Submitted by Kevin Grogan
When you talk about community involvement, the name that pops up in many places around the South Lake Community is Jan Sheldon. Sheldon has been described as the backbone in Lake’s community theatres, as well as bringing the Montessori school to the South Lake community.
The Tablet caught up with Sheldon after a well-deserved summer retreat to Tennessee during her school’s summer break.
Tablet: Tell us about your upbringing and how long you have been in south Lake County?
Sheldon: I grew up as a Navy brat, living mostly in Northern California. When living in Southern California, my mom was the society editor of a local paper. She got free tickets to the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
By 12 years old, I had been exposed to a lot of theatre especially Shakespeare. In 1979, wanting to start a family, my husband and I left the Silicon Valley and moved to 5 acres on Lake Lucy that had been in my husband’s family for over 100 years. Our son Benjamin was born in 1980, and son Samuel was born in 1984.
Tablet: You are very involved in community theatre. You acted in many shows (some at the Clermont-based Moonlight Players) and presently directing “Into the Woods” in Leesburg at the Melon Patch (Theatre). Discuss with us the importance of community theatre and starting Clermont’s Moonlight Players.
Sheldon: I sang in lounges and with various bands in the San Francisco Bay area in my twenties but I did not get into performing until I moved to Florida.
In the summer of 1988, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. I had surgery and became cancer free. I feel that event was the catalyst for my future theatrical endeavors. That following summer, I got the nerve to audition for a show at the Melon Patch Theatre and got a starring role. I auditioned again and kept getting great parts. Theatre became my hobby! Between 1989 and 1993, I performed at the other community theatres in Lake County.
For my birthday in 1994, my father sent me $500. I wanted to do something special with that money, so I contacted my friend, Sara Achor. We presented a plan to produce Sound of Music in South Lake County. It was a hit and the first of what has become the Moonlight Players! Community theatre has changed my life and I know it has changed (and even saved) the lives of many others. Lately, I have been offered great parts at the Melon Patch Theatre; so I have come full circle.
Tablet: You have played so many amazing roles, a few that you have even won awards for. Do you personally have a favorite?
Sheldon: I have had many roles that I absolutely LOVED, Maria inSOUND OF MUSIC,
Ethel in ON GOLDEN POND, Sister Robert Anne and Mother Superior in NUNSENSE. However, Sister Alioysis in DOUBT was the most challenging for me. The play is perfection. The Sister is an amazingly complex character. I love directing. I have quite a few musicals that are my favorites but I feel my biggest accomplishment has been bringing Shakespeare into the lives of so many young people. I have done ROMEO AND JULIET(with vampires), TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (with punk rockers), TWELFTH NIGHT(with hippies and surfers) and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM(in the old west).
Tablet: You are the Founder and Director of the South Lake Montessori School (SLMS). Can you tell us about the school?
Sheldon: In 1994, I took Montessori training during the same year that I started the Moonlight Players. What a crazy year that was! In 1997, I opened my school. I have the 3 to 6-year-old class. In 2003, I hired one of my Moonlight “kids” (who had grown up, taken the Montessori training and gotten her Master’s Degree) to teach our 6 to 12-year-olds. My running joke is that I work with preschoolers during the day and actors at night, and there is NO difference! It’s wonderful having the school in downtown Clermont because we can take field trips to the theatre when there is an interesting set to experience.
Tablet: SLMS is closed for the summer. Is there such a thing as a vacation for Jan Sheldon?
Sheldon: When the school is closed for the summer, we clean, paint and repair materials. I try to do some traveling, preferably to Italy but I’ll go anywhere. I also prefer to direct shows during the summer months. I’ve done quite a few “young company” Shakespeare productions this summer. This summer I have been asked to direct INTO THE WOODS for the opening of the Melon Patch season. The show opens in September so the remainder of this summer will be in rehearsals for that.
Tablet: You have so many friends throughout our community. This is definitely a reflection on the person you are. Talk a little bit about how this makes both SLMS and theatre so special to you?
Sheldon: I have been so blessed to be the first to bring a community theatre and a Montessori school to South Lake County. The city of Clermont, and especially the Chamber of Commerce under the direction of Howard Stockton was very supportive in the development of the Moonlight Players. There have been so many talented kids who have found their “tribe” at the theatre. We have had friendships, marriages and now a new generation of babies produced by the Moonlight Players and now, the children are attending the South Lake Montessori School!
Sheldon: In five years I’ll probably be retired from the school. However, I will never stop advocating for children, which means I may get back into being political. Many people do not know that in 1983, I became the first president of Lake County NOW and one of the first spouse abuse counselors for Haven. I don’t see myself quitting theatre because there are still so many wonderful stories to tell and parts to play.
Tablet: What is your favorite thing about living in South Lake County?
Sheldon: My favorite thing about living in South Lake County is its potential. I don’t think I could have ever started a theatre company and a school if I had stayed in the Silicon Valley. There are still so many opportunities to start new businesses, run with new ideas, break new ground!
Tablet: Thanks for making time for the Tablet. Anything else you would like to add?
Sheldon: I’m glad the Moonlight Players have become such an important part of Lake County. I’m thrilled we have touched so many lives. However, I think it is most important to keep the arts alive in our schools. The programs that Kaitlyn Baxter, Jennifer Julian, and Vince Santo are doing in our local high schools bring together kids of every size, shape, faith, and race. Besides exposing the children to theatre arts, these programs teach communication, cooperation, problem-solving, and social graces. Theatre is the heart! If you do not give kids the ability to create, they will destroy.