Vickie Tanner may be straight outta Compton, but her dreams are straight outta Stratford-on-Avon. Born and raised in the Los Angeles suburb best known as the home of rap group N.W.A., she’s on track toward a career as a classical actress, though right now she’s detouring a bit into movement-based performance.
Currently, Tanner is part of the new touring company of the text-less percussion show “Stomp,” which opens at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater on Tuesday, presented by the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts. It’s not quite Shakespeare, of course, but it’s a good start.
It’s also a triumphal return to a city that still holds some tough memories for the 33-year-old actress. “I used to come back to L.A. every year, but it started to become very depressing,” says Tanner, speaking by phone from her home in New York, as she was packing to leave for the “Stomp” tour. “So for the past four years, I haven’t been back.”
Tanner vowed instead to wait until the right moment arrived, which it now has. “I said to myself that I would never go back unless I was working, because parts of L.A. hold very unpleasant memories for me,” she says. “And bang, here I am.”
No one, Tanner says, is more surprised than she. “It’s almost too good,” she says. “I’m really elated. I’ve been working [for what seems like] forever, but it’s hard to say to yourself that [the success and attention] is OK. It’s really kind of a hard thing to get used to.”
S he will indeed mark her re- entrance with a “bang” in “Stomp.” It is a show in which an ensemble of athletic players executes a series of movement-based vignettes accompanied by various percussion “instruments": trash can lids, oil drums, tubing and the like.
The original British-cast “Stomp” was seen in L.A. at this time last year, also at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater, presented then too by UCLA. The Times’ Laurie Winer said: “If ‘Stomp'--the dance/theater/ bang-or-jump-on-whatever-you-find ode to rhythm--is about anything, it’s about finding unexpected music in everyday tedium.”
And Tanner knows all too well about dancing to your own drummer amid day-to-day realities.
Tanner spent her childhood with two brothers, two sisters and their divorced mother. The family was, as she puts it, “really, really poor.”
That’s why she early on learned to cope. “What I started to do was develop a rich fantasy life,” she says. “I discovered that I liked books.”
Shy and quiet--"I’d cry if anybody tried to take a picture of me,” she says--Tanner learned to lose herself in reruns of musicals that she’d find playing on television. “I was really into musicals because they were happy and pretty,” she says. “But I didn’t think I could ever be an actress.”
When it came time to attend high school, Tanner spent one semester in Compton before looking for another option. She moved in with her father, which enabled her to attend Gardena High School. “I moved because I didn’t like Compton,” she says.
In high school, she discovered drawing and painting--"I’m a natural artist,” she says--and team sports. She excelled as a competitive runner and was captain of her tennis team.
Tanner also discovered new post-high school options. “I noticed that all my friends were going to go to college,” she says. “It had never occurred to me to go. No one in my family had ever gone to college. My friends from Compton were still into drugs, and some of them had been killed.”
In 1980, Tanner enrolled as an art major at California State University, Long Beach, but she soon turned her studies to drama and dance. She graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1985. Then she packed her bags and headed straight for New York to try her luck at launching a stage career.
The move was frightening, but it was one that Tanner felt was necessary, given what she wanted to do. “New York is a make-you-or-break-you kind of place,” she says. “I’d heard all the stories and I thought, ‘Well, give it a try.’ I wanted to test myself, and I wanted to place a greater distance between me and Compton.”
She started out, as so many stage hopefuls do, with little besides energy and ambition. “I waited a lot of tables,” she says.
Tanner also continued to study acting--most notably with a two-year program in the Meisner technique at the William Esper Studio in New York, which she completed in 1990.
Yet it wasn’t simply that Tan ner wanted to be an actress. Ever since she had seen the film “Romeo and Juliet” when she was a girl in Compton, she had been fascinated by the Bard and longed to speak the speech. “I always wanted to study Shakespeare,” she says. “So I found this man [Robert Neff Williams of Juilliard] and studied with him.”
Meanwhile, Tanner continued to combine her studies with work. She also began to appear in a variety of plays, primarily in Off Off Broadway venues.
She came to feel at home in New York. “There’s a whole lot of freedom that came with moving here,” she says. “I was scared out of my wits for the first four years I was here.”
The actress--who ran the New York City Marathon in 1993--clearly thrives on challenge. And that is exactly what she was looking for in 1994 when she auditioned to be part of the first American cast of “Stomp.”
Not surprisingly, Tanner’s audition for the show was essentially a dancers’ tryout. “I guess it was more like a chorus line kind of thing at first,” she says.
Yet there was more to landing her role than hitting the right marks on the right beats. “What [the producers and directors] were looking for was individuality,” Tanner says.
Tanner began “Stomp” rehearsals in April of 1994, and the American cast, with Tanner, took over from the initial British crew last summer. Yet performing the work hasn’t become any easier since then.
It’s still a grueling workout. “The wear and tear on your body is tremendous,” she says. “But with an hour-and-a-half of aerobics every night, it’s the best way in the world to keep in shape.”
The show is less demanding on her thespian skills. Yet Tanner tries to use “the little gaps here and there” to insert a dramatic persona. “I take all the opportunities that I have,” she says. “There’s all this room for personality and improvisation,” she says. “When I see that normally, it’s in the form of performance art and I don’t get it. But with this one, what’s not to get?”
T hen, too, the experience of playing “Stomp” for more than a year has also brought Tanner some unexpected perks. “I never expected to gain for myself so much confidence,” Tanner says. “I never expected that I would feel better as Vickie.
“I’ve done a lot of other things to work on myself as a human being, but this show has allowed so much of myself to come out,” she continues. “I never would have thought that would have happened.”
Tanner has, in fact, been so bolstered by her “Stomp” stint that she feels ready to pursue her ultimate goals--once she puts in the six to eight months for which she’s contracted with the national tour of this show, that is.
“Eventually, I’ll move on and continue to do classical theater and films,” she says. “If I had my choice of what I’d like to do, that would be it. That’s my dream.”
Dreams do not, after all, seem so unreachable when you’ve come as far as Tanner has already. “To come from Compton and then to come back to L.A. and do this show, I’m really moved,” she says. “It’s especially important to me because kids will read this [article] and say, ‘Hey, I can do that too.’ ”