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Ruth Coughlin as Shelby

Ruth Coughlin as Shelby in “Steel Magnolias”

Tell us about the character you play, and how can you relate to her. Is there any part of STEEL MAGNOLIAS that resonates with you as an actor, or personally?

Shelby is all heart and joy for life. She loves with every part of her being and is generous with that love. Shelby is definitely the life of the party. She is constantly trying to help the people in her life be as happy as they can be. Shelby is also stubborn and wants things in her life the way she wants them. It seems like nothing can stop her – until life does. I admire her joie de vivre, her unabashed lust for life. I relate most to her care and love for her family and friends. I am very close with my two brothers and parents. I would do anything for them. My mother is Japanese, so I get having a mother who is as stubborn as I am. Love you, Mom! I also want a family of my own. If I found out that I wasn’t able to have that in my life, it would be devastating to me.

What challenges, if any, have you faced with playing your character?

It takes a lot of emotional energy to perform this play over and over. It’s hilarious, but heart wrenching. The challenge in this is to stay open and be present in those moments of chaos. Our bodies are designed to run away from those moments. If I do my job well, then the audience will be able to experience it with us, and it’s worth any emotional sacrifice to have even one audience member experience a moment of recognition or catharsis. It’s my job and I look forward to the challenge of inhabiting Shelby for 2+ hours each night.

What distinguishes this production or role you have compared to other characters you’ve played in the past?

Shelby is definitely the most fun character I’ve ever played. It’s also been inspiring to work with so many talented and empowered women. I’ve never been in a cast of all women, directed by a woman. Each one of them has brought themselves 110% to this process and it has been a dream to play with them all.

Our earth-mother of a director, Laurie Woolery, told us on the first day of rehearsals that producing and performing in this play, as women of color, is an act of revolution. I love that. Viva la revolution!

Why do you think theater is important?

Theatre is where an audience can experience a story come alive. The sound vibrations of the words come from the actors and enter into the audience member’s body. We are made of nearly 90% water. When your molecules are moved enough, that’s where laughter and tears come – the water overflows. Theatre is an experience unlike any other art form because we – the audience, the actors, the crew – are all creating this story in the moment.

I’ve thought about this question a lot because I need to understand what I am contributing to this world by doing this work. True, the theatre doesn’t feed the hungry, but it does feed the soul. My life, my humanity has been changed by going to and performing in the theater. Experiencing the lives of so many with empathy and recognition (either of my conscious self or my lizard brain!) – I have found myself and learned about the world within the darkness of a theater seat and under the glare of lights.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to pursue acting?

If you want to be an actor and there is nothing else that will bring you joy in life – GO FOR IT! Do not wait. That will only make you depressed and bitter. READ PLAYS – know the classics. There is a a depth of life to learn from in those pages. Go see as much theatre, dance, opera, movies, TV, improv as possible – I have learned so much from watching some of the best and worst shows ever. Be an observer of life. Get training – talent is one thing, but technique and the ability to be a professional is something to learn from your elders. Be courageous and generous in your work. Keep finding and fueling that joy that inspired you to pursue this in the first place. It’s an absolutely insane dream to be an actor. Warning. We are all crazy.

Anything else you’d like to share?

We are performing a play I never dreamed I would be in and on a stage I’ve wanted to perform on for so long. The play and the movie are fantastic and iconic. But I didn’t think an all Asian cast could or would exist. Thanks to the bravery of Tim Dang’s programming – I can play this joyful and strong character. I’ve wanted to perform at East West Players since I was a kid in High School, far away on the East Coast. I can’t express with words how grateful I am for the chance to be in this show with this amazing director, cast and crew. I look forward to sharing this story with the community and can’t wait for our first audiences!

How can fans stay updated about your projects?

Follow me on Twitter  @Ruth_Coughlin and Website –


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