When Jan Ross laughs, it’s not just heard — it’s felt. The big bellow suits her 5’ 10” formidable frame. Sometimes theater audiences have heard the distinctive chuckles, and other times not. That’s because Ross works onstage, but mostly behind the curtains.
Ross’ theatre experiences began while growing up in Kalamazoo. “I was in kindergarten and played Cinderella,” she said. “I remember because we put the carriage before the horses.”
In eighth grade she acted for the Kalamazoo Junior Civic Players. “I got the part of the sheriff in ‘The Prince and the Pauper,’” Ross said. “It helped to have a manly ‘long stride’ and a deep voice at the time.”
She moved to Mason in 1975 and appeared onstage with the Mason Coventry Players “a year or two later,” acting in productions of “Lady in Red,” “The Odd Couple,” and “Harvey.” She also played Weezer in Coventry’s rendition of “Steel Magnolias.”
“By far that was my favorite role I’ve ever done,” she said.
In 2007, Ross secured a role in Lansing’s Starlight Dinner Theatre’s “Amy’s Wish.” Since then, she has been an actor, stage manager, assistant director, co-director, runner, set dresser, costumer, crewmember, spotlight operator, and even assistant dining room manager for the company. In 2009, she eventually became Starlight’s secretary/ vice president.
“Jan is probably the hardest worker we have on staff. She always does more than her position requires,” said Linda Granger, Starlight’s founder. “She is the backbone of the backstage area.”
Ross’s duties have included prop placement and acquisition, guiding actors backstage, keeping them on task at rehearsals, organizing set and costume changes, handling any breakage and “making people on the stage look good,” Ross said. “Under supervision, I can do almost anything.”
She painted and built sets for Starlight, including for last season’s production of “Catch Me if You Can.”
“I enjoy almost every aspect of watching the set come together,” Ross said.
Her costumer work has limitations. “I don’t sew,” she admitted, “(but) I can coordinate.”
Her best advice for stage managers dealing with quick costume repairs? “Duct tape.”
Ross’s advice to actors is “to be respectful of your crew,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the crew, you wouldn’t be onstage.” That applies to managers who “yell and scream,” something Ross is “learning to tame down a bit.”
Despite everything she’s done for the company, there is one role she won’t do. “I can say with certainty, I’ll never be a director, she said. “I don’t want that. I’d rather work backstage in my little cubby hole.”
Finally, Ross moved to Lansing in 2014 with Mike, her husband of 43 years, where they live currently. “Mike eats a lot of TV dinners when I’m rehearsing,” she said. That has included rehearsals for St. John’s Homegrown Productions of radio plays, or for the New Thought Community Choir where she sings tenor.
Ross’ onstage Starlight roles include “The Curious Savage,” “Red Velvet Cake Wars,” “Opal’s Husband,” the female version of “The Odd Couple,” “Pretty Little Thing Called Love,” and this season’s “Farce of Habit.”
In “Farce of Habit” she played a cop who ended up with “bruises and bangs and bumps.” Ross hit the back of her head during a performance and “actually saw stars.”
“We had a lot of fun with that show. It was delightful,” she added with a boisterous laugh.
After each play’s end, Ross says she always feels a range of feelings. “It’s such a relief when you’re done. You get your life back,” Ross said. Though the contentment is usually quickly interrupted with a yearning question, “When do we start another show?”