Actress E. Faye Butler does not want her work to be captured on celluloid or to gather dust in a film canister. Instead, she hones her craft onstage, where every day the show can be created anew.
"It is one performance a day that whoever is sitting in the seat gets to see once, and it never happens again. I don't care how long the show runs, that performance won't happen again," Butler said. "There is something wonderful about giving a gift to someone that you can't replace."
Butler has begun fine-tuning her version of Erzulie, the goddess of love, in Center Stage's current production of Once on This Island.
Set in the French Antilles, the musical is based on Rosa Guy's novel My Love, My Love, which has its literary roots in Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. The goddess Erzulie is one of four deities who influence the love story of orphan Ti Moune and aristocrat Daniel Beauxhomme.
At first, the character was a difficult one for Butler to pin down. She wanted to embody the concept of love and its mystical qualities, while making the character seem realistic. Butler had to look within to figure out how she would transform into the goddess of love.
"[Director Kenneth Lee Roberson], as well as the dialect coach, kept expressing to me, `Faye, just sit in your skin. Just breathe. If you breathe and let it go, you are Erzulie because, as a person, you want to help and you want to give and you want everyone to be happy. So just let that happen. Don't fight to find her,'" Butler said.
Roberson wanted Butler to bring "her own unique self" to the role because he thinks the personification of love would have Butler's "ready smile, ready laugh."
Having to fill the shoes of a character that seems larger than life is nothing new to Butler -- she was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for her turn as Dinah Washington in Center Stage's Dinah Was.
Although Butler has graced the stage as a great lady of jazz and a gospel star, among other roles, musical theater was never her goal.
Butler was born in Chicago and received her training from acting programs at Illinois State University and DePaul University, but she found it difficult to find work.
"There was no money in it, and the parts were so limited because back in the day it was like, `You're going to be the maid or the maid's maid, or you're going to hold the broom or the spear or the stick,'" Butler said. "I didn't do all this training to stand in the background and hold a spear and a stick."
To make money, Butler did a variety of theater-related jobs. She directed hair shows (where she met her hairstylist husband) and worked at the makeup counters in department stores along Michigan Avenue (where she turned down a consultation with the then-unknown Oprah Winfrey).
Still, Butler missed the stage. When a friend asked Butler whether she could sing and told her about an audition for a musical, Butler found that she was "hungry enough" to try out. A song from Purlie later, Butler's career in musical theater took off.
But she said her background in traditional acting influences her approach to music.
"A lot of people can just pick up a sheet of music and, because they love music so much, it doesn't really matter to them what the story is. It's a melodic tune that takes them away, and they can sustain these beautiful notes" Butler said. "I can't look at a song like that. I have to read it. Once I understand the story, then I can apply the notes."
In part, that was why understanding the character of Erzulie -- how she would act, what she would sound like, how she would interact with the other gods -- was so important.
"It's about telling a story and making people believe that what you are saying is true and that they want to go on the ride with you. Because that's what storytelling is all about -- it's getting somebody to sit in the seat, strap in and go along with your ride. And then, at the end, say `Wow that was a great story,'" Butler said.
"Once on This Island" plays through Jan. 22 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Showtimes are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays at 1 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $35-$45. Call 410-332-0033 or visit centerstage.org.