COHOES – Genius is collaborative. When it comes to creating any form of art, especially on the Broadway stage, good collaboration derives from effort. At a recent Q and A session with the Cohoes High School Drama Club, Broadway actress Caitlin Kinnunen said it takes many people to work magic to make a piece come alive to impact the viewer’s outlook on theater and life itself.
“If you want to put together a piece of genius art you have to collaborate, and I think that applies to every single person in the building,” she said.
The Tony-nominated actress said she heard sage advice from a peer early in her career – “genius is collaborative” – and it remains something she adheres to in her career today.
The actress, known for her role as Emma Nolan of “The Prom,” met with members of the Drama Club Saturday, April 1, and stayed to watch the young actors perform.
Prior to the students’ evening performance, the actors rehearsed a pivotal scene on stage from their adaptation of “The Prom” in front of Kinnunen and the theater coaches.
“That was so good!” Kinnunen shouted after the rehearsal concluded.
The cast then sat along the edge of the auditorium stage eager to engage in conversation with Kinnunen. Kneeling down on the floor, she spoke to them in a laid-back style, like that used in the TV show “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and opened the floor for discussion.
“I absolutely love coming and doing this. It’s got that weird (vibe) of an oral history,” Kinnunen continued. “You now have the experience of talking to the original Emma, and you will have stories to tell people that no one else has.”
The students continued with their questions, which ranged from her beginnings in theater to her involvement in “The Prom” and why she decided to come to Cohoes to hang out with the cast and faculty.
“This show (‘The Prom’) means so much to me,” Kinnunen said. “This is my life passion. This is what I’ve done since I was three-years-old.”
Kinnunen grew up in Camano Island, Wash., and started performing theater at three years old. While being home-schooled, Kinnunen was involved in a children’s theater company in her hometown and performed in plays at the local high school. She took on the lead role as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” and also took part in “Peter Pan” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
In 2014, Kinnunen originally auditioned for the role of Alyssa in “The Prom,” but wound up cast as the lead character, Emma Nolan. She began performing the role in Atlanta in 2016 and The “Prom” made its way to Broadway in 2018.
In 2019, she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. “The Prom” ended its run in August of that year after 309 regular performances and 23 previews.
“The Prom was an incredible experience.” Kinnunen said. “The people in it were spectacular. Being surrounded by them everyday for almost five years, you can’t take that for granted or replace it with anything. I became the person that I am because of this show.”
Kinnunen was asked why she traveled from New York City to the Spindle City.
“I love that kids across the country are able to do it now. To be able to share my journey with it is really awesome,” Kinnunen said. “You are putting your heart and soul into it. I think that’s so wonderful and such a thing to celebrate, encourage and foster. I want to be here and show up and do this.”
Several students asked Kinnunen what steps an aspiring actor should take to get to Broadway and what pros and cons exist.
“There is no one way to do this. Give yourself to every single opportunity you can and say yes to everything,” Kinnunen said. “Take all of the classes, do all of the coaching and be at every production that you could possibly get your hands on.”
She said whether that means going to a conservatory or going to school for musical theater, students can always find an opportunity to make the art they wish to make.
“Learn how to create, learn how to be collaborative, and just keep showing up.,” Kinnunen said.
Being employed on Broadway, however, is not an easy task and not for the faint at heart, she said.
“The hardest thing is that this industry will beat you up over and over. It will make you feel like a piece of garbage. It will make you feel untalented, unworthy and ugly,” Kinnunen said.
But she quickly followed that with a message of positivity.
“We do it because we love it and we do it because it means something to us. If we keep showing up for both ourselves and for the art form, and if we still love it, this is worth everything that happens,” Kinnunen said.
Despite all the ups and downs of her career, Kinnunen loves theater and continues to show up. She finds the wonderful moments make it worth it to be an actress.
“It’s going to be hard and sometimes, you’re going to be like, why am I still showing up? You’re still going to show up and you’re still going to make it happen. It’s what you love to do so you do it,” Kinnunen said. “All theater, even bad theater, all theater has something to say and you learn from it. You will think about that for the rest of your life.”
Kinnunen thanked Cohoes HS Theater Director Rachel Marer the next day in an email for creating an opportunity for her visit.
“Being able to come and see these incredible students perform this show was truly magical!” she wrote. “This show has been a part of my life for so long, to see them up there making it their own is everything. The joy, the connection, the message. All of it made my heart incredibly happy.”
Marer said that the interaction was important to the students.
“Caitlin was so down to earth and gave the kids some great stage and real life advice,” Marer said. “The kids’ energy was especially high that night, knowing she was in the audience. She seemed to really enjoy the show.”