Award Winners

Artistic luminaries such as Megan Hilty, Jessye Norman, and Shirley MacLaine are among the hundreds of artists who have been helped by the The National Society of Arts and Letters in the early stages of their careers.

Career Award Winners Report April 2016


Mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko

Sarah Mesko (Little Rock Chapter): Mezzo-soprano Sarah won first place in the 2008 NSAL National Voice Competition.  Since then, her  career has flourished.  She was praised by The Washington Post for her “consistently beautiful sound,” in her striking role debut as Dorabella with Washington National Opera in their 2012 Emerging Artist performances of Così fan tutte.

Sarah also makes recital appearances with the Dolce Suono Ensemble, performing “La flûte enchantée” from Ravel’s Shéhérazade; with Vocal Arts DC, presenting Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared with tenor Toby Spence and pianist Carrie-Ann Matheson; and with San Francisco Opera Center’s Schwabacher Debut Recital Series, presenting a joint recital with tenor Theo Lebow and pianist Robert Mollicone.  In May, Ms. Mesko returns to Washington, DC for her company debut with Opera Lafayette as Junon and Hyale in Charpentier’s Actéon, and she concludes the 2012-2013 season with the Santa Fe Opera, making her company debut as Amélie in La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein and covering Malcom in La donna del lago.

Sarah’s 2011 – 2012 season included appearances with Washington National Opera as Alisa in David Alden’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor and covering Fenena in Thaddeus Strassberger’s new production of Nabucco at WNO.  On the concert stage, Sarah made debuts with the National Symphony Orchestra under Tito Muñoz and with the Alexandria Symphony in Mozart’s Requiem.  She returned to the Washington National Cathedral for a second Mozart Requiem with the Cathedral Choral Society and she completed a recital tour, which began with the John Harrison Opera Foundation in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and ended in the nation’s capital with Vocal Arts DC.

Recent seasons include Sarah’s European debut in Paris as La Sagesse and Sidonie in Lully’s Armide with Mercury Baroque and the Théatre de Gennevilliers.  In 2011 she made her debut with Washington National Opera in Madama Butterfly, first as Kate Pinkerton and then in a highly acclaimed role debut as Suzuki, conducted by Plácido Domingo in a Young Artist performance – a role for which The Washington Post remembered her as “the best part of the Young Artist Program performance of Madama Butterfly last year.”

A compelling concert artist, Sarah Mesko has appeared as a soloist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop; Mercury Baroque, led by Antoine Plante; Jeffrey Thomas and the American Bach Soloists Academy; the Aspen Music Festival Chamber Orchestra under Lawrence Renes; the Washington National Cathedral Choral Society; the Hot Springs Music Festival Orchestra under Peter Bay; and the Arkansas, Fort Smith, and North Arkansas Symphonies.  Her diverse concert repertoire includes Bach’s Johannes-passion and Mass in B Minor, Beethoven’sSymphony No. 9, Handel’s Messiah, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, Mozart’s Requiem and Missa Brevis in F, and Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky.

A graduate of Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, Sarah has appeared often in mainstage productions with WNO, including Emilio Sagi’s Iphigénie en Tauride, starring Plácido Domingo and Patricia Racette.  She has also trained with other highly regarded programs, including the Santa Fe Opera, covering Costanza in Peter Sellars’ production of Vivaldi’s Griselda and performing Idamante in scenes; the Merola Opera program, performing Ramiro in La finta giardiniera, appearing as Charlotte and Bianca in scenes from Werther and The Rape of Lucretia, and covering A Lady with a Hat Box in Argento’s Postcard from Morocco; Central City Opera, covering and performing the title role in Rinaldo and Alisa in Lucia di Lammermoor; and the Aspen Music Festival, appearing as Mercedes in Carmen and Dorothée in Cendrillon, and giving the World Premiere of Richard Wernick’s “A Song for Phil,” written in memory of AMF faculty members Philip West and Jan DeGaetani.

In 2009, Sarah was a national finalist of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, performing with the Met Orchestra under Patrick Summers.  In addition to the NSAL top award, she has won first prizes in various competitions, including Annapolis Opera, Virginia Opera, Young Texas Artists, Sun Valley Opera, and the Franco-American Vocal Academy.  She is also among a rare number of singers who have won the Richard F. Gold Career Grant more than once: in 2011 from Washington National Opera, and in 2009 from Central City Opera.

A native of Hot Springs, Arkansas, Sarah holds a master of music degree in vocal performance from Rice University and a bachelor of music degree in vocal and flute performance from the University of Arkansas.  At Rice University, she appeared as Komponist in Ariadne auf Naxos and as Charlotte in A Little Night Music.  While studying at the University of Arkansas, she performed the title role in Hansel and Gretel, Le Prince Charmant in Cendrillon, and Goffredo in Rinaldo.



Soprano Nadine Sierra

Nadine Sierra (Florida East Coast Chapter) Four years after winning second place in the 2008 NSAL National Voice Competition, Nadine performed the role of Papagena opposite Nathan Gunn’s Papageno in the San Francisco Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.  Gunn was one of the judges for the 2008 competition in which Nadine placed.  The following year, she won the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions finals. Other awards include second place in the Mirjam Helin International Vocal Competition (2009), a winner of the George London Competition (2010), first place in the Gerda Lissner International Competition (2010), and first place in the Loren Zachary Competition (2010).

A native of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Nadine trained at The Mannes College of Music and Marilyn Horne’s Music Academy of the West, where she was the youngest person ever to receive the Marilyn Horne Foundation Award. She became a Young Artist with the Palm Beach Opera when she was 14 and made her operatic debut there two years later as the Sandman in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. She also appeared on the National Public Radio program From the Top when she was 15 performing “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi.

She was invited back to From the Top in 2010, a show taped in Burlington, Vermont, with commentary by Marilyn Horne. She appeared at the United States Supreme Court Building in May 2009 where she sang solo and with Thomas Hampson in the Justices Chambers. In 2009 she competed in Helsinki, Finland, in the Mirjam Helin International Competition where she was awarded second place. She had her debut concert in Helsinki, Finland in 2009. In October 2009 she performed in the Marilyn Horne Mediterranean Cruise to Italy, Croatia, Turkey and Greece. In March 2010 she performed at the Musashino Hall, Tokyo, Japan.

She appeared as the Princess with Gotham Opera’s production of El gato con botas at the Victory Theatre. In January 2011 she returned to Palm Beach Opera’s Orfeo ed Euridicein the title role. In May 2011 she appeared as Tytania in Boston Lyric Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In January 2011 she became a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow and the following May appeared in the company’s premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ opera Heart of a Soldier with Thomas Hampson in the main role. In January 2012 she appeared as Gilda in Florida Grand Opera’s Rigoletto.

Sierra is featured in the book Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys where author Nick Romeo dedicated one of the chapters (“Journeys”) to her.



John Mark Giragosian

John Mark Giragosian (Washington DC Chapter) Just a year after John Mark won second place in the NSAL National Dance Competition in 2006,  he joined The Joffrey Ballet as an apprentice and was promoted to full company member in January 2008.

Like many male dancers, John Mark came to ballet through his sister. At age 5, following one of her performances in his hometown of Manassas, Virginia, he jumped onstage and began dancing. When the audience started filing out, he burst into tears. Before long, Giragosian had added dance class several days a week to a roster of activities that included soccer, karate and piano. By the time he was in high school, he was studying at the Maryland Youth Ballet six days a week. He had to leave school 90 minutes early and make up the classes he missed online and at the local community college. Nonetheless, Giragosian graduated at the top of his class.

Although there was a period when he dreamed of being a doctor (science was his favorite subject), Giragosian steadily refined his classical technique, encouraged by his instructor Olivier Muñoz, now a teacher at Orlando Ballet School. While he kept a tight focus, with Muñoz’s encouragement he experimented from time to time. Giragosian even brought a contemporary piece to the Helsinki International Ballet Competition. It was a stretch and he did not medal, but both he and Muñoz remember the process as a welcome learning experience.

  In addition to Muñoz, John Mark received instruction from Michelle Lees and Rhodie Jorgenson. He also attended the American Ballet Theatre Summer Program in New York during the summers of 2003-2007 where he was a recipient of the American Ballet Theatre National Training Scholarship.

In addition to winning a NSAL prize, he won first prize at the American Ballet Competition, and third prize at the Seoul International Ballet Competition. He is also a recipient of the 2006 Princess Grace Scholarship Award. In 2007, he won the Level One Award for Ballet at the National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts Arts’ Week. In 2009, John Mark won the Silver Medal at the New York International Ballet Competition.

Since joining The Joffrey Ballet, John Mark has performed roles in The Nutcracker (Prince), Cinderella (Jester), George Balanchine’s Tarantella, Jerome Robbin’s The Concert (Shy Boy), Jessica Lang’s Crossed, James Kudelka’s Pretty Ballet, Edward Liang’s Age of Innocence, Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel: A Dance, Lar Lubovich’s Othello, Gerald Arpino’sConfetti, Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom, and Twyla Tharp’s Waterbaby Bagatelles.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes New York City Center

Megan Hilty in her role as Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”

Megan Hilty (Pittsburgh Chapter): Since winning the NSAL first place Musical Theater Award in 2004, Megan has gone from strength to strength.  Shortly before graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, Megan auditioned for the hit musical Wicked. She moved to New York City after graduating and, in August 2004, she made her Broadway debut in the show as the standby for Glinda before taking over the lead role from Jennifer Laura Thompson on May 31, 2005. After playing the role for a year, Hilty ended her run on May 28, 2006.  In 2009 she was cast as Doralee Rhodes in the Broadway production 9-5: The Musical.  In 2012, she earned rave reviews for her performance as Loralei Lee in the  New York  City Center’s Encores! production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  New York Times theater reviewer Ben Brantley rated her performance higher than those of  Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe.  Ben Brantley’s review

In addition to her stage work, Hilty has made guest appearances on various television shows including The CloserThe Suite Life of Zack & CodyUgly BettyCSI: Crime Scene InvestigationDesperate Housewives, and Shark. She can also be heard as the singing voice of Snow White in the animated feature film Shrek the Third.  

Megan most recently starred as Ivy Lynn on the musical-drama series Smash which aired its second and final season on NBC.  In the program she sang many original songs, including the Grammy Award-nominated “Let Me Be Your Star.”  March 2013 marked the release of her first solo album, It Happens All the Time.  Also in 2013, Megan joined the cast of Sean Saves the World, a new sitcom starring Sean Hayes. It debuts in the fall of 2013.  Megan performed on the 67th Annual Tony Awards, singing about being on a cancelled TV show alongside Laura Benanti, Andrew Rannells, and Neil Patrick Harris.  Her recording of the audio book of Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns by Lauren Weisberger was released in June 2013.



Author Silas House

Silas House won the Kentucky Chapter first prize in literature in 1998.  In 2001, he published his first book, Clay’s Quit, to rave reviews.  Lee Smith wrote, “A young writer of immense gifts…One of the best books I have ever read about contemporary life in the mountains of southern Appalachia…I could see and feel Free Creek, and the mountain above it.”  Southern Living called the novel a long love poem to the hills of Kentucky, “It flows with Appalachian music, religion, and that certain knowledge that your people will always hold you close. . . . Like the finely stitched quilts that Clay’s Uncle Paul labors over, the author sews a flawless seam of folks who love their home and each other.”  USA Today called it the “perfect” novel.  Clay’s Quilt appeared briefly on the New York Times Best Seller list and became a word-of-mouth success throughout the Southern United States.  It was a finalist for both the Southeast Booksellers’ Association fiction award and the Appalachian Writers’ Association Book of the Year Award.

His second novel, A Parchment of Leaves, debuted as a top ten BookSense pick, became a national bestseller, was the Kentucky Book of the Year and was nominated for the William Sayoran International Literary Prize. Most recently, House was honored by a special achievement award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

Silas was raised in the tightly knit community of Lily, Kentucky.  He attended Sue Bennett College (then a two-year college) and later transferred to Eastern Kentucky University and its Manchester satellite campus where he received his B.A. in English, concentrating in American Literature.  Following this, Silas earned his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Spalding University.  Despite his extensive education, he feels strongly that his most character-defining moments involved his experience working to put himself through college. Silas has published five novels thus far: Clay’s Quilt (2001), A Parchment of Leaves(2003), The Coal Tattoo (2004), Eli the Good (2009), and (with Neela Vaswani) Same Sun Here (2012).

Silas serves as Writer-in-Residence at Lincoln Memorial University, where he also directs the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival. He also is a contributing editor for the music magazine, No Depression,and has co-authored a book with Jason Howard on the environmental and social impact of mountaintop-removal mining, Something’s Rising.  Silas also has written a book spanning three genres, The Hurting Part.

In addition to the NSAL award, Silas has received the Award of Special Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Lee Smith Award, the Hobson Medal for Literature, Parents’ Choice Award,  the Chaffin Award for Literature, the Appalachian Book of the Year; he has twice been awarded Kentucky Novel of the Year; and he has been a two-time finalist for the Southern Book Critics Circle Prize.

Silas maintains that his writing has been greatly influenced by the area where he grew up, so much so that he considers most of his work autobiographical.  House currently resides in Eastern Kentucky.



Spinto Tenor Scott Piper

Scott Piper (Mid-Michigan Chapter): Since winning third place in the 1997 NSAL National Voice Competition, Scott has become an internationally recognized spinto tenor.  With his rich, resonant voice and charismatic stage presence, he is a sought after interpreter of opera’s romantic leading men in roles such roles as the Cavaradossi in Tosca, Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana.

“With a vocal register that the program describes as spinto tenor — named for the Italian word for ‘pushed’ — Piper delivers exaltant crescendoes that sound effortless, especially in the opera’s famous, murderous finale, “No, pagliaccio, non son”   (Opera Tampa –Cavalleria/Pagliacci)

Scott always loved to sing and his parents heard him sing in the shower from a very young age.  He was an athlete in high school, and it was his plan to go on to be a doctor in sports medicine.  When he was a senior in high school, he took a voice class to fill his credit load.  Impressed with his exceptional singing gift, his instructor  recommended that he change his pre-med major and head to music school as a voice major.  Previous to that senior high class, Scott had no voice training.  Based on his teacher’s advice, he made the huge switch from pre-med to voice.  He now has his Ph.D in voice from The University of Michigan where joined the faculty, teaching few classes each term.

Recently Scott made his role debut as Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana with the New Israeli Opera, added Canio for a Cavalleria Rusticana – Pagliacci double bill with Opera Tampa, and debuted Manrico in Verdi’s Il trovatore with Opera Roanoke, and with Sarasota Opera Anatol in Barber’s Vanessa and returned to his signature roles; Rodolfo in La Boheme with Angers-Nantes Opera in France,  Don Jose in Carmen with Kentucky Opera and Nashville Opera; and Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor with the Seattle Opera.

Mr. Piper’s artistry has been heard throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia. He has appeared with Houston Grand Opera, the International Music Festival of Macau, Vancouver Opera (British Columbia), Compañia Lírica Nacional de Costa Rica, the New Peoples Theater of Moscow (Russia), Minnesota Opera, Opera Pacific, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Dayton Opera, Madison Opera, Michigan Opera Theater, and New York City Opera.  In Italy he has appeared in Rome, Catanzaro, Modena, Ravenna, and at Teatro di Verdi in Busseto.  He also appears as Alfredo in the DVD of Franco Zeffirelli’s production’s ofLa traviata with Stefania Bonfadell, Renato Bruson and conducted by Placido Domingo.

As a guest soloist Scott Piper has appeared with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, the Plymouth Symphony, the Canton Symphony Orchestra, the Flint Symphony, the Handel Choir of Baltimore, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Symphony, the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra, the Shreveport Symphony.  With the Friends of the Opera of Michigan he sang the North American Premiere of Perosi’s oratorio La Rissurezione di Christo.  In addition to his NSAL prize, Scott has received awards from  the Univeristy of Michigan Friends of the Opera, the William C. Byrd Foundation, the Gerda Lissner Foundation, the Ken Boxley Foundation, the Licia Albanese-Puccini Competition, the George London Foundation, and received the Jim and Janice Botsford Study Grant.



Prima ballerina Amanda McKerrow

Amanda McKerrow (Washington DC Chapter): Amanda McKerrow won the second place National Ballet Award in 1980.  One of America’s most acclaimed ballerinas, she had the honor of being the first American to receive a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition in Moscow in 1981. Since then she has been a recipient of numerous other awards, including the Princess Grace Foundation Dance Fellowship.

MeKerrow joined American Ballet Theatre under the direction of Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1982, was appointed a soloist in 1983, and became a principal dancer in 1987. Her repertoire included: the leading roles in CinderellaGiselleRomeo and JulietManonLa BayadèreCoppéliaDon QuixoteThe Sleeping BeautySwan LakeLa Sylphide and The Nutcracker. She has been acclaimed for performances of shorter works by George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Sir Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins and Jiří Kylián. McKerrow has created roles in ballets by choreographers such as Twyla Tharp, Clark Tippet, James Kudelka, Agnes de Mille, Choo San Goh and Mark Morris. She has also appeared as a guest artist with ballet companies throughout the world.

In 2000, together with her husband John Gardner, McKerrow began working for the Antony Tudor Trust, staging and coaching his superlative ballet,The Leaves Are Fading, around the country. She has also staged numerous other ballets for professional companies and schools across the United States. During her last ten years performing as a principal ballerina with American Ballet Theatre, she spent as much time as she could working with students and young dancers. Upon her retirement from ABT in 2005, she has devoted the majority of her time to teaching and coaching this great art form.  ~ excerpted from 2008 Ballet Theatre Foundation, Inc.

he has the honor of being the first American to receive a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition in Moscow in 1981. Since then she has been a recipient of numerous other awards, including the Princess Grace Foundation Dance Fellowship.



Awadagin Pratt

Awadagin Pratt: In 1989, Awadagin Pratt won the Washington DC Chapter local competition in piano.  Among his generation of concert artists, pianist Awadagin Pratt is acclaimed for his musical insight and intensely involving performances in recital and with symphony orchestras.

Born in Pittsburgh, Awadagin Pratt began studying piano at the age of six. Three years later, having moved to Normal, Illinois with his family, he also began studying violin. At the age of 16 he entered the University of Illinois where he studied piano, violin, and conducting. He subsequently enrolled at the Peabody Conservatory of Music where he became the first student in the school’s history to receive diplomas in three performance areas – piano, violin and conducting. In recognition of this achievement and for his work in the field of classical music, Mr. Pratt recently received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Johns Hopkins.

In 1992 Awadagin won the Naumburg International Piano Competition and two years later was awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant. He has played numerous recitals throughout the US including performances at Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. His many orchestral performances include appearances with the New York Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra and the Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Baltimore, St. Louis, National, Detroit and New Jersey symphonies among many others. Summer festival engagements include Ravinia, Blossom, Wolftrap, Caramoor and Aspen, the Hollywood Bowl and the Mostly Mozart Festival in Tokyo. Awadagin is also the Artistic Director of the Next Generation Festival, a two-week chamber music festival in Lancaster, PA and appears with cellist Zuill Bailey in duo recitals throughout the US.

As a conductor, Awadagin has participated in the American Symphony Orchestra League and Conductor’s Guild workshops and the National Conducting Institute, where he worked closely with Leonard Slatkin and conducted the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center. He has also conducted the Toledo, New Mexico, Winston-Salem, Santa Fe and Prince George County symphonies, the Concertante di Chicago and two orchestras in Japan.

A great favorite on college and university performing arts series and a strong advocate of music education, Awadagin Pratt participates in numerous residency and outreach activities wherever he appears; these activities may include master classes, children’s recitals, play/talk demonstrations and question/answer sessions for students of all ages.

Internationally, Awadagin has toured Japan four times and performed in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Israel and South Africa.

Awadagin Pratt has been the subject of numerous articles in the national press, including Newsweek, People Magazine and New York Newsday. He was named one of the 50 Leaders of Tomorrow in Ebony Magazine‘s special 50th anniversary issue and has been featured on National Public Radio’s Performance Today, St. Paul Sunday Morning and Weekend Edition. On television, Mr. Pratt has performed on the Today Show, Good Morning America and Sesame Street, been profiled on CBS Sunday Morning and was one of the featured soloists on PBS’s “Live from the Kennedy Center – A Salute to Slava.” In November 2009, Mr. Pratt was one of four artists selected to perform at a White House classical music event that included student workshops hosted by the First Lady, Michelle Obama, and performing in concert for guests including President Obama. He has performed two other times at the White House, both at the invitation of President and Mrs. Clinton.

Awadagin’s recordings for Angel/EMI include A Long Way From Normal, an all Beethoven Sonata CD, Live From South Africa, Transformations and an all Bach disc with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. His most recent recordings are the Brahms Sonatas for Cello and Piano with Zuill Bailey for Telarc and a recording of the music of Judith Lang Zaimont with the Harlem Quartet for Navona Records.

Awadagin is currently an Associate Professor of Piano and Artist in Residence at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.



Dramatic soprano Jessye Norman

Jessye Norman (Washington DC Chapter): When she was only 21 years old, Jessye Norman won a local Washington DC Chapter competition in voice in 1966 while she was studying at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  While at Howard, Norman sang in the university chorus and as a professional soloist at the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ, while studying voice with Carolyn Grant.  After graduating in 1967 with a degree in music, she began graduate-level studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and later at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, from which she earned a Masters Degree in 1968. During this time Norman studied voice with Elizabeth Mannion and Pierre Bernac.

Jessye Norman is one of the most celebrated artists of our century.  She is also among the most distinguished in a long line of American sopranos who refused to believe in limits, a shining member of an artistic pantheon that has included Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas, Leontyne Price and now this daughter of Augusta, Georgia.  “Pigeonholing,” said Norman, “is only interesting to pigeons.”  Norman’s dreams are limitless, and she has turned many of them into realities in a dazzling career that has been one of the most satisfying musical spectacles of our time.

She has been equally at home in American spirituals, French chansons or German Lieder.  In opera, she has made her own Wagner’s Sieglinde and Elisabeth but also Gluck’s Alceste, Mozart’s Countess Almaviva, Strauss’ Ariadne and Stravinsky’s Jocasta. She has conquered centuries of musical styles, bringing to life not only Purcell’s Dido but the Dido of Berlioz, Beethoven’s Leonore and also Bizet’s Carmen.  She has been an earthy temptress in the opera Parsifal, an unfortunate bride in Bluebeard’s Castle and a wise old nun in Dialogues of the Carmelites.  From Haydn to Mahler to Schoenberg and Berg, from Satie and Poulenc to Gershwin and Bernstein, the range of Norman’s musical reach has been and continues to be breathtaking. No matter what the language, she makes every word matter, every note tell. She is a diva in the truest sense, in that there is something of the divine in the music she makes.



Shirley MacLaine in her debut film role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Trouble With Harry” in 1955.

Shirley MacLaine (Washington DC Chapter): One of the first people to win an NSAL award, Shirley MacLean Beaty (she changed to Shirley MacLaine for her professional persona), won a dance scholarship from the Washington DC Chapter in 1950 when she was only 16 years old.

She had very weak ankles as a toddler, so her mother decided to enroll her in ballet class at the age of three.  This was the beginning of her interest in performing.  Strongly motivated by ballet, she never missed a class. In classical romantic pieces like Romeo & Juliet and Sleeping Beauty, she always played the boys’ roles due to being the tallest in the group and the absence of males in the class.  She got to play a substantial female role as the fairy godmother in Cinderella. While warming up backstage, she broke her ankle, but proceeded to dance the role all the way through. MacLaine ultimately decided that professional ballet wasn’t for her because she had grown too tall, and was not good enough to make it a career. She also claimed she didn’t have the ideal body type—she didn’t have the requisite “beautifully constructed feet” (high arches, high insteps and a flexible ankle). Nor was she able to acquire perfect technique. She also found ballet too limiting.  After leaving ballet, she pursued other forms of dancing and acting.

She spent the summer before her senior year in high school in New York to try to get parts on Broadway.  After she graduated, she returned to New York, and within a year she became an understudy to actress Carol Haney in The Pajama Game; Haney broke her ankle, and MacLaine replaced her. A few months after, with Haney still out of commission, film producer Hal B. Wallis was in the audience, took note of MacLaine, and signed her to work for Paramount Pictures.  She later sued Wallis over a contractual dispute, a suit that has been credited with ending the old-style studio star system of actor management.

MacLaine made her film debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955), for which she won the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actress.  In 1956, she had roles in Hot Spell and Around the World in 80 Days. At the same time she starred in Some Came Running, the film that gave her first Academy Award nomination – one of five that the film received – and a Golden Globe nomination. Her second nomination came two years later for The Apartment, starring with Jack Lemmon. The film won five Oscars, including Best Director for Billy Wilder.  She starred in The Children’s Hour (1961) with Audrey Hepburn and James Garner, based on the play by Lillian Hellman and directed by William Wyler. She was again nominated for an Oscar, this time for Irma la Douce (1963), which reunited her with Wilder and Lemmon. 

In 1975, she received a nomination for Best Documentary Feature for her documentary film The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir.  Two years later, she was once again nominated for The Turning Point co-starring Anne Bancroft, in which she portrayed a retired ballerina much like herself.  In 1978, she was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award for outstanding women who, through their endurance and the excellence of their work, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry.  In 1980, she starred in A Change of Seasons alongside Anthony Hopkins.  In 1983, she won an Oscar for Terms of Endearment.  In 1988, MacLaine won a Golden Globe for Best Actress (Drama) for Madame Sousatzka.

She continued to star in major films, such as Steel Magnolias with Julia Roberts and many other stars. She made her feature-film directorial debut in Bruno, MacLaine starred as Helen in this film, which was released to video as The Dress Code. In 2007, she completed Closing the Ring, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Christopher Plummer. Other notable films in which MacLaine has starred include Sweet Charity (1968), Being There (1979) with Peter Sellers, Postcards from the Edge (1990) with actress Meryl Streep, playing a fictionalized version of Debbie Reynolds with a screenplay by Reynolds’s daughter, Carrie Fisher, Used People with Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates, Guarding Tess (1994) with Nicolas Cage, Mrs. Winterbourne (1996), with actress and talk show host, Ricki Lake and actor Brendan Fraser, Rumor Has It… (2005) with Kevin Costner and Jennifer Aniston and In Her Shoes with Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette.

MacLaine has also appeared in numerous television projects including an autobiographical miniseries based upon the book Out on a LimbThe Salem Witch TrialsThese Old Broads written by Carrie Fisher and co-starring Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds, and Joan Collins, and Coco, a Lifetime production based on the life of Coco Chanel. She had a short-lived sitcom called Shirley’s World. She appeared in the third season of the British drama Downton Abbey as Martha Levinson, mother to Cora, Countess of Grantham.

MacLaine has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1165 Vine Street and in 1999 was awarded the Honorary Golden Bear at the 49th Berlin International Film Festival.