Until Evansville native Cheryl Ann Sanders was 15 years old, she wanted to be a professional race car driver. But during her first season in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation/Public Education Foundation’s summer musical program, Sanders, then a North High School student, grew convinced she could make a living in theater. After graduating from Webster University’s theater arts conservatory in 2003, Sanders taught musical theater at Signature School and acting at the University of Southern Indiana, choreographed numerous high school musicals, and worked as an actress in professional theaters across the region.
After a friend submitted Sanders’ resume to the casting team at Cirque du Soleil, Sanders was invited to audition. After a seven-hour audition in Chicago and a callback on stage in Orlando, Fla., Sanders was cast as La Petite Madame (or The Cleaning Lady) in La Nouba, the troupe’s permanent show at Walt Disney World. She moved to Orlando in May and premiered in La Nouba less than three weeks later. Her current contract runs through December 2011.
While Sanders’ character doesn’t participate in the show’s jaw-dropping circus acts — aerial ballet, high wire, or power track and trampoline — she’s a central figure in La Nouba, named for the French phrase meaning “live it up.” When La Petite Madame opens the door to a long-abandoned attic, “she walks into this scary, fascinating world and lets herself dream,” says Sanders, who performs 10 shows a week. “It is very much a fairy tale as only Cirque du Soleil would tell.”
As a child, how were you exposed to the arts?
My parents (Pam, the owner of Creative Embroidery Designs, and Jay, who teaches automotive technology at the EVSC’s Southern Indiana Career and Technical Center) placed me in dance class when I was 3 years old, and I fell in love with performing. At recital time, I was the little kid in front cheesing it up for the audience when the others in my group were watching the teachers off in the wings. I got involved in more theatrical ventures through my dancing abilities and discovered I could sing when I was about 10 years old.
Musical theater requires per-formers to act, sing, and dance. Are you partial to one of these?
No, not really. All of these disciplines help tell a story. A great actor can reel you into their world and communicate with words. The singer picks up with song when mere text can no longer support the emotion, and the dancer is the embodiment of feelings. When all words, lyrics, and music are not enough, movement is the most universal form of communication.
What goes through your mind when you’re onstage?
I think about ways to make my performance just as honest as it was the very first night. I focus on the action around me and remain aware of my surroundings. Should something happen that is unplanned, I need to be able to respond in an appropriate manner to keep the show going.
What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you during a performance? How did you handle it?
That’s the joy of live theater: Anything can happen and usually does. There haven’t been too many crazy nights on stage here yet. But I’ve had my fair share of “oops” moments at other theaters: I’ve fallen two feet through Plexiglas and into a platform and had numerous wardrobe malfunctions in front of sold-out audiences. You just have to roll with it. If audience members want to see a perfectly put-together and controlled performance, they can go to the movies.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given about performing?
It actually came from my parents, who are not stage parents or used to being in front of people. They’ve always said to simply enjoy what I’m doing and do it to the best of my ability. My mom always told me that if I was the third tree on the left, to give it my all and be the best tree that anyone had ever seen. I think that advice is applicable to more than just performing. They are so supportive and have given me courage to go out and make this happen for myself — and they’ve followed me across the country to see every production I’ve ever been in.