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In Memoriam: Sylvia Short, 1927-2018

Doyenne of Santa Barbara Theater


Sylvia Short blew the roof off the Center Stage Theater in her 2017 performance as Elizabeth Bishop in Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth. Her participation in the fundraiser for Center Stage was her final triumph in a long and distinguished career in theater and film. She was ever a Shakespeare aficionado, unparalleled storyteller, and singer of Irish songs, and she loved Santa Barbara and its ocean.

Born in 1927 in Concord, Massachusetts, Sylvia attended Smith College, studying acting with Hallie Flanagan Davis; after graduating, she trained on a two-year Fulbright at the Old Vic Theatre School in London. On her return to the States, she studied with Uta Hagen, winning the Barter Theatre Award, bestowed by Fredric March, in 1952, after which she toured the country with the Barter performing repertory, the first of her many Shakespearean roles that of Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

In The Taming of the Shrew, she played Kate opposite Fritz Weaver, her fellow Barter Theatre Award winner; he became her leading man in real life. They married and moved to New York to begin their careers on the New York stage in 1954. In 1956, Sylvia was cast as Regan in Orson Welles’s production of King Lear; Welles was so bowled over at her audition that he offered her the role on the spot.

While raising her two children in New York City on a hiatus from acting, Sylvia earned her PhD in marine biology, eventually teaching it at NYU, oceanic life being one of her fascinations. She returned to the theater in the late ’70s, teaching at Juilliard and performing in plays at the Phoenix Theatre, American Place, and Manhattan Theatre Club, among others, as well as in Broadway shows such as Hugh Leonard’s Da. She appeared in Marjorie Kellogg’s play The Smile of the Cardboard Man in a production at HB Studio.

Marjorie Kellogg was the second great love of Sylvia’s life. The two moved to Santa Barbara in 1990, and Sylvia entered the world of regional theater, playing Lady Bracknell at the Guthrie Theater and touring in many productions at La Jolla Playhouse and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, among others. In California she appeared in TV shows and movies (including The Birdcage with Robin Williams) before becoming the doyenne of the theater scene in Santa Barbara.

In Santa Barbara, Sylvia was in her element. Her love of the ocean was one of her defining features; in her 90 years on both coasts, she came to know the moods and intricacies of both the Atlantic and the Pacific. An ace body surfer, a sailor, an inveterate snorkeler, and a whale docent and volunteer at the Marine Center, she also voluntarily did research involving plankton samples at Ellwood Pier in a study of algae blooms. When she wasn’t in or on the ocean, she was singing with the Master Chorale, music being another of her myriad passions.

Her wide-ranging interests and talents were all fulfilled with a dedication and an excellence that informed everything she undertook, but it was the theater in Santa Barbara where she shone brightest. In 1990, she joined the Ensemble Theatre, playing in Gertrude Stein and a Companion (1992 Drama-Logue Award), Lettice and Lovage, and A Perfect Ganesh, among many others, including Painting Churches (1994 Drama-Logue Award), and The Road to Mecca, winning an Independent theater award.

She went on to star in The Beauty Queen of Leenane at City College and Last Days of the Empire at Center Stage, and appeared many times in the Speaking of Stories programs. With each production, she engendered profound and lasting connections with other actors as well as writers and directors.

In her later years she taught an informal Shakespeare workshop at her home, encouraging her students to stretch beyond their perceived limits, to embrace Shakespeare’s language; her mantra was “Let his words tell you what to do.” Her students adored her for her energy and passion, her wit and intellect, and her generosity in sharing her wealth of experience and knowledge, not to mention her sometimes ribald, always fascinating theater stories.

Sylvia died on Saturday, April 14, at Cottage Hospital with her children by her side. She was 90.

Hers was a long life, well lived and well loved. Sylvia garnered many devoted friends of all generations. They admired her for demonstrating what’s possible in one’s third act and applauded her talent, fierce energy, and passion for life, which she carried to the end.

She is survived by her children, Lydia and Tony Weaver; their spouses, Bruce Ostler and Luciana Maiorana, respectively; and her beloved grandson, Sam Ostler.

A memorial is in the planning stages for early October.

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