“There are two ways of spreading light,” wrote Edith Wharton. “To be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Early in her life Marcia Cross connected with two women, both named Betsy, who would present that mirror and it changed her world in profound ways.

When she was in the sixth grade her school teacher, Betsy Banks, who adapted the Witch of Blackbird Pond, into a play, Banks got Cross to play the lead. Although Cross was a timid child, Banks inspired her to take a big leap and step out of her comfort zone.

“She pushed me and out it all came. It felt great,” says Cross. “I thought, I want to do that.” And by the time she got to Marlborough High School she was hooked on performing. At 14 she asked the drama teacher, Betsy Joseph, if she would be open to taking her and a few other students to New York City.

“And she said, ‘yes,’ shares Cross. “We saw a Chorus Line, went to Sardis and the World Trade Center and she was instrumental in supporting me, through high school.” Joseph inspired her to pursue a summer theater program and help Cross grow as an artist; “She had me direct a play. I became president of the drama club,” says Cross of the teacher who still remains a dear friend. “She was there and believed in me.”

That passion that was nurtured within her would lead Cross to audition and win a part scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard school to study acting. Theater roles followed in productions like Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. Cross performed live throughout the country at Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Hartford Stage Company and the Old Globe. But ultimately TV roles beckoned.

After many years away Cross is now back on stage in the off Broadway production of Pay The Writer. Now at The Pershing Square Signature Center, the play is about the cost of being an artist and how it impacts relationships.

“Theater is what I went to school for and was my original love. I went after it fiercely when I was younger, wound up in television and then got married and had babies,” says Cross who is also the co-founder and President of the HPV Cancers Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to empowering individuals with knowledge about the health and lifestyle impact of HPV infection. But now that her twin daughters are older she felt she could return to her great passion. “I love the material and my husband, [Tom Mahoney], said, ‘This is what you should be doing.”

In the play, which was written by Tawni O’Dell and directed by Karen Carpenter, Ron Canada plays Cyrus Holt, a world famous author. Battling his inner turmoil, he is trying to navigate the demands of his writing while connecting with the people who he loves. There’s his complex relationships with his agent (Bryan Batt), his kids (Danielle J. Summons, Garrett Turner) and his ex-wife and mother of his children, Lana (Cross).

“The play is all about love,” says Cross. “That is why I think I was drawn to it. Yes, it’s about a man’s reckoning of his relationships in his life, but it also has a universal theme. This is a man facing death and he has chance to right some relationships or at least, have some closure with them.”

Pay The Writer also has a top notch production team. And that includes Broadway legend Brenda Braxton. An NAACP Theatre Award winner and Tony Award nominee (Chicago, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Jelly’s Last Jam) this mark’s Braxton’s first producing venture.

Braxton says that the play found her. “Although I had been thinking about producing, I wasn’t actively looking for a project,” she says. “Word of mouth brought [producer] Mitchell Maxwell right to me. We both were very upfront about the importance of having a woman of color on the team and I knew I could learn a lot I felt safe to be a part of the producing team.”

For a performing veteran like Braxton taking the leap to producing seemed like the ideal progression. “My first Broadway show was in 1976! We all know show business isn’t kind to women as we mature,” she says. “There are less and less quality projects, especially for women of color.”

After wondering what she would do next, producing, which is acting adjacent, felt alluring and it has inspired her to delve further. “Dipping my toe into the producing pool just seemed like a possible next step,” shares Braxton. “Now after working with Pay the Writer I’m curious about directing.”

As both Braxton and Cross see it, there’s nothing like theater to inspire risk taking. And there’s also the joy of the live communal experience. “We’re all taking the journey together. It’s really rewarding at the end when people have been moved, laughed and had a wonderful time,” says Cross who is emboldened by the audiences who see meets after seeing the show. “I’m so grateful they’ve come and had that enriching experience.”