Acclaimed dancer/choreographer/performer Tami Stronach stands on stage under the spotlight during a tech rehearsal, her hair braided in two pony tails. A tiny bulb flickers with a dim light in the headpiece of the costume she’s wearing, making her blue eyes twinkle. The character she’s playing, Moth, is an 11-year-old dreamer living in a world which is in permanent darkness — and she embarks in an adventure to try and fix things, bring the light back, and save her mom, who has fallen into “the sleep.”
This plot, from the upcoming play “Light: A Dark Comedy” by the Shoehorn Theater company —of which Tami is one of the co-founders — is not so far from the extraordinary journey of adventures her own life has been. Tami was Born in Iran in 1972 — the daughter of two anthropologists (a Scottish dad and an Israeli mom), who had to flee the country they were working at during the Revolution. Tami lived in England and Israel for a while until they all arrived in the US. She was 8 years old then, and had already been dancing for years when she went on to take acting classes. Soon enough, she would be playing Piglet in a child’s theater performance of “Winnie The Pooh,” right before scoring the role that would come to define her early life.The day I visit Tami at her house in Brooklyn, she is in the kitchen talking to the nanny of her 3-year-old daughter Maya, and attending several work-related phone calls while she waits for the little one to get up from her afternoon nap. When Maya finally wakens, Tami sits down at her daughter’s bed and plays with her affectionately, while asking about her day. Maya goes on to describe — in all sorts of magical detail — how she had gone to her swimming lesson, and was splashing around with Puff the Magic Dragon that day. Not only does Tami enjoy the endearing wild imagination of her little one, but she encourages it by asking more about these adventures. Maya is a lovely child, who has inherited those beautiful eyes that made her mom famous on screens worldwide when she was only a kid herself.
It’s a subject Tami doesn’t tend to bring up in her everyday life, but this year has been different and special — and she’s felt more open to talk about it because it’s the 30th anniversary of her big screen debut.Upon my asking about the film, Tami brings a box out of her storage closet and sets it on the kitchen table. She opens it carefully and pulls the content out: memorabilia cards, several books and photographs, and figurines…a little boy and his book, a furry white dragon, a mythical creature made of stone, and a little girl in a white princess outfit. She lays them on the table and plays with Maya, who opens her eyes wide in curiosity upon all these mighty treasures from a box that she has never seen before.
An album of photographs opens and there she is… a beautiful black and white still photograph, a close-up portrait of an 11-year-old Tami. Flawless beauty and innocence in her face. Young Maya stares at the photograph for a long time, and exclaims how pretty the girl is — unable to recognize her own mom in the picture, with the make up, hair and costume of The Childlike Empress in “The Neverending Story,” the beloved 1984 fantasy classic based on Michael Ende’s novel of the same name. In that moment, deep inside of me — as someone who grew up fascinated by both the movie and the book — I can sense my own inner kid’s happiness, as if knowing how lucky I am to witness a unique fantasy moment happening in front of me.
She may have been a few minutes only on screen in “The NeverEnding Story”, but undoubtedly one of the most iconic parts of the movie’s success is Tami’s magic princess who lived in the Ivory Tower and had to be given a name by the boy who was reading the book, in order to save her world of Fantastica from the oblivion of The Nothing. “MoonChild!!!”…Bastian screamed from the window, and she would never again be forgotten!As with all magical things, the road to the movie for Tami was an adventure in itself. She recalls the serendipity that the casting director for the film would happen to be in San Francisco at the time, and she was friends with the acting coach at the child’s play where Tami had the Piglet role. Tami was asked to audition for the part of the ChildLike Empress, and her mom drove her straight from the play, still in Piglet’s pig outfit and make up! She made an impression and was flown to Los Angeles for a second bigger test, this time in a pretty dress and beautiful make up. Tami was experiencing it all as a fun adventure in her dream of performing, but when she saw the girl from the “Poltergeist” films sitting next to her waiting for the same audition, she realized she was joining a big league. She was taken to Germany for a third and final audition with Wolfgang Petersen himself, the film’s director. Tami got the part and spent three months in Germany while the film was being shot. She read the book in those days and loved it (she believes the story’s depth still holds up when re-read today).
“The NeverEnding Story” opened in 1984 to a huge reception in Germany at first, and quickly became a sensation all around the world, for its — at the time — revolutionary FX and puppetry. Tami was asked to sign up for a possible sequel, but her mother decided against it. She feared she may not have had the appropriate tool belt to help her daughter navigate the turbulent waters of childhood stardom in the film industry. Unfortunately, there were many reasons for that cautiousness right after the movie became a hit and turned the 11-year-old into a star: fans from all around the world would call the family’s house number at any hour, day or night, trying to talk to Tami. People were camping out in front of her house, and she got mail with expensive wedding rings, and creepy offers to marry her from adult men. She even got some offers from Hollywood to play roles featuring scenes (with nudity) completely inappropriate for someone her age.Under such intense public scrutiny, Tami decided to turn to the other passion she adored as much as acting: dance. She did it for hours every day and went to a dance conservatory. In 1990, she arrived in NY to attend a college upstate, and a few years later she moved to Williamsburg in Brooklyn and fell in love with New York City. Tami recalls the fun of being young in her 20s in a city so vibrant and with such an energy where everybody was MAKING and CREATING constantly. She can’t remember a time where she wasn’t doing at least three things at once. While she admits life could be hard back then (she would work tirelessly from 6am to noon just so she could afford to dance the rest of the day) it was also an era where being a New York artist was easier. She feels sad about the uphill path for artists in today’s unaffordable New York, especially when recalling how, back in the day, she would pay a mere $280 of rent a month to her Italian landlady in Brooklyn (who would even cook dinner for her in exchange of walking her dog). Since she’s been in NY, Tami joined the Neta Dance company before she would go on to create Tami Stronach Dance in 2000.
Her very successful career as a dancer eventually provided Tami with a doorway back into acting, but with a new philosophical approach: physical theater, where the emotions are found less by method and more by working with the shapes the body can create. She was part of the theater company The Flying Machine, that toured all over the US with much acclaim, and eventually co-founded her current one, Shoehorn Theater. For the past two years, they have worked on the current play “Light: A Dark Comedy” from the ground up, a group generative effort where everyone is involved in every step of the creation.
Asked whether she regrets, in hindsight, what “could have been” had she continued growing in Hollywood as a child star, Tami Stronach has mixed feelings. On one hand, there are the “what ifs” of the films that could have come her way. On the opposite, there’s the belief that she absorbed some of that cautiousness from her mom and that it somehow helped her. While she could have run to Hollywood when she grew up to try her luck again, she focused more on grassroots projects, became a university professor like her dad had been, and chose to remain in NYC instead, a city she declares she’s addicted to. In fact, at some point she even rejected a possible move to Los Angeles for a big offer to dance at a company for four years, out of loyalty to that NY energy and her network of friends and artists here.
And it is that circle of supportive friends that let Tami feel confident that, if little Maya was to pursue the arts in the years to come, she will have every tool needed to help her navigate the business and help her trail her own adventure path. Maya’s dad would dream of her daughter to be a lawyer or a doctor some day, but Tami says that, at just 3 years old, her daughter is already obsessed with her own imagination and loves to “play pretend.” And now that she’s opened the Childlike Empress’s treasure box, who knows… It might as well just be a sign that, as Michael Ende himself wrote, “Every real story is a never ending story… But that is another one and shall be told another time.”