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Fort Wayne’s community of actors continues to grow and excel with every year, thanks in part to the world-class education provided at IPFW Department of Theatre.
One of the university’s many star students is Darby LeClear.
Having overcome academic struggle, teenage insecurity and stage fright, LeClear embodies how the arts – both as a participant and an observer – can improve lives.
“I was a very enthusiastic child,” she says. “I loved things that were bright and filled with laughter. My mother would style my long hair into crowns of braids or curls. But I loved to run and play hard and I would come home with my hair an absolute mess.”
As much as she loved playing outdoors, she discovered she also loved performing onstage. Her first role was in an elementary school production written by the mother of a classmate. “I can’t recall what the show was about,” LeClear says, “but I believe it involved space and fairy tale characters.”
She enjoyed the attention she received onstage but she also recognized at that early age her own talent for performing.
But then she hit the ’tween years, and she became shy about being in front of people.
Still, determination to perform led her to her first audition early in her sophomore year at North Side High School. She tried out for the role of a feisty Italian woman in the play Lend Me a Tenor.
“I have always had a knack for dialects,” she says, “so I read well and had a lot of fun doing it.” However, because the cast was small and there were plenty of experienced upperclassmen at auditions, she did not get the part. But even as a young teenager she had no regrets, and the experience gave her the confidence to audition for the school’s musical production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast later that year.
She auditioned for Belle, the lead role, and it marked one of the first times she had ever sung in front of other people. Nerves, coupled with illness that day, hampered her audition.
However, her innate talent and passion for character creation shone through, and the director asked her to read for Babette, the sexy French maid-turned-broom.
“I instantly felt that was the part I should have,” she says. “Everything about it, from the dramatics to the French accent, was so much fun and so completely different from who I was at the time.”
Nevertheless, she was still suffering from shyness. “I had terrible stage fright,” she recalls. “But playing a character so over-the-top helped me begin pushing past it in a way I am thankful for every day.”
LeClear would do four more shows at North Side, and with each role she not only grew as an actor, but she grew in maturity as well.
She played the title role in Hello, Dolly! and calls it one of her most challenging so far. “Dolly is so smart and determined and comfortable with who she is, and at the time I felt the complete opposite,” she explains. “That role taught me how to be confident in many aspects of my life.”
By the time she was a junior she realized theater was her calling – “but I didn’t really know what to do about that,” she says. The following year she “began to panic” as she struggled to find the right path toward higher education. Her drama director, Michael Morris, encouraged her to look into IPFW scholarships with the advice that she work a little harder in her classes and get her attendance up.
“He really pushed me,” she says. “I am so thankful he was there to help me, or I would have been completely lost.”
She graduated North Side in 2012 and won a scholarship to IPFW. But the old feeling of insecurity reared its head before classes even began. She worried about making friends, about getting cast in shows and about making a good impression on her professors, she says. “I had built it up so much in my head that when I got there and found out that everyone was warm and friendly and extremely welcoming, I felt absolutely silly [for having worried].”
She is now a junior and just completed her fifth role at IPFW. “The close-knit community of the IPFW theatre department has been incredible,” she says. “The department’s small size gives its students some unique advantages that bigger programs do not. I don’t think I could have found a better place to further my education.”
Her education has given her a good basis for audition prep work, including researching roles and choosing audition material. She chooses her songs or monologues well in advance so she has time to connect with the material, and then she constantly rehearses it. For vocal auditions she begins warming up the moment she wakes up in the morning and in the car she sings along to a playlist of songs in the same range as her audition piece to stretch her voice beyond the song’s requirements.
As prepared as she is, she still finds auditions to be nerve-wracking. “Positive thinking goes such a long way for me,” she says, “so I try to keep myself in that mind set, reminding myself that ‘I can do this.’”
Once cast, LeClear buys a small notebook that stays with her during the rehearsal process. “I write down things I have questions about or impressions I get of the character and their relationships with other people,” she says.
As a theater student she also enjoys the benefit of table work with the other cast members. “We all discuss our opinions and feelings about certain elements of the show,” she says. “I love figuring out what a character wants, what they dream of, what they’re afraid of, who they love, who they hate. Things like that make a character feel alive to me.”
She says she approaches her character study as if she were getting to know a new friend. “In that way, the characters stay with you for the rest of your life,” she says, “because you have invested so much of yourself in learning who they are.”
Her education at IPFW has also included a variety of different performance techniques. “They all influence the way I view rehearsal and performance,” she says, “but I’m not sure if my acting style falls neatly into one category or another. I believe it’s my job to take a character and tell her story, and I want to do that story as much justice as I can.”
She takes this responsibility more seriously than she did before college. “My interest in theatre has evolved into more of an interest in human emotion,” she says. “I am fascinated by the idea that an actor can tell a story in a way that moves an audience into feeling many different things.”
She understands that characters suffer the same difficulties and face the same obstacles that audience members themselves may be dealing with. “I want to make sure I tell that story correctly,” she says. “It’s important to me to find the truth behind a character and live in the moment of the scene. I work very hard to make connections to the audience.”
LeClear also loves the connection between actors onstage. “Creating relationships between characters on stage is one of my favorite aspects of acting,” she says. “Working with actors who are willing to open themselves up and allow your words and actions to affect them in a profound way is so rewarding. When you get two people on the stage together doing the thing they love the most in the world, there is nothing like it.”
While performing Hello Dolly! LeClear learned the power of characters to help her face her own struggles. A later role – Georgeanne in the IPFW production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress – became almost a therapeutic role-playing session to finding inner strength. “Georgeanne allowed me the opportunity to be absolutely, unapologetically an emotional mess onstage,” she says. “She suffered from some of the same insecurities that I have, so it was nice to be able to sort of confront them through that character.”
Her most recent role was perhaps her most challenging – and most exhausting: Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. “She is such a complex, intricate and beautiful character,” says LeClear. “I had such a wonderful time developing her, but after every rehearsal, I was so tired. She is a physical and emotional hurricane, and she sweeps through the space with so many different emotions, either genuine or manipulative. Playing her is an incredible honor, and I worked my hardest to do the role justice. Our director, Jeff Casazza, told me before we began rehearsals that he was going to push me to dive deeper into this character – not just emotionally but physical – than I have other characters in the past. I’m grateful for that, because I’ve learned so much from this process.”
In addition to her acting and singing, LeClear has just completed writing her first play (a drama about dealing with mental illness), and she has plans to write others. And she is already making plans to begin the process of professional auditions after she graduates.
“There are so many options for actors,” she says. “Ultimately, I would like to make it to Broadway and win a Tony Award, but I can also see myself continuing with playwriting or maybe even voice acting or dialect coaching.”
LeClear gives a great deal of credit to her family and friends for supporting her unconventional career goals. “Without them, I don’t know where I would be,” she says. “They push me to work hard and create a bright future for myself.”
Where does she see herself in five to 10 years?
“I would like to see myself with a cat and a steady acting job in New York City,” she says. “In 10 years, I would honestly be happy with the same thing.”
Above all, she wants to keep connecting. “The journey a performer and an audience go on together,” she says, “is a beautiful thing.”