I Started in Community Theatre


I look at it this way; instead of getting a baby sitter for me while they rehearsed and did theatre, they just had me audition, too!  Really, though, I think my parents intended for the community theatre experience to be a family experience.  It certainly was.   Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my whole family singing and dancing our parts together in the living room.

I was only 6 years old when dad and mom brought me to the community theatre audition for Oliver.  I was pretty young, but I was already used to the structure of creative play from two years of tap dance classes with Joan VanArsdalen.  I took to the theatre really well.  In those beginning years, my roles were always children, but I remember my dad being funny as Mr. Bumble and all the sneaky pranks the adults played on each other for closing night (like the baby powder in the trumpet – when it blew, it blew smoke!) – that’s the community in the theatre.  And that is my upbringing as to what theatre could be:  family, community, fun, creative play.  Pretty much everything good in life.

I was hooked.  I did a play every year while I was young – Bye Bye Birdie, Babes in Toyland, Annie Get Your Gun.  At 7 years old I was only appropriate for little kid parts, like following my mom around on stage in Falling Moons, but don’t you think that my girlfriend Heather and I didn’t memorize all the choreography and vocal parts to the adult roles in Anything Goes.  We weren’t old enough to book those adult roles in that musical, so instead ushered every show and watched a lot of them.   But we actually had more fun acting out our own Anything Goes during the show in the lobby.   We were stars to the cars passing by!

I got older and since I could handle bigger kid roles, I did more theatre and landed parts in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Hello Dolly! and Finnians Rainbow and friend, Sean, quickly became a favorite actor to perform with.  It didn’t hurt that my best girlfriends were in the theatre, too.  At a certain point in my teen development, I noticed that what was happening socially backstage was quite more interesting than what was happening on stage!  Mandy and Tansley and I – community theatre hooligans! – practiced hypnotizing each other and guided each others’ out of body experiences in the dressing trailer, waiting to dance the obligatory dream ballet (or was it the ensemble piece opening act two) of Carousel.  Mandy got bad press on that one.  Someone in the town thought her bear costume was perverse and wrote the paper.  Let’s do a Jungian analysis of that one, perversion finger-pointer.  Perverse bear costume?  We just thought the costume was stifling, what with every inch of her body covered in fur and a complete face mask!

We had cast parties at Pizza Hut and 21 Scoops ice cream joint and I remember we theatre hooligans tried to race the other kids stuffing our faces with yes; 21 scoops.  We tried to crack the mysterious safe door in back of the theatre as I’m sure every person had before and has since.  I helped my dad paint the sets and even helped him when he built that huge addition to the back of the theatre – I walked on the roof frame when it was only 2 x 8’s.

There is so much community and family in the Hillsdale Community Theatre, it’s easy to talk about all the things that surrounded the theatre performance without even mentioning being on stage.  But honestly, the beauty I found in the art of theatre changed my life (and career) forever.

Theatres really are magical places.  Human beings enter within the sacred space expecting magic to happen.  We know the laws of nature are suspended inside these blacked out walls with velvet seats and we use the suspension of reality to our advantage.  One spotlight can change an entire world.  For me, theatre reflects the noble human desire to understand someone/something else so completely, we are willing to (temporarily) sacrifice our entire person to understand them.  The performer wants to believe so badly, they become.

The realness and honesty of looking out at a human audience, whom responds and appreciates touches a performer’s soul in ways no television show or blockbuster film could.  I am more human because I have sat, before a show, alone behind the proscenium curtain and listened to the house conversation go from one guest with distinguishable banter, to 200 audience members, now just a sea of anticipatory conversation – nothing distinguishable – just the sound of human energy.  My childhood theatre meditation involved sitting and listening to the audience fill up from right behind that closed curtain.  I learned to say my ABCs backwards on one of my pre-show listening sits.  Now my ABCs backwards is a calming, centering meditation for me still today.

Stage presence is almost a spiritual axiom for me – how to not upstage, how to counter, throw focus, ect – and I learned it on the Hillsdale Community Theatre stage.  You’d be surprised how many improvisers I perform with at Second City in Hollywood and how many film actors don’t have the gift of stage presence.  Heck, you’d be surprised how many people at the super market don’t have the gift of stage presence.  To me, stage presence is the fungi shui of human movement.  Stage presence, whether used on stage or at the bowling alley, is a way to physically respect others and one’s environment.  Stage presence is the ability to flow within one’s world.  I’m thankful for it’s natural presnece in my life.

When I was on tour with STOMP or Kenny Rogers, many of my community theatre friends came to see me at our Michigan performances.  I felt like I owed it to them to be good on stage.  And I knew that I couldn’t NOT be good on stage because I had learned the art of the stage with them.  And I had found the essence of creative play with them.  And I am lucky to get to play and perform art for a living still today.  I am grateful and know how special it is.

I’ve gone on to perform in musical theatre in Chicago, concert dance and Off-Broadway in New York City.  I’ve performed in casinos in Vegas and on network television and blockbuster films in Hollywood.  I’ve toured in theatre and with famous musicians and been flown all over the world to shoot music videos.  Now, I am the She-EO of two companies that service the major motion picture/tv industry in Hollywood. Performance has quite literally become every aspect of my life.  And it all started overlooking the orchestra pit on the Hillsdale Community Theatre stage.


  1. Lynne Williams

    March 3rd, 2015 11:25

    I remember those young theater days. Especially you and Heather rehearsing in the closet in Heather’s room and making up plays and songs. Choppin Broccoli is my very favorite! You’ve come a long way but it was meant to be from the time you were young. So proud of how successful you have been by doing things your way. Congrats Tonya!


    • Tonya Kay

      March 5th, 2015 17:23

      Those creative play times with Heather are the making of my character and everything I care about in life.


  2. John Doran

    March 3rd, 2015 11:26

    Not surprising to see the discipline that took hold. Wise choice on your folks part.


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