This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Kaitlin Niewoehner tumbled through childhood as a promising gymnast in Columbia, Mo. Competitions often brought her to St. Louis, where her family of five enjoyed going to the Zoo, the Arch and Cardinals games.
But in Niewoehner’s early teens, gymnastics’ toll on her body and her dad’s job transfer to the 49th state changed the rhythm of her life: Hello 14, hello Alaska, hello dance lessons.
A decade later, Niewoehner’s dancing, acting and singing abilities have landed her in the touring production of the classic “A Chorus Line,” coming to the Peabody Opera House March 21-23. “A Chorus Line” is the story of two dozen hopefuls who tell their life stories as they try out for a handful of roles decided by a director named Zach.
Niewoehner’s a swing for characters Val, Bebe, Judy, Maggie, Kristine and Sheila, all auditioning to be part of the “one singular sensation” of Michael Bennett’s 1975 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.
For now, Niewoehner’s adventures with the tour make up for the occasional aggravation of living on the road. But Niewoehner has many other options, should she tire of travel. Not only could she join a New York-based performance, she could also fall back on her college degree: architecture.
Six years ago at 18, Niewoehner moved back to Columbia to pursue her architectural interests at Mizzou. Summers were devoted to dance. She trained at Stephens College in Columbia, with the Missouri Contemporary Ballet, and at The Ailey School in New York.
Nieweoehner talked with the Beacon about her love of dance and theater and her Missouri roots.
St. Louis Beacon: What was your introduction to musicals?
Kaitlin Niewoehner: I grew up watching the musical movies with my grandparents but my family wasn’t involved in theater. We didn’t go see very many shows -- it definitely wasn’t a part of my life.
My favorites were “White Christmas” and “Singing in the Rain.” They were so entertaining and made me so happy and I loved the stories that went along with them. Everyone looked like they were having so much fun. There’s something magical about singing and telling a story at the same time.
I was in college, and I was dancing, and I took a musical theater dance class as part of a summer program at Stephens College. And that’s when I had my first interaction with musical theater and I fell in love with it.
What about being in the “A Chorus Line” tour -- is it magical?
Niewoehner: There are days when it’s not magical, just like any other career where it can seem as if all your dreams are going to come true if you could do this one thing you’ve been wanting to do your whole life.
But most days, I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world to get paid to dance and act and give audiences the gift of joy.
What’s the downside of making a living this way?
Niewoehner: There are some very challenging things: There’s no job security, and there are long stints in between each job.
I have a four-year degree in architecture, so I’m way overqualified to be working in a restaurant. But that’s the only job that has the hours and a schedule that can accommodate my audition life.
You have to wake up at 6 in the morning and put your name on a list to audition for someone, and be seen by them for about 30 seconds and hope you get the job. So it can be very emotionally taxing and very tiring. It’s a lot of work and grind in between the magic.
The travel is exciting at first, and you try and keep in your head that you’re so lucky -- you’re living an adventure. And we’ve gone a to a lot of interesting places.
But there’s nothing safe or comfortable about living out of a suitcase. We don’t realize it but our closet and kitchen and all our material comforts, comfort us all the time. But I don’t have any of that. I haven’t had a kitchen in five months so I can’t control what I eat, I can’t always find healthy options, which is frustrating.
It’s really hard on your body too, being on a bus, sleeping on the floor. I don’t know if I want to jump into another tour but I will certainly tour again. But a lot of it depends on the schedule.
What made you decide to focus on theater instead of architecture?
Niewoehner: I worked at a firm for couple of summers. But it was very clear to me it wasn’t a lifestyle I wanted right now.
I still really enjoy design and, in between dance jobs, I’ll tutor dance students in the New York City. I really enjoy that and I plan to do that as much as I can.
Why do you consider “A Chorus Line” to be an important musical?
Niewoehner: A lot of the classic musicals are kind of just cheap entertainment. They make you smile, they do a tap dance. But especially in contemporary musical theater, there are stories that are very significant.
“Chorus Line” is a show that I respect so much. It’s one of the shows that started pushing that line for the first time, and pushing musical theater into a new era, because it was starting to tell hard, really important stories, and doing much more than just entertaining an audience.