Only the young, and the young at heart, can rattle off the opening of The Cat in the Hat verbatim. It’s no trouble for Traysie Amick. In fact, the bubbly 41-year-old can recite the entire Dr. Seuss classic, word for word, from the bobbing rake, cake, and fish, to troublesome Thing One and Thing Two. “I’ve been playing The Cat since the spring of ’99,” confesses the principal teaching artist at the South Carolina Children’s Theatre. “I utterly fall in love every time. It’s a real exciting privilege, and I love Dr. Seuss’s language. Everybody loves The Cat in the Hat.”
Yes, audiences love the frisky feline with the lopsided, red and white top hat, but SCCT students love Traysie even more. “I think she’s really funny,” shares first grader Kate Kitchens. Her older sister Ava agrees, “She’s very fun to be around. She gives me a lot of good tips on acting. She helps me learn lots of different skills.” The Kitchens sisters are two of the thousands of children who have been on the Children’s Theatre stage under Traysie’s direction. Yet to Traysie, it feels like just yesterday that she herself was a young student discovering the spotlight for the first time.
The multi-faceted entertainer grew up in Columbia, where her mother took her to see a production of Flowers for Algernon at Heathwood Hall when she was in elementary school. “It blew my mind,” she remembers. “I watched this guy transform from a severely handicapped person into a well-spoken character, and then back to being handicapped. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ and I ended up attending a theatre camp there, as well as summer sessions at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities when it was at Furman.” Not only did the acting bug bite, it bored through to her soul and set the trajectory of her professional passion.
The rest of her childhood revolved around school drama projects, as well as commercials and industrial films. Once settled into the theatre program at Winthrop University, she cut her agent loose; work was interfering with her study of the stage and directing. “Live theatre is something that is very special,” she explains. “It’s fleeting. It’s there. You have to pay attention. You have to be in the moment.” She acknowledges her moment has grown into a rare, decades-long career on stage. “If you ask anyone who has a child if they want their child to major in theatre, they’ll usually pass out,” she shares with a chuckle. “There’s not a lot of professional work in theatre to create an income. It’s a miracle almost 100 percent of my income comes from live theatre here in Greenville.”
Debbie Bell, SCCT’s executive director, was one of the first to recognize Traysie’s talent and drive when she came to town. “The day she walked in the door, she had an amazing spirit. She was 26-years- old, really a baby,” her boss recalls. “I could tell with her interaction with the children that she is such a special soul. She’s good with every age, even the 3-year-olds. She can teach them stage left, stage right, and they thrive with her.”
SCCT’s program has exploded in size since Traysie’s arrival in 1999, with as many as 1,400 students now taking conservatory classes each year. She exposes even more kids to the performing arts through SCCT residency programs at Title 1 schools and non-profit facilities, and mixes storybook classics with music through the Lollipops and Timbre Tales programs alongside the Greenville Symphony Orchestra. “She is so good at helping a young child come out of their shell and opening their self esteem,” says Debbie. “Traysie can go to the Meyer Center, The Kroc Center, and Pendleton Place and take children who are falling apart and bring them to the point they’re all on the same team. There are not many people who can do that.”
Another performer who has blossomed under Traysie’s magic touch: Lauren Wilson. The 29-year-old took up acting at SCCT and now teaches there herself. “I met Traysie when I was 14. She’s my mentor, one of my best friends. She stuck her neck out for me and had my back. I don’t know what I’d do without her,” Lauren explains. “The kids just flock to her. I call her the Pied Piper.”
One time teacher and student now work side- by-side as equals with the youngest of children on one stage, and with the zaniest of adults on another at Café & Then Some. “It gives me a wonderful balance,” Traysie says of the ability to share the stage with her former understudy, and in two different environments. “They [SCCT & Café & Then Some] are very different on the surface, and yet they are very much the same. No matter the age, we all try to be very truthful with the audience. Our energy feeds on stage, and it’s a communal thing to have happen. It’s important to me to make sure Café & Then Some survives and that there’s comedy and parody in town.”
Comedy, drama, musical, tragedy, satire. The tenacious and energetic artist samples all play styles as often as she can, even on her one-day off, Sunday. “It’s my church,” she reflects. “I like to sit in the dark and think about the human condition. That’s where I go to think about how to be meaningful. It’s just the way I can celebrate being in the moment at all times. It makes me pay attention.”
Audiences will no doubt pay attention when the star teacher dons whiskers and a red bow tie at Gunter Theatre for the latest run of The Cat in the Hat. “There’s so much good theatre to do. This is important,” she reflects, ready to deliver another line.