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Elizabeth J. “Betty” May, playwright who brought theater to thousands of Howard County children, dies



Elizabeth J. “Betty” May, an author, playwright and theater director who brought her love of performing arts to thousands of Howard County students as well as incarcerated women in Jessup, died June 12 of complications from cancer at her home in Columbia. She was 82.

As founder of the nonprofit Onstage Productions, Mrs. May directed hundreds of plays and musicals starring school-age children at The Little Theatre on the Corner in Ellicott City from 1982 until the venue closed in 1991.

“I have 25 rules in guiding them,” she told The Sun in 1991. “Twenty-four are ‘be kind’ and the 25th is ‘no gum.’ It is not important to me that they become theater professionals. The real kick is to see them gain self-confidence and poise that will sustain them in any walk of life.”

Mrs. May, who had been involved in productions since the age of 3, strove to cast young actors with learning and physical disabilities and helped at-risk students find a safe space in the theater, whether they were performing onstage or manning the spotlights.

“She had the ability to bring out people’s talents, whatever the talent was,” said Columbia real estate agent Hollie Pakulla, who as a teenager performed in Mrs. May’s 1985 European tour of the musical “Peace Child.” “Whatever the disability was, she was able to tap into that person’s ability and make it shine. That’s where people gained confidence being with her.”

After The Little Theatre on the Corner shuttered due to rent increases, Mrs. May traveled to rural Guatemala for several summers, where she established a children’s theater troupe that toured the country and performed on national television.

Elizabeth J. “Betty” May on November 8, 2015. Photo by John Deboy

A pivotal moment in her personal and professional career came in 2008 when she began volunteering with incarcerated individuals serving life sentences at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup. Mrs. May produced a play called “Faces” performed by and for the incarcerated women and based on their written reflections.

“I instantly fell in love with her personality,” said Sara Citroni, who was incarcerated for nearly 30 years at Jessup and released last year through the Juvenile Restoration Act. “She was a teeny, tiny firecracker. She didn’t talk to us like children; she talked to us like peers.”

Mrs. May went on to direct an adaptation of the show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., an experience she called her Super Bowl, and became a fierce advocate for women navigating the criminal justice system, even testifying before a Congressional committee.

Friends and family highlighted her ability to help children and adults alike find their voice, no matter the setting.

“She would identify those kids that looked like they didn’t fit in or felt like they didn’t fit in and she would just sit with them and get to know them and empower and encourage,” said her son, Paul May. “She was all about just helping people to make themselves better.”

Elizabeth Jane Clark was born September 15, 1940, in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were the Rev. Wendell Clark, a Methodist minister, and Pauline Clark, a church administrator and accountant.

A lifelong singer, dancer and actress, Mrs. May spent time growing up in Connecticut, Long Island and Brooklyn. She attended Ohio Wesleyan School of Nursing before transferring to Wayne State University, where she majored in theater and history and graduated in 1964.

In college, she met and then married Dr. Gerald Gordon May, who served as a Maryland state prisons psychiatrist and authored numerous books on spiritual growth. They were married for 42 years until his death in 2005.

Upon moving to Columbia in 1972, Mrs. May taught swimming lessons before starting a family gymnastics class at the Other Barn in Oakland Mills that soon evolved into her theater program. She also served as a teacher at the Thornton Friends School in Silver Spring in the 1990s and performed as a clown at birthday parties and corporate events.

An animal lover, Mrs. May welcomed dogs, cats, birds and even snakes her children found into her Columbia home, earning it the nickname “The Zoo.”

She also authored four books addressing subjects such as racism, bullying and relationships, including a book in 2014 about her production with incarcerated women.

“Betty had that infectious smile,” Ms. Pakulla said. “She would walk into a room and … [y]ou would smile just because she smiled.”

While her student performers often dazzled onstage, Mrs. May’s ultimate concern lay with helping Howard youngsters grow as people, not actors.

“I tell them it is all right to make a mistake,” she told The Sun. “The sun will still shine, the moon rise and the cars still come roaring down the road.”

Mrs. May is survived by a sister, Ruth S. Dzik of Allenspark, Colorado; sons Paul May, of St. Augustine, Florida, Earl May of Watertown, Massachusetts, Gregory May of Columbia and Christopher Gunther of Columbia; a daughter, Julia May of Randallstown; 10 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. She was predeceased by her parents, husband and sister Virginia Clark.

A celebration of life is scheduled for August.

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