Stage actress defies odds, wins high praise for high standards

Several weeks ago my wife and I sat on the second row for a performance of “110 in the Shade” at Southern Virginia University. The talent was superb and the music demanded that our toes tap from scene to scene. It was one of the finest college productions either of us had ever attended.

Despite a talented cast from top to bottom, it didn’t take long for one particular actress to stand out. She was SVU graduate Amaree Cluff playing the lead role of Lizzie Curry. My wife and I both observed just how much the spotlight loved the dynamic actress.

When she’s on stage, your eyes find her. When she’s not, you wonder when she’s coming back.

After the curtain closed, an SVU administrator suggested I take the time to learn more about the actress who’d been invited back to headline the university’s summer show. “Amaree is really something,” he said. “And not just on stage.”

Always on the hunt for a good column subject, I contacted Cluff and asked if she’d be up for an interview. Several emails and text messages later, I grabbed a buddy and we met her at Panera Bread in Charlottesville, Va. Cluff is working on a Masters’ of Fine Arts at the University of Virginia and was happy to share a few precious minutes between rehearsals for her latest production.

As our discussion unfolded, I discovered the spotlight doesn’t just love her; it follows her everywhere she goes.

Like all of us, Cluff has opportunities to betray her values every single day. But unlike most of us, she’s not just invited to — she’s expected to.

Given her environment, it shouldn’t be surprising that Cluff has been accused of severely limiting herself by refusing to tackle offensive material and is often challenged to break out of her comfort zone. But to Cluff, that’s not an option. She doesn’t accept roles that would violate her core beliefs and have no redeeming value.

Cluff is a member of the local Charlottesville YSA Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is bold about her faith, her standards and her limits. And she is keenly aware that she studies and works in an industry that sometimes tries to overlap the thick curtains of right and wrong.

But Cluff won’t be worn down or boxed in, and her courage is paying off.

Not only does she refuse roles, but once she flatly refused to audition for a show altogether, even though her program required it. But when she wondered if she’d hurt her standing within the department, she learned quite the opposite. The director said he admired her for it. Others have also come around, telling her they respect her professionalism and how she navigates the theater community with a set of values that doesn’t always fit in. Cluff has found that being open about her faith earns their respect.

The respect, I learned, is mutual. Cluff admires her talented peers in the highly-regarded MFA program and feels she’s becoming a better, stronger actor because of this unique opportunity to study her craft.

I wondered how she’s learned to thrive among people with whom she disagrees on many moral, political and religious issues.

“They know I love them, no matter our disagreements. I’ve made love my ruling principle.”

I also wondered how she ended up in the theater. Why not a career on a safer stage? Why not explore other ways to express yourself?

Her passionate answer brought tears to her eyes. “Jason,” she began as put down her sandwich, “I have something to say to the world, and I don’t know how else to say it.” She almost sang the words, “I simply cannot say what I so deeply believe through any other medium.”

Cluff wiped tears from her eyes, looked across the table at me and added, “God is good!”

I think it’s the first time I’d felt the Spirit over ham and turkey.

Our conversation turned to her family and Cluff attributed her strength to her parents. “They are wonderful,” she gushed. Cluff says she works with people everyday that spend so much time pretending to be other people that they don’t know who they are anymore. “But not me. My parents helped me know who I am.”

The praise doesn’t end with her parents, she also credits her professors at SVU for preparing her for the rigors of the theater and to stand brightly for righteousness in the middle of the stage. It’s telling that four years after her graduation, they continue to serve as indispensable mentors.

I’m thankful to have met this inspiring actress, but not for her talent. I’m grateful to know there are young people like Amaree Cluff taking courageous stands when it would be easy not to and using God-given gifts righteously when the world wouldn’t care otherwise.

Her tearfully delivered words will not be forgotten: “I simply cannot say what I so deeply believe through any other medium.”

Can I find the courage to do the same?

Can you?

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