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11/02/2022 08:30 AM

Gina Russell Tracy: The Play’s The thing

Growing up in Santa Barbara, California, Gina Russell Tracy was truly shaped by her environment. The local playwright spent her earlier years as a singer and actress, performing aside a long list of Hollywood stars, before she turned her attention to environmental issues and writing.

“It was normal growing up around celebrities; you weren’t afraid of them. They were your friends and neighbors,” recalls Gina. “It made all the difference for me; it was a huge influence. In most respects, if you stuck to it, you could ‘make it’ as a performer.”

Early on, “making it” meant singing. Gina says she started her career out as a singer, reflecting the tones of Linda Rondstadt, who was at the height of her career at the time.

“I fell into the mold of ‘Can you sing like Linda?’ which meant could you belt it? And I could, so I got a music scholarship at Academy of the West,” Gina says. “But I often got cast as a belting alto and could sort of sing like her, and she was the rage at the time. Life just pushed its way through for me after that.”

At the time, Gina says she was surrounded by people who were busy trying to make names for themselves. Many of her fellow performers were already stars or on their way.

As singing led to acting, Gina found herself cast on television shows like All My Children and The Dating Game. Her acting credits included stints alongside Hollywood stars like Julie Harris, Woody Allen, Beau Bridges, Goldie Hawn, and Pierce Brosnan.

“It was a really fun time. Everyone around me was a star or making it as a star, and that circle in Santa Barbara is a real complete circle of performers, many of whom I still know,” she says. “That network I built has really been with me my whole career.”

Gina says she slowly began to be encouraged to write, initially writing children’s plays. As she began to enter her 30s, her circle of colleagues planted the seed that she should tackle the task of writing, which Gina says she took on heartily, if slowly.

“I really took on playwriting during that time. I never quite knew what a phone call would bring. Our son became a very successful baby model, and I was still auditioning, but when 9/11 happened, that’s when I really started realizing that I could and wanted to write adult plays,” says Gina.

Three of those plays; 1969, Starlight, and Permafrost; were directly influenced by an environmental tragedy that polluted and stained a large swath of California’s coastline. She witnessed the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill as a child, and the traumatic effect stayed with her.

“That incident led to a life journey of acting, singing, performing, and writing,” Gina says. “That oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969 is my story. To me personally, even 50 or more years later. The play [1969] is about a 50-year journey for the main character, and that is really me. We know now about the lies we have been told by the oil companies and the politicians who were told those lies; I feel like I’ve got nothing to lose. It’s my pen, it’s my story, and I’m going to end it as strongly was I can. So that circle goes all the way back to my childhood, and performing in a show like Hair, which was about activism and rebellion, and I feel that these works are in that vein as well.”

Though inspired by the oil spill in Santa Barbara, Gina says all of her works were written on the Connecticut shoreline — mostly at Hammonasset State Park.

“I was actually beginning to write Starlight when former Clinton First Selectman Jim McCuster asked for my help in protesting the building of a liquified gas facility by Shell Oil to be parked in Long Island Sound years ago,” says Gina. “I testified in 55 towns, and we blocked it.”

Starlight was eventually published with Next Stage Press and has received wide acclaim.

“It has won an award in Fullerton [California] and was a semi-finalist for the Gary Marshall Award in Hollywood. It had a reading with Hollywood Stars like Tanna Frederick, Gregory Harrison, Jeff Kober, Amanda McBroom, Joanna Strapp in my hometown of Santa Barbara,” Gina says. “Then the entire trilogy was presented in a seven-hour reading at Theatre for A New City in New York City at the last Climate Week in 2021. The audience was breathless and would not leave. So, that was a truly inspiring moment.”

While Gina never quite set out to be a playwright, she says all of her experiences as a singer and actress and director has helped feed her writing.

“When I write, it may sound crazy but I feel like I’m not the one writing. I feel like it's beyond me, like it’s above me, it’s an otherworldly experience. Everyone seems to have become really great supporters and has really encouraged me to keep at it.”

Gina Russell Tracy’s career started in Santa Barbara, California, but the Guilford resident says all of her plays were written on the Connecticut shoreline — mostly at Hammonasset State Park in Madison. Photo courtesy of Gina Russell Tracy