At 66, Alumna Makes Big Screen Debut

p36-burns-naegeleTwo months after graduating from SUNY Oswego, Sharon Watroba Burns ’71 moved from her hometown, Amsterdam, N.Y., to New York City—transitioning from student of theatre to professional actress.

In New York City, Watroba Burns found ways to survive as an actress for over a quarter of a century—acting in everything from soap operas to the TV series Kennedy. She even worked with David Mamet in a Chicago production of Midsummer’s Night Dream.

Survival often meant living from performance to performance, doing background work or finding work outside of the acting industry.

“You can’t assume that you know what’s going to happen,” Watroba Burns said. “You have to keep yourself open to things. You have to have hope.”

It was when she was working as a coat check in 1977 that she met her future husband, Jim. In 2002 he unexpectedly died of leukemia. At the age of 53, she became a widow.

“I just didn’t care about auditioning,” Watroba Burns said. “My pilot light went out.”

Her survival job as a personal assistant became her only job until her friend of more than 25 years, Adriana Trigiani, an author, wrote a character in her novel, Big Stone Gap.

Watroba Burns said Trigiani told her, “’I keep thinking of you as I am writing this one character Nellie Goodloe.’”

When Trigiani rewrote the novel as a screenplay, she offered Watroba Burns the role of Nellie, a detail-oriented town planner.

The movie, Big Stone Gap, is a romantic comedy about Ave Maria Mulligan, played by Ashley Judd, who feels as though her life has plateaued until she meets Jack MacChesney, played by Patrick Wilson. It was released in October.

In fall 2013, Watroba Burns traveled to Big Stone Gap, Va., to begin filming, and saw that one of the extras was her friend and SUNY Oswego alumnus, Kenn Naegele ’72, pictured at left with Watroba Burns.

All of Nellie’s scenes, including one with Whoopi Goldberg, made the final cut of the film. The two bonded over their mutual craving for sweets.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that nothing but positive results come from the release of this film,” Watroba Burns said.

—Aaron Wilson ’16

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