warned the award-winning actress and writer. “I’ve got buckets of cranes around the house. I’m getting more eccentric as I grow older.”
Perhaps so. But from her life story — which is the basis of her one-woman show Manchester Girl, which she performs this weekend at the Center Stage Theater — one gets the impression that she has always had a proclivity for the offbeat and unconventional.
After all, here’s a woman who escaped dreary northern England by becoming a model and moving to Japan. While that chapter of her life is the focus of her play, the rest is pretty interesting, as well: moving to America, becoming an actress, marrying blues musician Robert Cray, and balancing her artistic aspirations with the full-time job that is raising her son.
“My priorities have changed,” she said. “I feel like I’m freer onstage. I’m doing it more now for the joy of performance.”
During her early years in the U.S., while studying acting at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and then pursuing a career in Los Angeles, Turner-Cray talked little about the time she spent as a fashion model in Japan. “I found it kind of embarrassing,” she recalled. “I was mortified by some of the things I did. You go through a lot of things for a 17-year-old girl, including drugs, date rape, and what I call ‘fascist dieting.’”
But at some point, she said, “I just needed to write something.” So she started creating the monologues that would ultimately turn into her one-woman, 11-character show.
“My hairdresser at the time was from Manchester, and I had been giving her little snippets [while getting my hair done],” Turner-Cray said. “She, by chance, had a friend who was the artistic director of a theater in Palos Verdes. They had a cancellation and asked me to come audition. Three weeks later, I was performing it.”
That was in 2002. Later that year, she brought the show to Los Angeles, and two years later, she took it to the Edinburgh Festival and then to London, earning enthusiastic reviews at each stop. After that, she took a break to have her son and deal with the death of a parent.
But recently she has been revisiting the material, adding a new ending, a geisha dance, a multimedia component created by Academy Award–winning film editor Richard Harris, and a few of the aforementioned cranes. She premiered this new version at a small Santa Ynez Valley theater last fall. After the brief Santa Barbara run, she will perform it as part of a solo theater festival in New York City.
“It’s 75 percent based on my life, but I gave myself artistic license to [use stories] from other girls’ lives, as well,” she explained. “There are many things that happened to me, along with others that I heard about and saw. It was a pretty decadent time. People did die of overdoses.”
For all the dark episodes she experienced and witnessed, however, “I don’t see myself as having been exploited,” she said. “I went in with my eyes open. I was grateful for the opportunity to get out of the industrial north [of England].”
And it’s that determination, Turner-Cray added, that audiences seem to latch onto.
“People tell me that it’s really empowering,” she said. “The audience meets her as an underdog, and they go through her obstacles with her. She’s striving to live outside of her comfort zone, and watching her do that makes people a little bit braver.
“One of the things [my character] says a lot is, ‘Why not?’ ‘Why can’t I?’ I think a lot of people leave the theater going, ‘Why not for me, too?’”
Manchester Girl plays Thursday-Saturday, June 12-14, at 8 p.m. at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo). Call (805) 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org for tickets and info.