TWO-and-a-half hours before the lights go up at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass., backstage is quiet, deserted. The only person at work is Cathy Rigby, who likes to be well prepared when she steps out to sing the first of nine songs in Rodgers and Hammerstein's ``South Pacific.''
Rigby is about to get into character as Ensign Nellie Forbush when a reporter and photographer invade the leading lady's modest dressing room.
She greets her visitors, then settles into an upholstered chair for a 30-minute interview in which she explains how she has metamorphosed over the past 22 years from Olympic gymnast to star of the musical theater.
Rigby may be the first American sports star to succeed on stage (she has received critical acclaim for her performances in touring productions of ``Peter Pan'' and ``Annie Get Your Gun''). It has been a hard-earned transformation.
It all began, she says, at the 1972 Olympics in Munich - the year that Israeli athletes were massacred by terrorists. ``For a young person,'' she recalls, the violence ``was devastating. And while I loved what the sport offered, I didn't like the pressure or the politics. It took the joy of performing out of it.''
Two Olympics were enough, she concluded, so a day after the '72 Games, at age 20, she hung up her leotard, satisfied with what she and her teammates had achieved, even if others weren't.
Rigby was probably the best all-around gymnast the United States had ever produced up until then, but she did not win a medal and was largely obscured by the media blitz surrounding Olga Korbut, the 84-pound Soviet sprite who was the 1972 Olympic show-stopper.
``We really performed very, very well,'' Rigby says of the US women's gymnastics team, ``but to read in one of the major magazines that we finished a `disappointing' fourth, I wanted to say, `What are you talking about?' That was the highest we'd ever placed.''
Rigby wasn't sure what she wanted to do or was capable of doing at that point. ``I was so completely devoted to gymnastics that I hadn't even thought about anything else,'' she says.
Given her fame, offers came to do commercials and portray a Russian gymnast in an episodic TV drama, ``The Great Wallendas.'' She enjoyed the work.
Given the high profile she'd achieved in gymnastics, Rigby says she didn't want to make a fool of herself in a new field of endeavor. As a result, she began taking voice and acting lessons and ``fell in love with the process.''
Gymnastics, however, had made her into something of a ``control freak,'' apprehensive about performing without endless practice.
``It took about seven years before I ever had the guts to step on stage,'' she says. ``Finally, my voice teacher kicked me out from behind the piano and said, `It's time to take a chance with all this training you've had.' ''
Skipping past any sort of apprenticeship in lesser roles, she auditioned and got the part of Dorothy in ``The Wizard of Oz'' at the Sacramento (Calif.) Music Circus. ``A genuine theatrical talent,'' wrote Variety of her debut.
She will play Dorothy again in January when ``Oz'' begins a run at the La Mirada (Calif.) Theatre for the Performing Arts, a 1,200-seat city-owned facility.
Rigby and her producer-husband Tom McCoy are partners in McCoy Rigby Entertainment, which will produce ``Oz'' and three other shows in the coming season.
Part of what makes Rigby's career in theater such an achievement is that it's been accomplished while raising four children, now aged 9 to 19. Once an accomplished balance-beam performer, Rigby says she's arrived at an equilibrium in her adult life. ``I like what I do, and I want to get better,'' she says, ``but I take just as much joy from sitting at home, putting my feet up, doing the laundry or whatever. After 30 years of a career and high-profile life, it's not as if I aspire to be a celebrity or prove myself anymore.''
Looking back, however, she realizes how challenging it can be when an athlete steps into a new field. ``It's hard to put yourself out there [in public] again and to start at the bottom,'' she says. Many athletes, she believes, may rest on their sports laurels until they find a way to apply their determination to something else.
She cites the case of swimmer Mark Spitz, who was the most decorated athlete at the '72 Olympics with seven gold medals. Spitz tested the entertainment waters for a while after leaving swimming, then eventually hit his stride in the business world. ``I can tell you that Mark has worked very hard in real estate and is doing extremely well,'' Rigby says.
Many of Rigby's gymnastics connections have fallen away over the years. While convinced that gymnastics remains an appealing pursuit - a fact confirmed by her children's participation - she has deep reservations about certain aspects of the sport.
In a recent Sports Illustrated story on eating disorders in gymnastics, Rigby says the July death of gymnast Christy Henrich makes her angry because ``there's so much denial'' within the sport.
Rigby says many young girls start gymnastics at age six but have lost their healthy perspective for what they do by age 12. The intense environment, she says, leaves ``you scared to death that you're going to make a mistake and that you're going to disappoint those who have invested much time and energy in your career.''
THE situation is sometimes complicated, Rigby says, by coaches who assume almost total control of girls at a stage when they're inclined to test their independence. ``It's a natural kind of rebellion,'' she notes. ``But in gymnastics, you never do that. You learn to be a really good girl. You say what you're supposed to say. You're in a gym eight hours a day, which makes you serious about what you do.''
Genuine, unrehearsed exuberance, Rigby has learned through acting, is often the key to a winning stage performance. ``There's a technique to staying within the intention of a scene,'' she says. ``But then it's about relaxation, being spontaneous, and allowing yourself to really fly out there.''
In ``South Pacific,'' which ended its Boston-area run last month, she did a cartwheel while singing ``A Wonderful Guy.'' Such acrobatics, she says, must fit.
In this case, tradition supported her decision, since Mary Martin did a cartwheel in the original Broadway production. ``I just went a step further and put it on top of [an overturned] rowboat,'' Rigby says. ``For me, there's still incredible joy in doing something physical.''