She speaks with the quick energy of a longtime New Yorker, but Constance Shulman (’80) keeps a bit of East Tennessee with her—a lilt from the hills that’s part of her distinctive voice, instantly recognizable to anyone who’s heard it from a stage or screen. Shulman, originally from Johnson City, Tennessee, recently came back to campus to teach two master theatre classes.
Sitting in a spot of sunshine in the lobby of Clarence Brown Theatre, Shulman recalls that her accent was an issue in her conservatory studies at the Circle in the Square Theatre School, which she attended after graduating from UT with a degree in speech and theatre. She describes the evaluation that would determine whether she’d be invited to stay in the prestigious program for a second year: “They said, ‘We love your acting—but your accent. You’re doing nothing with your voice work and you’re limiting yourself. We’re going to ask you to repeat the first year, so we’re making a three-year program for you’—and they had never done that before—‘because you’ve got to work on your voice.’ So I did the first year again and didn’t work on my voice at all. I was like, ‘I don’t care, I’m gonna work with this accent.’”
Looking at the span of Shulman’s career so far, it’s clear she knew what she was doing. Though best known as Yoga Jones on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black and as the voice of Patti Mayonnaise on the ’90s animated series Doug, she’s also performed in more than a dozen films (including Fried Green Tomatoes in 1991 and Sweet and Lowdown in 1999), the 1996 TV series The Faculty, and numerous stage productions.
Surprisingly, Shulman spent most of her time at UT working in props and other behind-the-scenes roles. “I was really shy and quiet.” Even so, she says, “I got a lot out of the program.” She drew inspiration from a New York City theatre trip in her junior year. And in a senior-year class, her monologue presentations caused an acting instructor to ask, “Where have you been for four years?”
“I was clearly a late bloomer,” she says, “but I felt like I was coming into my own at the end of senior year.” However, Shulman still felt she needed a backup plan. “I went to beauty school on Gay Street the summer I was waiting to hear if I got into a conservatory. I got my little bag of rollers and all the stuff that they gave you. And then I found out I’d gotten into a conservatory, and I threw it all away,” she laughs.
It was her accent, not her knowledge of hairdressing, that led to Shulman’s first major role, as salon worker Annelle in the original cast of the play Steel Magnolias. Shulman had just met with an agent who specialized in casting commercials. “I was leaving, and one of the theatrical agents said, ‘We just got a breakdown for a play called Steel Magnolias.’ No one in that office knew me, but they could hear me talking. They said, ‘This is in the South—we’re gonna take a chance and send you.’ So sometimes being in the right place at the right time does work,” she says.
That doesn’t mean she believes in passively waiting for the breaks to come: “We wouldn’t be actors if we’re not creative people. You’re a creative person and one thing you don’t want to do is wait for somebody else to give you the opportunity to create—because we’d all be waiting. You create your own things.
“I took 15 years off from acting to raise my children,” she says. “But I did everything in that 15 years—besides bringing my kids up. I wrote a book, I did a documentary. And those were the years I did a cartoon [Doug], so I could take the kids with me to do the voice.”
With the documentary Looks Like Laury, Sounds Like Laury, Shulman found a new voice: that of a producer. The film grew out of a mystery that turned into a tragedy. Shulman met actress and writer Laury Sacks about 12 years ago, when their daughters became best friends in kindergarten. Shulman realized that even over the course of long playdates Sacks rarely spoke. “She sat with me for hours and didn’t say a word,” Shulman remembers. After several months, Shulman learned from another friend that Sacks was undergoing medical tests.
It was Shulman’s husband, actor Reed Birney, who first had the idea to ask Sacks for permission to document her story on film and give her a new outlet to express herself. “And I asked her,” Shulman remembers. “And she was starting to lose her ability to express her own thoughts, but she picked up her phone, called a friend who worked at PBS [producer and director Pamela Hogan] and connected us. And we followed her around for a year with a camera.”
The diagnosis turned out to be a brutal one: frontotemporal dementia, a fast-moving disorder that usually strikes people between the ages of 40 and 70 and is often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s. Sacks was in her mid-40s when she began having symptoms; she died in 2008 at 52. The intimate, moving film shows the sustaining power of family and friendship as it chronicles the progression of Sacks’s dementia.
“It was devastating to all of us,” Shulman says of Sacks’s death. “She had been a good friend.” Co-producers Shulman and Hogan, along with Sacks’s family, left the material untouched for years, and it took another long break during editing before the film was complete. Looks Like Laury, Sounds Like Laury screened in 2015 as an episode of the World Network’s America ReFramed series. It was included in the New York Times “Best TV Shows of 2015” list and received the 2016 Gabriel Award for Best Nationally Released Documentary.
Shulman has been in touch with the Pat Summitt Foundation and sent them a copy of the film by way of her brother, former UT Chattanooga men’s basketball coach John Shulman. She’s followed the foundation’s establishment of an Alzheimer’s clinic in memory of Summitt. “They were very similar situations,” she says. “That was really important to me.”
Looking ahead, Season 5 of Orange Is the New Black premieres in June. Shulman can’t reveal any clues but promises the new episodes will be “off the wall.” While fans anticipate what will happen with Yoga Jones and the rest of the Litchfield inmates, it will be just as fascinating to see where Shulman takes her talents, and her voice, next.
Looks Like Laury, Sounds Like Laury is available to stream free on the America ReFramed website.