Editor’s note: Welcome to Day and Night, a new monthly column in
which Seacoast artists talk about how their day jobs influence their
“My worlds don’t seem like they should go together, but they do.”
Danica Carlson crouches on her knees, in a circus tent surrounded by freezing rain, painting the set for the Prescott Park Arts Festival’s musical, “Peter Pan.” She stands back to survey her work, “I like the painting for the same reason I liked the morning baking at the bakery — I get to see people’s day get better and enjoy what I made. I feed them and I make them pretty things.”
Looking at her paint-splattered clothing, it’s hard to believe this is the same person who played aristocratic Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun last year in a production of “Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh” at The Players’ Ring. In fact, Carlson and two other actors carried the entire show, earning a Spotlight Award nomination for best ensemble. Carlson was also nominated this year for playing Alice in “The Adams Family,” a straight-laced role in which she nonetheless “crumbles and flops” on the stage, she says.
Anyone who doesn’t think theater requires athleticism hasn’t seen Carlson act. More than the memorization, the anxiety, or the hours, she says the physicality is what takes a toll on her. “I am a character actor, which means I’m always the extreme.” But now, painting sails onto a pirate ship, she shows no sign of wear and tear.
“The theater gives me a way to be an extrovert, even though I’m an introvert.”
— Danica Carlson
Perhaps that resilience is due to a lifetime of physical work. After a long night performing Élisabeth’s rigid postures or flailing around as Alice, Carlson takes off the wig and corset, puts on jeans and an old T-shirt, and drives to Ceres Bakery in Portsmouth, where she can be seen through the windows rolling out croissant dough and shaping bread into the early morning — sometimes while still wearing her fake eyelashes.
“Baking is very zen,” says the woman who lifts 50-pound bags of flour. “Baking gives me serenity and puts calmness back in me.” But, when asked about the biggest challenge of being a baker, she laughs and gives a familiar answer: “The physicality.”
The constant motion of Carlson’s hands hides the scars on her wrists. “I’ve had to have three hand surgeries and that’s a perfect testament to what that job needs from you, what it takes from you.” Most people would quit their job immediately if told that carpal tunnel threatened the functionality of their hands, but Carlson had a different reaction: “I was horrified at the idea that I wouldn’t be able to bake.”
After seven years, Ceres feels like home to Carlson. “While I entertain people for a living — and I love it — I am a very quiet person. The bakery is who I am. The theater gives me a way to be an extrovert, even though I’m an introvert.”
And the bakery is where she transitioned from acting in plays to producing them. Carlson used to spend her breaks meeting with fellow theater-enthusiast Joi Smith in the alley behind Ceres. In 2009, they created their own theater company, appropriately named Back Alley Productions. “We wanted to do thought-provoking, envelope-pushing theater,” Carlson says as she lifts wooden cut-outs. “The point should be to make your audience feel something. Visceral, happy — they should walk away having had an experience.”
She pauses. “I have to check some fairies real quick here,” she says, motioning excitedly to the fairy silhouettes on Never Land’s backdrop.
Carlson is living proof that hard work can pay off, even if no one knows it. Her community sees her on stage, but not during rehearsals; they buy her bread without witnessing the nightly workout it requires. She lives in a world of sweat and makeup, paint and jewelry, recipes and dance steps. And the place where her audience intersects with her world will always be along her products’ polished edges.
But, when stage lights fade, you can find Carlson behind the scenes with her sleeves rolled up, making pretty things.
Top of page: At left, Danica Carlson rolling dough at Ceres Bakery; at right, Carlson rehearsing for a performance with comedy troupe Darwin's waiting room.