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Hard act to follow – From Russellville to Paris, New York and back: Elizabeth Ragsdale

From Russellville to Paris to New York and back, Elizabeth Ragsdale has had a full life, traveling, writing, raising children and – a special passion – acting.

“Acting is a wonderful creative outlet for me. I find it therapeutic,” explained Ragsdale. “I believe that God gives us all gifts and that this is one of my mine.”

Ragsdale won a scholarship to the University of North Alabama when she was chosen as the first Miss RHS at Russellville High School. Part of her performance during the pageant was a musical theatre number, which impressed a judge who also taught acting at UNA. After graduating from high school in 1983, Ragsdale used the UNA scholarship, in addition to working two jobs, to pursue and obtain a degree in theatre.

While a student at the university, she performed in a number of musicals, including “A Chorus Line,” “Pippin” and “Gypsy,” as well as other plays. “I love performing, and I’ve been fortunate to get to be part of so many wonderful shows,” Ragsdale said.

Right after college graduation, Ragsdale made her way to Paris. “I was supposed to stay three months, but wound up staying two years.”

From there, she went to New York to pursue acting. “That meant waiting some tables, too,” Ragsdale said, “but I learned a lot while I was there.”

She performed in an off-Broadway show, “The Texas Telethon,” and had a small role on the long-running soap opera “One Life to Live.”

“I also played various other roles on the show. I was in commercials. I did lots of things around New York,” she said.

Ragsdale spent most of her time concentrating on theatre. “We put up showcases and invited agents, performing scenes for them. It helped get us in front of people in the industry.”

She studied with Fred Kareman at his studio in Carnegie Hall – a class she had to audition for in order to attend. “It was full of Broadway actors and people doing movies and whatnot,” she said. “He taught the Meisner technique.”

Making changes

All the while, Ragsdale said she had a general timeframe in mind about how long she would pursue trying to break into acting on a full-time basis. “I knew I would try to make it as an actor until I was about 30 and then think about a family and about pursuing something else,” explained Ragsdale.

“New York was the cream of the crop in every area – theatre, music, restaurants. It has the best of everything, and there’s an energy in New York that I have never felt anywhere else. It’s magical.”

It’s also, however, a tough city to make it in, largely because of the cost of living being so high. For those who feel inclined to try the New York life, Ragsdale said she recommends giving it a try while young and before having commitments like children.

“Unless you are mega wealthy, it’s especially hard to do it when you’re older and have kids,” she said. “It’s pretty expensive even when you’re single, not to mention you need a lot of good connections. If you really want to do it, you need to try it, but New York is not a place everyone can handle.”

Ragsdale’s last audition in New York was for Tony’s wife on “The Sopranos.”

“When I didn’t get the role, I realized making it in the world of acting largely comes down to a lot of luck and who you know,” Ragsdale said. “I took it as a sign to move on and went back to Paris.”

She said she doesn’t feel like she failed in New York but instead was just never in the right place at the right time.

Returning to Paris

“I kept at it until I wanted to shift gears and have a family.”

When she returned to Paris, Ragsdale stayed for about 16 years. She said she mostly focused on her family while in Paris the second time, with acting taking a back seat.

“I participated in theatre from a different angle in Paris,” recalled Ragsdale. “I directed the nativity play in a church every year; it was a huge event, and I fit in every child who liked to sing or play any kind of instrument, re-writing the story of Jesus’ birth in several ways, including from the perspective of the angels and a version that was more focused on Mary. The church would be packed for the event, and they wound up having to have two performances to meet the demand.”

She eventually settled down with her now-ex-husband for about 14 years, and they raised two children together. “We were and are still great friends,” explained Ragsdale. “My kids were raised in Paris. When they got to be high school age, we moved back to this area because they wanted to graduate from an American high school.”

Her children are now 22 and 19. The older one is working in Paris and living with his father, and the younger lives with her in Florence. One graduated from RHS, and the other graduated from Florence High School. They have triple citizenship – British, French and American – and Ragsdale has French and American citizenship.

“I didn’t really understand or know my own country until I was on the other side looking in,” said Ragsdale of what she’s learned from living abroad. “Seeing other people’s perceptions of us provides a new perspective. I’m not totally French, and I’m not totally American anymore.”

Writing

Ragsdale said she used some of her time in Paris for writing – a passion she describes as essentially equal to her love of theatre, though she hasn’t yet devoted as much time to it. She said she wishes she had focused on her writing more, and that’s now one focus for her future.

Ragsdale began writing from a young age – poetry, songs and “all sorts of things.” She earned a minor in journalism while attending UNA, wrote for the school newspaper, “The Flor-Ala,” and did an internship at a local television station that’s no longer in operation.

“I wrote a fiction book in Paris, but I haven’t shopped it around yet, though it’s ready,” she said. “I’ve written several children’s stories, but they don’t have illustrations yet. I want to focus on writing in this next chapter of my life.”

Getting personal

Some of her writing is of a more personal nature, having to do with a matter she discussed in the second part of an HBO Max documentary. Released this past October, the documentary is titled “What happened, Brittany Murphy?” and is about the unexpected death of the actress, under mysterious circumstances, in 1999, when she was 32.

Murphy’s husband, Simon Monjack, died five months later, at the age of 40. Monjack is where Ragsdale connects to the story. “I knew Simon,” she explained.  “I was engaged to him, and I had his child.”

“My oldest is Simon’s son,” Ragsdale explained. “He abandoned me when I was pregnant with his son, and now it’s time to tell my story.”

She goes into the details further in the documentary, as well as in a “People” magazine article and an “L.A. Times” article, both published in 2021.

As a result of the attention received from the documentary, Ragsdale now has an agent helping her look for a publishing home for the memoir she wrote about the time she spent with Monjack.

Keeping busy

In the meantime, Ragsdale said she is continuing to keep busy, not only with community theatre and other personal writing projects, but also with her job as a paralegal for Joey James LLC Attorney at Law in Florence. “I did this type of work in Paris and New York, too,” she said.

Ragsdale has taught three workshops at Cypress Moon Studios in Sheffield, for children, young teens and adults. She has also been in a number of plays – more than she says she can remember.

She said one memorable role was Charlotte in “Moon Over Buffalo.” “We were performing it at the Ritz Theatre in Sheffield, and it was one of the great roles of my life,” she said. “We had a terrific cast, and my role was very fast and slapstick. There was even a sword fight. We got in one full week of performances before we had to shut down due to COVID.”

She was rehearsing as Tatania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and 10 days away from opening, that production had to be shut down because of COVID-19 exposure.

“I love Shakespeare,” Ragsdale said. “I’ve also been in ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ and ‘King Lear.’ I’ve done every Shakespeare play for the past three years in the Shoals. They try to do one a year.”

Ragsdale was recently cast in “Rabbit Hole,” a Pulitzer-winning play scheduled to be performed at the Shoals Theatre in Florence. The role is one she said she’s looking forward to even though it has some heavy components dealing with grief. She noted it’s a “tough script” but also has comedic elements.

She has also played Aunt Ev the past three summers in Tuscumbia’s annual “The Miracle Worker” production about Helen Keller’s life.

Gratitude and praise

Ragdale said she wouldn’t be where she is today without the encouragement and support of Lela Wright Ray, once her teacher and now her friend. “Lela Ray started the Miss RHS pageant. She’s the reason I went ahead and did everything I’ve done and didn’t just stay in a small-town mindset,” Ragsdale said. “She encouraged me to follow my dreams.”

“She is a huge part of what allowed me to do that,” Ragsdale added, “and she’s still encouraging young women in the Franklin County pageant system, happily helping them to be their best and have the courage to believe in the possibility of their dreams. She’s a big supporter of the arts and an artist herself. We attend productions together, and I love doing that with her. She even visited me in Paris once while on holiday.”

Ray said she has nothing but praise for Ragsdale’s talents.

“Elizabeth came into my life when she was in high school. I coached her in pageants, theatre and drama, and she was in my drama classes. We’ve kept up over the years,” Ray said. “She’s an excellent actor, always really studying her roles and doing her research.

“She doesn’t just take the script and memorize the lines,” added Ray. “She really becomes the character she is playing. We corresponded the whole time she was away, and I cherish our friendship. I’m very proud of her.”

What’s next?

“I don’t know how long I’ll stay in the area this time,” explained Ragsdale, “but I think I’ll always have a home here. I bought a little house in Florence, and I have a ton of cousins still here. My dream would be to keep a home here and also have one in New York and Paris. That’s my goal.”

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