The Comeback Kid: Tanya Wills in “CHICAGO”

If you’re going to try and pull a fast one on Tanya Wills, or her character Velma Kelly, you’re going have to get up early. 

Tanya says: “It’s funny, because in the Chinese calendar, I was born in the year of the rooster, who are apparently famous for always re-inventing themselves, and that couldn’t be more the case for me.”

For Velma Kelly, performing in vaudeville represents financial and social independence – an opportunity for a woman to strike out on her own and achieve success on her own terms. But for Tanya, the lifestyle of a professional performing artist revealed looming conflicts with her other hopes and dreams.

TW: “In my earliest years, I had a definite ‘theatrical thread’, an ear for languages – my mother’s family still lived in Germany and I visited there a lot, so I really believed I would grow up to be on stage performing as my career. But, then I looked at the professional audition circuit and Stratford and whatnot, and what my peers were sacrificing, and I just knew it wasn’t going to work.”

Married at a young age, raising two little girls at the time, Tanya felt pressure to “conventionalize” her lifestyle. She needed something more stable. A predictable schedule. Clear expectations and work/life boundaries. No more artsy-fartsy. Rules. 

And because she doesn’t do anything halfway, she decided to become a cop.

TW: “I had a friend who was going through the whole process applying for the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) and I saw that and thought that I could do it. It had a strict physical fitness competency you had to demonstrate, which led me further into that world, where I found Pilates, thank goodness, because this was something I eventually ended up teaching and having clients come to my home. But I didn’t know that at the time.”

Ten years after the OPP posting in Cobourg, she left policing. After a solid attempt at leading a mainstream lifestyle, she still encountered bumps in the road. There were more employment transitions – 15 years at a big corporation. Her marriage ended.

TW: “I learned a lot and I met so many people along the way. But there were times it was so hard – the relationships. Why does this have to be so hard? But they’re there as a teacher – even if they teach you nothing other than how strong you really are.”

On her own with the girls, one would expect she would feel even more doubtful about any future in the arts. Lucky for us, she rallied for one heck of a second act.

TW: “I met up with Wintergarten Orchestra and Bill Bridges. I became part of a quartet collaboration and started feeling so much more freedom. I set a goal to make a CD before I turned 50 and I achieved that goal. I traded theatres that seat hundreds for elegant, intimate jazz gigs. In the last 6 years, this more ‘niche’ approach has taken me into Toronto frequently. Now I’m writing my own music – I released a Christmas song last year. And I get to perform Old French Chanson or some of the more political German stuff. After trying a few times to lead a conventional lifestyle, I learned to embrace my ‘flaw’ and saw it was really my strength.”

As a performer, Tanya’s presence on stage is truly a sight to see. It’s safe to say she would have made it work, had she not turned away from the theatre life as a younger woman. But, then we wouldn’t have the Tanya we have – a mosaic of different previous versions of herself. Tanya the cop. Tanya the athlete. Tanya the mother. Tanya the recording artist. Tanya the triple threat. All coming together to strengthen the whole.

And like Velma says in the show, she simply cannot do it alone.

Grab your tickets for “CHICAGO” now, as this show is well on its way to selling out – make sure you’re not disappointed!