BY CARY GINELL
Ventura County has always been a proving ground for young performers, and one of the brightest that we’ve seen in the past few years is Kristen Wisneski, a 17-year-old junior at Thousand Oaks High School. Wisneski has a certain spark that brightens any production she has been in, and she has raised the bar in a number of outstanding productions, including Morticia in The Addams Family and, most recently, Olive in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Her next role will be as Charity Hope Valentine in T.O. High’s spring production of Sweet Charity, and you can bet that Kristen will inject a lot of her natural exuberance and joy into this made-to-order part. We talked with her a few weeks ago after Young Artists Ensemble’s production of Spelling Bee closed.
VCOS: How long have you been acting?
KRISTEN: As a kid, I was really shy, so it’s sort of a thing that has developed. I moved here from Oxnard in second grade and then when I went to Redwood Middle School, I started in the show choir there. Gary Fritzen was sort of the creator of my career because I started performing in his own written productions. So I started performing in those from sixth grade on; I was Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, which was my first role.
VCOS: Which came first? Singing or acting?
KRISTEN: I’ve been singing for a really long time, but I haven’t taken lessons.
VCOS: OK, so where do you see yourself now? Where are you headed?
KRISTEN: I’m going for Broadway! That’s my ultimate goal. It’s definitely a long ways off but I’m going for it.
VCOS: I’m sure you’re aware of the odds against that happening and the level competition you’ll be faced with, so do you have a strategy as to how to stand out from the crowd?
KRISTEN: I’m a very optimistic person so I want to stand out just by being myself. I think everyone’s uniqueness is such a special quality and I feel that showing myself as who I am is the only way I can get somewhere.
VCOS: One thing that I’ve noticed about your performances is that you keep surprising me by doing characters that I am not expecting you to do, like Mrs. Stevens in The Drunkard at Thousand Oaks High.
KRISTEN: Yes, that was a very minimalist kind of role for me. I owe Joe Donia for casting me in all those roles because he’s given me so many diverse characters. It’s been an amazing experience for me just to be given these opportunities to develop my characters. It’s a lot of fun.
VCOS: Does your versatility surprise you?
KRISTEN: I guess so. I mean, it’s sort of a weird thing for me because it’s still very new. It’s not like I’ve been doing this since I was five. I started doing professional productions in high school – and by that, I mean with an actual cast and a licensed story. I don’t consider my middle school productions to be professional because they weren’t with a theater company. The first time I did Young Artists Ensemble was my freshman year in high school. And that was the first time I ever auditioned for anything. That was for Willy Wonka and I played Mrs. Gloop. But I feel like I do surprise myself because it’s still very new to me. I’m still young, obviously, and I’m still learning about myself, but I’m very excited and love performing.
VCOS: You, of course, have natural talent, but you still need the guidance of teachers and professionals, but since you really don’t have anyone like a professional teacher to help you, tell me how you get into that “zone” of a character. Do you have a style or a mechanism that you use?
KRISTEN: I feel that I have to make each character unique. When I’m given a character, the first thing I do is research, what their history is, what the writers of that production want that character to be. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to clean-cut what they wanted; I can take liberties but that’s how I feel it out. I need to know what their base is; where they came from, their history.
VCOS: Is it easier if a character is more like you or more unlike you as possible?
KRISTEN: I know that it’s easier to connect to an audience when your character is more like you, but for me, it’s more exciting when a character is a lot different than me because I need to find the nuances where I can put myself into that character.
VCOS: I was thinking about You Never Can Tell, where you played a person as alien from a teenaged girl living in today’s world as you can get.
KRISTEN: But at the same time, I could put a lot of myself into that character because she was very subdued, but I was able to take liberties with that. I find that every character I play I get very attached to. And I find myself putting little pieces of my self into them, which is so much fun because then you can show yourself to the audience.
VCOS: All right, then, what part of you is Morticia Addams?
KRISTEN: (laughs). I guess the sexy side, I don’t know!
VCOS: That role and the part you played in You Never Can Tell are more subdued, but then you have Serena in Legally Blonde, which is just all out, hit the moon exuberance. Which of those are you more comfortable with?
KRISTEN: Gosh. Most comfortable? I would probably say Serena. Morticia was kind of a stretch for me because I had to access my sexy side and that’s something I hadn’t done before. But it’s really good for me because I get to explore myself as a person as well as on stage. But I’m more comfortable with parts like Serena because I’m such an energetic person, and Legally Blonde is one of my favorite, FAVORITE shows because it’s such high energy. I love being able to give that much on stage. So even though I’m always in character, I want to take it the extra mile and give more of myself to an audience. I have learned, however, to hold back, like with Morticia and Gloria in You Never Can Tell, that I didn’t have to be 100% energy 24/7, just give, give, give, give, give. But that’s definitely not the case. That’s the thing about theater. You learn by doing. And I feel like I’ve learned so much because I’ve been given such great opportunities and through audience reception. That’s something you can’t learn in a classroom. It’s not going to help unless you’re in the moment, doing it.
VCOS: As you know, I played in the pit in Spelling Bee while you’re playing Olive, and I must have seen eight different productions of the show in the past few years, but your portrayal of Olive was totally different than any other that I’ve seen. The main thing that I’ve noticed is that you totally put yourself into that child’s body and it came out through your voice. You really were that sweet little child in the show, not a grown-up playing a child.
KRISTEN: First of all, it was such a honor to play Olive. I’m still surprised that I got that part. Olive was a difficult character to portray. Previously, in my monolog where I won this past fall at the DTASC competition [Drama Teachers Association of Southern California], I performed a monolog from the play Tomorrow’s Wish and I played the character called Juniper. Juniper is a young girl, maybe 10 or 12 years old, and she is autistic and acts childlike. I studied childlike characteristics for Juniper for so long, watching videos on YouTube, not just people acting autistic but actual autistic children, and I found a childlike essence in that. Having that background helped me create my Olive because I needed to make her seem like she was not mentally challenged, but still bring that childlike aspect to her.
VCOS: And then you had to also imagine that she was without her parents.
KRISTEN: Right. I did so much character study for Olive. I would go home after rehearsal and I just wanted to continue being her because I felt like I needed more. There was such little time to rehearse, too; those three weeks went by so quickly. That was the shortest amount of time I’ve ever had to rehearse a show. Just being under that time constraint made Olive grow so quickly.
VCOS: What terrifies you?
KRISTEN: I’m not really scared of anything.
VCOS: Now I know you’re going to make it.
KRISTEN: (laughs) I used to be very nervous about improv. But I’ve learned that now, my favorite part about theater, is being in the moment and being able to be quick on your feet. That’s what theater’s all about. Everything can change in an instant in the theater.
VCOS: What was your favorite improv moment in Spelling Bee?
KRISTEN: One night there was this really loud guy in the audience, and Kevin Gilmond, who was playing Barfée, said, “SHUT UP!” to him, and everyone started laughing, and I said in my little girl Olive voice, “That’s a really loud man!” And it got even a bigger laugh. That was probably my favorite moment. If you’re in character, you can say anything and it will still work, even if it doesn’t make sense with the situation, if it makes sense for your character, it’s OK.
VCOS: Has there been one person who has been your most valuable mentor?
KRISTEN: I’d say two: Mr. Fritzen and Mr. Donia. Mr. Fritzen took me under his wing and taught me so much. The DTASC monologs were such an amazing experience for any performer. After I did that, I was a completely changed person. At DTASC, there are so many people who have the passion for the theater, and being in that kind of atmosphere is such an amazing experience. Fritzen got me into that. He taught me so many things and I can credit him for that. Mr. Donia also mentored me on the monolog and I can’t thank him enough for the amazing opportunities he has given me in high school.
VCOS: Any plans for college yet?
KRISTEN: I’ve been talking about that with my parents. I’m still unsure whether I should go to a conservatory or a liberal arts college with a musical theater program. My parents are very realistic and I know that it’s the roughest business you can get into, but at the same time, I know in my heart that I don’t have any other option. It’s all I want to do. But I get where they’re coming from and I know that I need to have something to fall back on, so I’m thinking that if my Broadway career doesn’t happen, I want to be teaching drama or music.
VCOS: Is there a favorite role you’d like to play in the future?
KRISTEN: Marian in The Music Man, and Elpheba in Wicked. Oh! Also, Veronica Sawyer in Heathers: The Musical. I just want to play them all!
Watch the VC On Stage Calendar for dates and showtimes of Thousand Oaks High School’s forthcoming production of Sweet Charity, starring Kristen Wisneski.