A Family Affair
A scene from Ragtime*, with Aaron Galligan-Stierle (left front with beard) as Tateh, Zoe Galligan-Stierle (holding her father’s hand) as The Little Girl, Devin Galligan-Stierle (front center) as The Little Boy, and Shannon Galligan-Stierle, right rear, holding an umbrella) as Ensemble.*
By Liz Armstrong
Family is definitely one of the major themes of the musical Ragtime playing this summer at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. All three intertwined story lines feature families: the upper-class white New Rochelle family of Father, Mother, The Little Boy, Younger Brother, and Grandfather; the Jewish immigrant family of Tateh and his daughter, The Little Girl; and the black Harlem family of ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr., Sarah, and their baby boy.
But there is also family behind the scenes—literally. All four family members of the Galligan-Stierle family are acting in Ragtime. Father Aaron Galligan-Stierle plays Tateh, Mother Shannon is in the ensemble, their nine-year-old son Devin is The Little Boy, and seven-year-old Zoe is The Little Girl.
“This was a pleasant surprise for all of us. That we could act together as a family and get back on stage,” Shannon said. “It wasn’t something we were looking for, but it was a no-brainer when the opportunity came our way.”
Aaron and Shannon started acting as children. Shannon began acting professionally with her parents and sister at the age of three, and she continued in theatre and met Aaron when they performed in The Lost Colony together in 2002.
Aaron began working at the Festival in 2004, when he was cast in Forever Plaid and My Fair Lady, while completing graduate school studies at Pennsylvania State University.
“It was a been a dream working for the Festival, where I played supporting roles, and slowly over the years got to play these larger roles like Dromio of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors and Tateh in Ragtime,” Aaron said.
Shannon and Aaron consider the Festival their artistic home, with Aaron acting in eight seasons over the course of seventeen years during which Shannon worked in house management, the box office, and now as an actress.
“We’ve had a lovely journey with the Festival because we had a season that we were dating, the next that we were engaged, the following that we were married, and all the years we’ve been here since with kids at various ages,” Shannon said.
They even planned their wedding in Cedar City, purchasing their wedding rings from a jewelry store on Main Street, just a block away from the Festival grounds. They were married in September 2005. Both Aaron and Shannon agreed that they have a special place in their hearts for Cedar City and the Festival.
“It is so meaningful to have this experience and give the children an opportunity to work alongside a company of people who are committed, collaborative and compassionate,” Shannon said. “This cast, creative team, and crew lead with empathy and a passion for putting themselves in other’s shoes in an amazing way.”
Their journey became even more special when Brian Vaughn, the artistic director at the Festival, called and asked Aaron if he would be interested in playing Tateh in Ragtime.
Aaron immediately said yes to the role, and the stars aligned when both Brian (with a nudge from Melinda Pfundstein) and Aaron realized that his children were the perfect ages to play roles in Ragtime. Even more perfect? Shannon was eager to participate in the acting company of the Festival, and so the kids and Shannon auditioned and were ecstatic when they heard back that they all had roles in the play.
The process from auditioning for the play, rehearsing, and now performing live on stage during the 60th anniversary season went smoothly, things falling into place as if it were meant to be.
With the pandemic giving their children the option to complete the 2021 school year online, it was possible for the children to complete school from 7 a.m. to noon online and then rehearse in the afternoon and evening for the Festival.
“Their last day of school was the day before our first preview . . . if we hadn’t had that option I’m not sure if we could’ve been here,” Aaron said.
Directly after completing the season at the Festival, the Galligan-Stierle family will be moving to Pennsylvania, where Aaron recently took the position as head of musical theatre at Slippery Rock University.
“It’s been so good to watch Shannon and the kids blossom and be joyful after a year of quarantine and isolation,” Aaron said. “It’s been awesome to be a part of a community, and our kids have grown exponentially fast.”
Although it is Devin and Zoe’s first ever show, they have impressed both their parents and audience members with their performances.
“They love the musical so much, they sing it around the house. Devin is showing how consistent and committed he can be with things, and Zoe stays in character, sometimes ad-libbing secretly to Aaron on stage,” Shannon said.
Aaron said he didn’t teach Zoe to ad-lib, but that he “lost his mind” the first time she turned to him on stage and added in a line, talking to him completely in character at seven years old.
When asked what the best part of acting in Ragtime with her family was, Zoe replied that she’s happy she gets to hold her dad’s hand almost the entire show.
“I get to act with my family, and it’s nice being in the show with them,” Devin said. “And since it’s my first show ever, it’s really helpful knowing that they’re doing the same thing, and that I know they’re nearby.”
Acting as a family comes with its challenges, though, and Shannon and Aaron said getting ready to leave the house on time for shows and rehearsals is “absolute absurdity.”
However, the good far outweighs the bad, and this talented family has grown closer to each other because of the opportunity, saying there’s something special about watching each other shine.
For us? We get to see how powerful love between family members can be, and that warm feeling projects from the characters onstage and right into the hearts of the audience, adding just a little more goodness into the world.
The Festival’s 2021 season is June 21 to October 9. Plays will be Pericles, Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, The Pirates of Penzance, Ragtime, Cymbeline, Intimate Apparel, and The Comedy of Terrors. Tickets are available by calling 800-PLAYTIX or visiting www.bard.org.