More about Me
Or, perhaps, should be more aptly titled "More than you EVER wanted to know about me." : )
The youngest of two boys, I was born early on a Sunday morning in Durham, North Carolina in the early 1960’s to Jean Gaitley Mathews, a public health nurse, and James Hunter Mathews, a chemist with a local textile firm. My mother described the church bells as ringing
when I came into the world, announcing great things to come. My brother, on the other hand, was always quick to suggest they were more likely warning signals! Yes, this is a window into our family dynamic — at least as it relates to my brother and our sibling rivalry. In the end, I could not be more thankful for having grown up in the Mathews family, sibling rivalry and all!
The next several paragraphs are intended as an informal introduction to my life and work and is more in the format and style of a blog. It’s longer than I anticipated and may not be of interest to those looking for basic information. Please see other pages and links as it relates to my professional background. There is also a short biography on the main page of this website. For those interested in a little more information about my background and family history, I hope you enjoy the following narrative.
You're listen to "Annie Laurie" from vocalist Gaitley Stevenson-Mathews and pianist Jim Stevenson-Mathews' album "The Music of Scotland." Links to purchase the CD or digital downloads of the CD are available on the "Vocalist" page. To pause or stop the audio click on button below.
When I was born, the family was living in Roxboro, North Carolina. Roxboro was not only a great place to live as a kid, it was the town where Mom and Dad met. As the story goes, my dad and his brother Tom lived at a local boarding house, Miss Molly's (see link below titled Miss Molly's Boarding House). While Mom had her own apartment, she regularly took her meals at Miss Molly's, joining her friend, Winnie, who had a room at the boarding house. Apparently, Miss Molly was a bit of a matchmaker and always made sure Mom and Winnie sat across from my dad and his brother Tom. Well, Miss Molly indeed had the magic touch. Over the weeks and months that followed, the four got to know each other — attending church together, going to movies, and eventually double dating. A year later, engagements were announced, and the brothers served as best men at each other's weddings. The magic stuck. The two couples remained married their entire lifetimes, through some thick and some thin, but together. (see parents' wedding photo above) In fact, I felt as if my parents fell in love all over again in later life — something that doesn't always happen, but a beautiful thing to witness when it does. I bring up my parents because I've always felt I've had a keen sense of the importance of marriage and family, thanks to Mom and Dad. For this, I will always be grateful.
My parents are deceased, as is my Uncle Tom, but my Aunt Winnie is alive and well and living in North Carolina. I recently dashed down there to visit Aunt Winnie for her eighty-fifth birthday. See the photo of Aunt Winnie and me above holding her birthday cake. The cake was in tribute to Aunt Winnie and my oldest niece, Lucy, both of whom were born on the same day in October.
After Roxboro we moved to Pilot Mountain, North Carolina, and later to Glen Burnie, Maryland, where my dad had taken a job as a chemist with Enjay Chemical, a subsidiary of the Esso Chemical Company (which later became Exxon Chemical).
My dad grew up on a tobacco farm. His mother raised seven boys and a girl on her own as a tenant farmer. All of the children worked long hours. It was a hard life and the little I know about my father’s childhood I mostly learned from my mom or other relatives. Other than a high school education and the training he received serving in the Navy in WWII (see Navy photo above.), my dad had no formal education, however, as a chemist in the textile business, he was bright and could hold his own with just about anyone. With the recession of the 1970s, a job loss due to plant closure, and not having a formal education to back up his knowledge, there were several difficult years for my dad and for the family.
During the time we were in Maryland, Mom stayed home with us. This was the case until finances became very tight and Dad lost his job. Mom reentered the workforce when I was about six years old. She had previously worked in public health and for a while in psychiatric nursing in Topeka, Kansas at the famed Menninger Foundation (see link below titled Menninger Foundation). When she reentered the workforce, she first worked at the state mental hospital and later at a group home for children and adults with severe mental retardation, both in Maryland.
About this same time my grandmother, who lived in the little town of Red Springs, North Carolina, began having health issues. Mom noticed an advertisement for an opening at the local county health department just a few miles from her mother’s home. Mom applied for the position and got the job. Dad, while not landing a job as a chemist, did take a job as shift supervisor in a textile mill — third shift. Not ideal, but a job. The family moved back to North Carolina to the town where my Mom grew up. We knew we were moving to the town where my grandmother lived — and that was an adventure in itself — but what I didn’t know is that the relationship I would develop with my grandmother would change my life forever.
I began third grade in Red Springs and the family lived there for the rest of my childhood. Mom, a compassionate nurse and strong administrator, became Director of Nursing at the health department. Dad’s work environment improved, and he found time to attend a nearby university (UNC Pembroke) to begin work on his bachelor’s degree — a degree he eventually earned some years later. Between my Mom’s education serving her throughout her career, and my Dad working so hard to achieve his formal education — often complicated by his work schedule and other obligations — I saw, first hand, how a good education can impact one’s life. This left a lasting impression and is something I think about not only as it impacts the lives of young people, but also the entire population.
My dad eventually had to retire from the textile industry, due in part to health issues related to asthma, and ended his working career as dispatcher at the local police department. He had some difficult times during the stretch of unemployment, but as difficult as it was for Dad, throughout it all he was held in high esteem by everyone who knew him. In fact, both Mom and Dad were respected for their involvement in the church, scouting, and with many other service organizations.
I had always been close to my grandmother, but the move to Red Springs gave me the opportunity to really get to know her. She had been a businesswoman for much of her life. She attended a women’s college in 1907 (see link below titled Flora Macdonald College) and later worked as an accountant for the railroad. In addition to sharing stories with me about her pioneering days in business, she also shared much history with me about the family and our Scottish ancestors, who immigrated to the region in the 1700s. Many stories were told about my great-great-grandparents, both of whom were hearing and speech impaired and lived during the American Civil War. All of this made for great listening, and instilled in me a life-long love of history and a passion for understanding human nature as it relates to the journey of those who have gone before us. This not only informed me in my own personal forward march but also enriched my work as an artist.
I loved growing up in Red Springs, but beginning in ninth grade I had a burning desire to “get-on in life" – to move to the next thing. So, in a somewhat clandestine manner, I began a plan of racking up as many credits in high school as I could muster, including taking no elective courses, and began strategizing on how I might graduate from high school early and make my leap to college. By the end of my junior year of high school, with the exception of Senior English, I had all of the credits I needed to graduate. Over my parents’ objections, I petitioned the school board to graduate early via an early admissions program at a nearby university. I was turned down the first time. I decided to petition a second time. Noticing the fervor with which I organized my appeal and prepared my case, my parents eventually agreed to support me in my endeavor.
My second appeal went through, and I attended the nearby university (UNC Pembroke) during the summer to take freshman college English, which also counted as my senior high school English. In July, prior to the beginning of what would have been my senior year of high school, I graduated in a class of one. I was on my way.
During the summers of my teenage years, in addition to pushing to complete high school early, I also worked in tobacco fields in the mornings and at a local clothing store in the afternoon. Once school was in full swing, my farming was abandoned, but I continued to work at the clothing store in the afternoons and on Saturdays. Not only did I develop a strong work ethic quite early, thanks to my grandmother, I also learned to “think” like a business professional. In the summers, between my two jobs, I would swing by my grandmother’s home to prepare lunch for the two of us. My grandmother not only told stories from the past, she would often want to talk business. I was a kid, but what a profound impact my grandmother had on my life. Yes, she was a grandmother who made cookies and sweet potato pie and all the wonderful things that southern grandmothers do, but she was also a woman with business savvy. Between learning sales from the owner of the department store, and learning the ins and outs of how to negotiate with people from my grandmother, I felt like I had a head start in life. And it paid off.
After finishing my summer course at the nearby university, I attended Louisburg College (see link below titled Louisburg College), a Methodist junior college in the northern part of the state. From Louisburg I earned an Associate of Arts Degree in Business and was honored to serve as President of the student body. My finances were such that I needed to take a year out of school and work before continuing my education, but that year was a productive one. Yes, I worked retail — after all, I had learned to be a really good salesman from all those years of selling men’s clothing in high school. I also landed a job as a DJ at a country western music radio station, and acted in the first play of my life, playing the Captain in The Sound of Music. It was a small college production, but on the heels of completing the run, the director, offered me a summer job as an actor playing the lead in an outdoor drama. This would be my second time on stage, and I was getting paid! I wasn’t paid much — not even close to union scale — but what an adventure for a kid who had spent many of his summers working in tobacco fields! Needless to say, the theater bug bit and my life took yet another turn.
After a year out of school, I attended Berea College in Kentucky (see link below titled Berea College). I majored in English, but was doing theatre at every opportunity. Why Berea? I was familiar with the college because my brother attended school there. Berea is unique in that it is one of only a handful of “work” colleges in the nation. While quite competitive, once a student is accepted, with the exception of a few fees, all tuition is paid. In exchange, all students work on the campus. By design, the school provides an exceptional education to students whose families would find the cost of a college education difficult to manage. By this point in my life, I was considered an “independent” student, and Berea seemed like a good fit. This was indeed the case.
After completing my degree at Berea, I auditioned and was awarded an opportunity to attend a summer theatre program at the Chautauqua Institution (see link below titled Chautauqua Institution) in the southwestern part of New York State. The program included instructors from the Juilliard School of Drama and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. It was the summer residence of John Houseman’s The Acting Company. While I was grateful for the training I had previously received, this was my introduction to an entirely new world of some of the best teachers in the field. I was working with top-notch actors. I don’t think it’s too bold to say that that summer transformed my life. I had a window into a new world and I knew I wanted to be a part of that world.
Graduate School and Beyond
Here I was again, with a financial situation such that, as much as I wanted to apply to professional actor-training programs that fall, I didn’t have the means to pay the application fees. I knew I needed to work, but I didn’t want to return home to North Carolina. Also, at the time, there was no way I could afford to live in New York City. On the advice of one of the instructors, I spent the next year in Binghamton, New York. I didn’t go there for any particular job, but I knew there was a great voice teacher there. If I could get into his studio, I could grow as a singer, and in this area, at least, I could make progress while doing whatever job I could find to save as much money as possible. It was an intense year.
I did, indeed, study with David Clatworthy (SUNY Binghamton/Juilliard), one of the best voice teachers I have ever had and I did manage to save the money needed to apply to what were considered, at the time, to be one of the top seven conservatory acting programs in the country. It was an arduous process, but in the end, I was not only offered a position at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts’ conservatory acting program, but the MFA program came with a full scholarship (see link below titled Meadows School of the Arts).
As with most conservatory training programs, there were very few of us in the class. I think there were twelve actors to start and two directors. Grades were not given but if you were not performing at the level expected, you were put on probation for a semester. If you did not make the expected improvements, you might very well not be asked back. It was a three-year program, and it was about as intense as it gets. This was an amazing education in all areas of the art form. What a gift to work with so many top-notch professionals in their field. I can say that this educational experience not only serves me every day in my work, it also serves in me every day in my life.
During the summers while in graduate school, I often did summer stock. After I graduated and became a union performer, much of my work was in regional theatre. As a performer, I was especially honored to have received Dallas’s Leon Rabin Award (Dallas’s version of the Tony Awards) for Best Actor in a Musical for two years and to have received some wonderful recognition in the press (see resume for details).
My work not only took me into the world of theater, but also into the world of opera and operetta, and in the latter I soon began my work as an acting and dialogue coach. This led to a new love of directing and producing and eventually to the founding of a theatre company — The Deep Ellum Opera Theatre (see link below titled Deep Ellum Opera Theatre).
Through my work with the Dallas Opera, the Dallas Lyric Opera, and in working with many singers in the region, I soon recognized not only a wealth of talent but also a need for more intimate musical theatre. Calling on my background in business, my experience in community building, and my love of helping artists connect with the community, I soon pulled together a board of directors, a family of patrons, an advisory council (including leaders in the field, such as Terrance McNally, André De Shields, and John Reed, O.B.E.) and a strong ensemble of performers. In less than six months we had our non-profit status, had secured a performance space, and were mounting our first production. It was a great success!
In the course of the next four and a half years, as Producing Artistic Director, I was honored to lead Deep Ellum Opera Theatre (DEOT) in producing thirteen fully staged productions. The company received critical acclaim on both the local and national level (see reviews) and helped give a leg-up to amazing performers who not only touched audiences at DEOT, but continue to make a name for themselves in the world of opera and musical theatre. When I left DEOT to take a college teaching position, I left the company with a strong board, a diverse repertoire of productions (including three world premieres), and operating in the black — no small feat for a young arts organization.
I accepted a teaching position at my alma mater, Berea College, in 1996, first serving a semester as a guest artist, directing their production of Studs Terkel’s Working, and then staying on to fill a temporary post as Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre teaching acting, stage direction, and speech. As much as I enjoyed teaching on the college level, I was pleased to return to Dallas in 1997 where I resumed my private coaching work and even ventured back into the world of performing, playing the role Allan Poole in the world premiere of Ed Dixon’s Cather County (Lyric Stage), the role of Adam Pontipee in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Granbury Opera House), and the role of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (Garland Summer Musicals). As much as I loved Dallas and will always be grateful for the opportunities it afforded me, I had always wanted to work in New York. So, in 1999 I made the big move to the Big Apple.
New York City
It took close to a year to find a place. However, in November of 1999, I closed on an apartment in midtown Manhattan in the neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, just three blocks from Times Square. The apartment was a true “fixer upper” — it was the only way I could afford the place. It was a good day when a fellow who grew up in the tiny town of Red Springs, North Carolina, secured his own little corner of Manhattan.
It took a bit to get the place livable, but I hit the ground running. I enjoyed my return to acting for the two years prior to my move, however, once in the city I knew I wanted to pursue my coaching work. I began coaching not only singers and actors, but also business professionals looking to strengthen their public speaking abilities. I recognized that many of the same principals used in the theatre could be applied when making presentations in boardrooms or conference halls. During this time, I also felt a need to get to know my community outside of work. This led me to another chapter in my life...a chapter that brought into the mix a love of music and, more importantly, a life-long relationship.
One day, when doing some historical research on the famous Scottish heroine, Flora Macdonald (see link below titled Scottish Heroine Flora Macdonald), I found my community connection. Flora Macdonald had lived near my hometown in North Carolina prior to the American Revolution. My grandmother and all four of her daughters (including my mother) attended a women’s Presbyterian college in Red Springs that was named in her honor (see link below titled Flora Macdonald College). I remembered that Flora Macdonald had lived in the New York City for a few months while negotiating the return of her husband and son as part of a prisoner exchange. Well, in my Internet search, I never found where Flora Macdonald lived, but I did come upon an interesting site advertising a Scottish country dance group just a few blocks from my apartment (see link below titled Scottish Country Dancing). According to the site, the group was open to the public, the dance form was a social form of dance similar to square dancing or English country dancing, and newcomers were welcome. History, music, and a chance to meet people completely outside my work environment … I thought, why not!
I began attending the group and soon fell in love with the people, the music, and the dancing. A year later, I was not only attending balls and dance workshops across the United States and Canada, I had met a musician and dancer who I would marry in 2005 (see link below titled NY Times Wedding write-up). This religious ceremony, attended by many of our friends and family, had no legal standing and so, in 2010 and again in 2013 we would legally marry. The first service was on our fifth anniversary in Bridgeport, Connecticut (see link below titled Connecticut Marriage) and the second service was in our hometown of Glen Cove just a few minutes after midnight on the first day that marriage equality became legal in New York State. Therefore, we were the first same-sex couple married on Long Island and possibly the first gay male couple married in New York State (see link below titled New York State Marriage).
The Move to Long Island
I married a gardener. In spite of the fact that my little apartment in the city has a four-foot by four-foot plot of earth in the back yard, I knew my spouse would not be happy without a yard to play in. After our wedding in 2005, we lived in Port Washington, New York for two years while looking for a home. We were pleased to eventually find a house in the Landing area of Glen Cove — just half a block from Morgan Park with its beach, meadow, trails, and summer concerts (see link below titled Morgan Memorial Park). I said to Jim when looking at homes, “If I’m going to commute to the city, I want to live somewhere that feels like a ‘destination.’” We found our “destination” … but more importantly, we found some of the best neighbors anyone could ever ask for. Every day we are thankful to be in Glen Cove and to be part of the North Shore.
While Jim is originally from Illinois, he moved to Long Island in 1981 and has served as Head Gardener on an estate for more than thirty-five years. I continue to enjoy my coaching work, take singing gigs here and there and being called on from time to time to help with short-term production assignments. Additionally, Jim and I sometimes team up to present a two-man show of Scottish music with me singing and Jim at the piano. Yes, the man not only toils in the earth, he also plays piano!
We both enjoy Glen Cove and are honored to be part of the community. Both of us volunteer at North Shore Sheltering preparing meals, are members of the North Shore Historical Society, and are members of the First Presbyterian Church, where I am an Elder and lead a community spiritual study group called “Invitation to Journey” every Sunday at 9:00 am. As of January 1, 2020, I was honored to take on my new position as Glen Cove City Councilman.
Thank you for taking the time to read this somewhat lengthy biography. It was written to provide a glimpse into my life and work beyond the quick facts noted on the other pages. Please browse the website and visit the links. And, if you have questions for me or questions about my work, please feel free to contact me.
My Best, Gaitley