“I love doing theatre and telling a story and having a relationship with the audience. Being a celebrity has never been in my mind. When I was in college [at Northwestern University], the focus was on becoming a working actor, not a Broadway star. And in the 1990s when I graduated, there were so many theatre companies cropping up in Chicago. The theatre community here is both big and small. People come from all over to work, and there are so many venues, but the community also feels small because it is so supportive.”
Actress Heidi Kettenring is talking about how she has come to make Chicago her artistic and actual home. And in the course of our far-ranging conversation, it becomes clear why Chicago – and leading theatres across the country - have embraced this versatile, mesmerizing actress as one of their favorite leading ladies.
Born in New Orleans and raised in Nashville, Kettenring first came to Second City in the
early 1990s to attend Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She initially enrolled as a communication, radio, television, film student, but within three months had switched to becoming a theatre major. It had been a love that had quietly and firmly taken hold throughout her childhood.
“My earliest memories of seeing live theatre were the plays my parents took me to in Nashville. We would see ten-eleven a year, including the touring
Broadway shows and many things at the Tennesse Repertory Company,” Kettenring recalls. But she had been on stage herself, as well, in grade school. “I remember being in my first play in fourth grade,” says Kettenring, who attended Catholic school. It was written by the nuns and was called Finding Tomorrow . It featured characters like Little Orphan Annie, Oliver Twist, and Mary Poppins, and I got to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In high school Kettenring continued her interest in theatre by joining drama club, attending theatre summer camps and performing in musicals.
Kettenring also has memories of the eclectic music that shaped her childhood. “My parents and I would listen to the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, James Taylor, Willie Nelson, and the Beatles.” She
studied classical voice briefly while in high school, though she recalls the “operatic technique wasn’t a good fit for me. It was at Northwestern that I studied voice with Kurt R. Hansen. He was a wonderful teacher, and I credit him with the technique I have today.”
After Kettenring graduated and made the decision to remain in Chicago, she experienced several difficult years professionally. “I had a couple
bad audition experiences, and I lost my love for it [performing], so for a while I was just waiting on tables and doing little gigs like being part of HealthWorks, a non-union touring company that visited schools with the mission of HIV and AIDS education and prevention. Then a friend of mine was going to Indiana to audition for Wagon Wheel Theatre, and he said to me, ‘You are unhappy with what you are doing. Come with me
and audition. It can’t hurt anything.’ And so I did, and I got cast there for the whole summer. And while I was working at Wagon Wheel, I met people from Chicago who encouraged me to audition when I got back for a production of Follies at the Drury Lane Oakbrook.”
That audition which landed her a role in the 1998 Ray Frewen-directed production marked a milestone year for Kettenring. “I was twenty-four, and In the space of twelve months, I got my Equity card doing that show; I met the man who would become my husband [actor David Girolmo]; my mother died, and my dad entered a seminary to become a Roman Catholic priest. It was a watershed for me; every element of my
life changed, and I remember things as before or after that time.”
Asked if there have been other such dramatic and life-changing markers that followed, Kettenring cites her experience playing Nessa Rose for three years in the production of Wicked. “That was a game changer for me a,s well. For the first time, when I told people I was an actor and what I was working on, they made the connection. Wicked made people
look up from the resume; it changed the conversation.” And not only did Wicked prove professionally important for Kettenring’s career, but it, too, coincided with a number of other important personal events for her. “It was a very helpful job financially and artistically,” she says, “and in that time I married David,” so, it also became a “before and after moment.” Kettenring’s and Girolmo’s two-career marriage has proved
to be a source of happiness, support, and strength for the couple, something Kettenring credits to the fact that “He and I knew what choosing another actor meant; you go where the work is. Luckily with today’s technology, it is easier to stay in touch, and we can and do communicate frequently. We take active pleasure in being with each other; we enjoy mostly the same things, and we keep the communication and connection alive.”
If Follies and Wicked stand out in Kettenring’s memory for their special associations, in fact, her career has been filled with highlights and triumphs. Nominated for seven Joseph Jefferson awards, she won for her portrayal of Anna in The King and I and has also taken home the prestigious Sarah Siddons Award for Chicago Leading Lady in 2005, as well as accolades from After Dark and Broadway World. And a glance
at her resume takes the breath award in its breadth and range of repertoire.
I ask Kettenring to name only a few of her favorites, with so many different experiences under her belt, a difficult task. She begins with a mention of an early gig understudying Belle in Beauty and the Beast on the national tour. And then, “Funny Girl was also a game changer for me in Chicago. I got my first Jeff nomination, and all the reviews were
great. It gave me that Cinderella feeling”.
The King and I at the Marriott Lincolnshire not only brought Kettenring her first Jeff Award win, but it came to hold a special serendipity for her.
“I had played Anna at Wagon Wheel the second summer after my mother died. Not only did I love the experience at the Marriott, but I won the Jeff Award on my mother’s birthday, so that represented a magical full circle.”
Another recent highlight she mentions is Annie Get Your Gun at Lancaster’s Fulton Theatre in 2017. Directed by Marc Robin who conceived the entire show as taking place in a circus world and co-starring Curt Dale Clark, Kettenring says she “loved doing a show directed by and filled with good friends. It was a blessing to go to work everyday.” And as for making her debut as Annie Oakley, she notes, “I
love doing the old-fashioned musicals. I feel they are a good fit for me.”
But Kettenring’s resume also boasts many straight plays both classic and contemporary. She cites another production that changed the conversation for her. “Doing Angels in America at the Court Theatre was hard, but beautiful. I had done straight plays before, but after that show, people stopped talking about me as someone who [primarily] did
musicals and began talking about me as an ‘actor.’”
Kettenring reminisces a bit about the many straight plays she has done. The recent groundbreaking all-female cast of Taming of the Shrew gets
a special mention. “It was conceived of as a play within a play with the concept that a group of suffragettes were preparing to present Shakespeare’s play. Ron West, whom I knew initially from Second City, wrote the play around the Shakespeare story. So it was fun, felt very collaborative and was a challenge. I love doing Shakespeare and in the last few years I have had the opportunity to do several of his plays. I
feel as if doing Shakespeare goes hand in hand with doing a musical. It’s the language and the sense that just as in a musical when you don’t know what else to say, you sing, in Shakespeare when you don’t know what to do next, you say a speech.”
She Loves Me
Among other period classic dramas for which Kettenring retains a fond spot is a production of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility she did at
Northlight ten years ago, and in terms of more modern plays, she speaks warmly of her work in The Diary of Anne Frank –(she played Mrs. Van Dam) – which enjoyed an eight-month run at Writers’ Theatre. “It was a moving and difficult experience.” There was also something special about the space. “You had to walk through the stacks of this independent bookstore to get there, and it sat fifty people, so we had
audience on either side of us.” Another recent dramatic challenge came last year playing Ann Deever in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Court Theatre. “That play is so beautiful and so hard,” she says softly.
And these are just a few of the countless productions in which Heidi Kettenring has graced the stages of Chicago and other leading American theatres, while also working in television and making a name for herself as a concert artist. This coming season she will appear in the Sondheim 90th Birthday Gala at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, and she has performed such evenings as The Three Divas. But it is in the one
-woman shows she creates herself that Kettenring finds the greatest challenge. Performing on the concert stage, she says “is different from being in a play. Yes, I am on the stage but [in concert I am presenting] a heightened version of myself. When I create, with help from some collaborators, a concert program, I am seeing how the material fits inside me, how to tell the story I want to tell. The positive aspect is that
I have created the show myself; the scary part is wondering if it is going to work?” Her most recent endeavor in this genre is We’ve Only Just Begun, a collection of Karen Carpenter songs that chronicles the troubles and triumphs of Carpenter’s tragically short life. “I love the way her songs tell stories. They have a little folk and little pop in them, and they sit a little lower in the voice,” Kettenring says.
Portraying an historical person on stage is something Kettenring has done numerous times in her career- from Carpenter to Patsy Cline to Fanny Brice and Anna Leonowens. But, she says, when she takes on the role of an actual person, she does not start with research. “This may sound basic, but I begin with what is on the page. I read what is in the script several times to see what the story on the page is telling us.”
And then she makes the material her own. Marriott’s Artistic Director Rick Boynton described her as “an incredibly gifted actress with vocal pipes of gold” and a theatrical craft that director Barbara Gaines
described as “Heidi is a true chameleon,” she dons many masks and dazzles with vastly different personae. After more than two decades in the business, there is still a sense of wonder and joy that radiates from Heidi Kettenring.
All My Sons
Asked what gives her the most happiness personally and professionally, she replies, “The perfect day for me would be to be with David, to read a
little in a good book, to do some work and something artistic, to talk to my dad on the phone. I think it is important to keep active all the things you love, otherwise life can to quickly become only about work or only about leisure. It is not lost on me that I am a very lucky person. I love the work I do and the career I have, where I live and whom I live with.”
And that joy and love is obvious in every performance she gives. Asked
about the direction she sees her work taking her, she mentions a few upcoming engagements including a new musical based on The Secret of My Success at the Parmount Theatre in Aurora, Illinois, a Shakespeare play at Chicago Shaespeare, and more concertizing. Are there roles she is still yearning to play? She replies with a quiet sense of satisfaction: “I have checked off a great many of them, though it would be a blast as I
get older to take on Dolly Levi or Mame or parts you don’t think of when you are younger.”
And why not? Perhaps We’ve Only Just Begun not only proves an apt title for her Karen Carpenter concert, but it also conveys the magic of
new beginnings and the taste for new challenges that define Heidi Kettenring as an extraordinary artist.
Video 4 We’ve Only Just Begun