Retiree finds her encore career—as an actress

Judi Schindler vividly recalls her first big moment on the stage, playing the lead role in “Pinocchio” when she was 12 years old.

“The hardest part was in the carnival scene,” she says. “I had to transform myself into a donkey while hiding behind a piece of scenery.”

Now, at 75, she is again on the stage as a professional actress in Chicago. There was a detour of roughly five decades, three spent running her own public-relations firm, before she returned to her original love.

But it’s almost better it turned out this way, she says. “In my 20s, I would have been in competition with hundreds, maybe thousands, of young women who come to Chicago seeking careers in theater,” she says. Now, “there are maybe a couple dozen old ladies.”

Schindler’s detour began in college, when she decided not to major in theater, despite attending acting school as a child. She chose a career in public relations, she says, because of her writing and communication skills. She got her first job in 1965, and in 1978 she started her own firm.

Her company was successful. But as time wore on, she grew less enamored of the administrative aspects of being the boss, like hiring and firing. “Managing people is just not fun,” says Schindler. She also came to see the public-relations business as more of a “young person’s game,” she says, especially as the field was changing so rapidly with the advent of social media.

So, in 2006, she sold her business to a competitor. She stayed on for a few years. But after a while, no longer being the owner left “a void,” she says, which she tried to fill by returning to acting.

She knew it wouldn’t be easy. She took acting lessons again while still working full time, and got parts in a few shows for which she rehearsed at night.

“Memorizing at my age is a flat-out bitch,” Schindler says. “It takes me three or four times longer to memorize a passage than someone in their 30s.”

There are physical challenges, too. “A lot of times when you’re in a show, they like to start out with theater games,” she says. “Sometimes they get on their hands and knees. If I get on my hands and knees, I tell them that somebody has to help me back up. And they do.”

She cut back her hours at the firm after two years and, with more time for acting, was able to hire an agent. Then job offers for television commercials and voice-overs started to come. In her first TV ad, for a local hospital, she played a woman persuading her stubborn husband to get a knee replacement. After that, she continued to act in plays and got parts in independent films shot in the Chicago area.

One of her favorite stage roles, she says, was in “Hellcab,” a comedy that has been produced often in Chicago around the holidays and takes place entirely in a taxicab.

“I played an oversexed lawyer who makes a pass at the taxicab driver,” Schindler says. “The second year, I got to play a drunk.”

Recently, she began a run in a piece of original theater, “Circle House,” in Chicago’s historic Berger Park North Mansion. The audience moves through the house, interacting with the cast, to see the story unfold.

“I am proud of myself,” she says. “I have built a reputation in a highly competitive industry.” She keeps pushing herself, despite the challenges, too.

“There is no show that I’ve been in or class that I’ve taken that anyone was as old as me,” she says. But “as long as you can memorize lines, you can still do this. It probably helps my mind. The more you use it, the better.”

Second Acts looks at the varied paths people are taking in their 50s and beyond. The profiles are by Julie Halpert, a writer in Michigan. You can reach her, and let us know how you’re starting over, at reports@wsj.com.

The article “Acting Was Her Passion. And in Retirement, It Is Again” first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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