Life is filled with detours. We jump paths and head in a new direction, only to do it again and again.
Ask Reagan McDowell. The Biloxi, Mississippi, native was nurtured in creativity.
“[My father] was a school teacher who taught art and was a Coast artist,” McDowell said. “He’s in Arkansas now but he sold a lot of stuff down here and in Biloxi and has been doing pottery and painting forever.”
McDowell followed suit with the stage as her canvas. She acted throughout junior high and high school, but once enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi, she changed course.
“I took a 20-year break and got a criminal justice and forensics degree. I totally departed from myself and worked in federal law enforcement for 12 years,” McDowell said, laughing.
Though she thought about work out in the field, she settled for administration duty with a first assignment in Jackson, Mississippi. She met her husband through federal work and before long they were in Boston and raising a son. McDowell said they harbored a plan to return southward.
“I got to work in some cool things like electronic surveillance and all that kind of stuff. I did some evidence, but other than that I didn’t really get to use that forensics degree,” McDowell said.
And her creative side? She kept it at bay, not really having time to indulge while in Massachusetts.
Once transfer to Mobile was complete, a new detour arose.
“I just got tired of [law enforcement] and didn’t want to do it anymore, so I stopped. When I saw Theatre 98 had an audition for ‘Mousetrap’ two years ago, I summoned up enough nerve to audition even though it had been 20 years since I’d been onstage,” McDowell said.
She landed a part and hit it off with director Timothy Guy, who helped her along. The strict change in course surprised her husband. He was amazed, supportive and inadvertently complimentary.
“He only sees the shows once and he doesn’t come to any rehearsals or anything so it’s one of those things where he says he doesn’t recognize me. We have a huge laugh about it but he says he completely forgets it’s me on the stage,” McDowell said, laughing.
After “Mousetrap,” McDowell earned roles in “Lost in Yonkers” and “Dead Accounts,” the latter of those as a “very bitchy ex-wife that was a heck of a lot of fun.”
Her most lauded turn was as the shattered and haunted Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The role was a psychological detour all its own.
“[Director] Timothy [Guy] told me, ‘Blanche is a 100 percent departure from Reagan. Reagan is very strong-willed and in control of herself, but Blanche is a tornado and you have to be very fragile, not what you are in real life,’” McDowell recalled.
She called the mental search for Blanche a challenge but credited Guy for extracting the character from her. She prefers the license of playing villains and had to stretch in a new direction.
“It will always stay with me because it was so difficult,” McDowell said.
Another creative outlet emerged when she started writing. Her first work is “Fraser the Fir,” a Christmas tale for ages 6 to 11. It became a family project when her father supplied illustrations for the heartwarming story of Yuletide aspirations. She gave assurances it wasn’t a tearjerker like “The Giving Tree” or “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
“It’s probably the sweetest story I’ll ever write,” McDowell said.
That’s mainly because the horror genre is her truest storytelling love. McDowell cites her household’s Halloween enthusiasm and constant diet of horror films. When she volunteered to read a spooky thriller at her son’s middle school, the enthusiasm from the students was noted. McDowell’s plan is to take eerie stories from her childhood haunts and base a series of five middle-grade horror books on them.
“I heard a lot of stories growing up, barrier island stuff and haunted hospitals and things like that down there. I just finished the first and it’s about a 13-year-old girl that sees and helps ghosts,” McDowell said.
With a new child due in the spring, McDowell will be offstage for a while and using the time for writing. Either way, all of these detours are an excursion through comfortable territory.
“It’s just like finally like returning to myself here. I look back on those 20 years [in law enforcement] and wonder what I was thinking or even doing,” McDowell said.
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