Many performers grew up dreaming of being a famous movie star, Broadway actor, ballerina, or pop singer.

Gloria Minnich wanted to be an artist astronaut.

Inspired by schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who was then training to become the first civilian to travel to space (before the disaster that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger soon after liftoff), she says, “I wanted to go up to the moon and paint a picture of the earth.”

Minnich describes herself as a shy, bookish student who was “a bit of a perfectionist when it came to grades.” On her off hours she was able to let her creativity loose, drawing and playing dolls with her best friend Stephanie Graegin. Both grew up to be creative professionals; Graegin is a published children’s book illustrator. Minnich teaches and performs for a living.

She says she always had the desire to perform, despite her childhood shyness. She actually credits her introversion for helping her study human behavior, helping inform her acting choices later in life.

Her first love, however, was dance. “I began taking tap dance classes when I was around nine years old,” she says. “I loved performing – the lights, music, costumes. I just felt so alive.”

Minnich’s first role was as the Star in her third grade Christmas concert. “Meaning that I held a cardboard star over my head for an hour and a half,” she explains.

The role garnered a surprising amount of critical acclaim. “I remember people coming up to me afterwards,” she says, “asking me how I held my arm up that long. It was just so exciting, and I felt like I had done something important.”

She didn’t decide to pursue acting until college. She had enjoyed movies but had begun wanting to take a more active role. “I didn’t want to watch life go by,” she says. “I wanted to live it.”

She transferred from DePaul in Chicago to IPFW and took a fundamentals of performance class. “It was such a realization for me, like ‘Ah, this is where I belong.’ For the first time as a young adult, I felt like I wasn’t trying to be something that I wasn’t.”

She fell in love with every aspect of theater. “I loved being a part of something that was bigger than myself, and I love the stories that theater tells and the way they are told.”

Minnich earned her associates degree in early childhood education at IPFW. She continued her studies hoping to earn a bachelor’s degree, and, having enjoyed her fundamentals of performance class so much, she continued to take theater and acting courses. The education classes being offered at IPFW were more geared toward elementary education than early childhood, so she switched to general studies, earning her bachelor’s degree in that, with minors in both theater and dance. “In a way,” she says, “I kind of designed my own degree.”

Although she did not major in theater, she considers every role a part of her ongoing education. “I’m constantly trying to prove myself,” she says. “I want to be the best I can be and I have an insane desire to learn as much as I can about [theater] and acting.”

She currently earns her living teaching drama at several schools, including IPFW, the Community Arts Academy, Weisser Park, Willowbrook Day School and a home school group. She is an outreach teacher for the Fort Wayne Dance Collective where she is part of the touring company, performing at schools throughout Indiana. She also teaches creative movement classes to children and adults with disabilities at Anthis, Arc, Pathfinders and Passages. As an actor, she works with the Finding Words Indiana program, training people how to interview children who have been sexually abused.

“Having a performing background has been one of the best tools I have when in front of students,” she says. Besides having the skill to use her voice in a safe and healthy way, she is able to present learning material “in an exciting and anticipatory way,” she says. “Actors are storytellers.”

Conversely, she gains knowledge from her students (who range in age from three to late 70s) which informs her acting choices.

“I notice their habits, speech and movement patterns, and the general way they behave,” she says. “They are great character studies. I’ve stolen some of their idiosyncrasies and absorbed them into some of my characters. It always feels good when I find something that really fits with a particular character.”

Her current role, in Same Time, Next Year at Arena Dinner Theatre, allows her to incorporate a wide variety of personas in the role of Doris, who ages from 25 to 50 throughout the course of the story. “At the beginning of the play,” says Minnich, “she is a tad naive, but has a great thirst and desire to learn everything she can. She seizes every opportunity she gets. It’s really admirable.”

Her good friend Kevin Knuth plays opposite her in the show. “We’ve developed a really strong trust and a short-hand,” she says, “which has proven to be incredibly valuable in this play. Both of our characters have moments when they are very vulnerable, and having Kevin next to me has helped me to go where I need to go with Doris.”

During one scene, her character goes into labor. “That is really a challenge for me as an actor – and incredibly scary.” Not only was acting out labor pains frightening for her, but she had an unexpected reaction to seeing herself in the “pregnancy belly” for the first time during rehearsals.

“I cried and laughed at the same time,” she says. “I was really freaked out. I’ve never had to play visibly pregnant before, and it really scared me. I was surprised I reacted that way.”

She credits director Brian Wagner (who is also Arena’s executive director) for “helping me find things about [my character] that I wouldn’t have been able to find on my own.” He also provided them with historical and social context for the show, which spans 1951 to 1975.

“Every night at rehearsal I’ve learned something new,” she says. “We’ve discussed everything from women’s undergarments to who was running for political office in the 60s to Alcatraz. It’s been wonderful, and I’ve devoured every moment of it.”

As much as she loves comedies like Same Time, Next Year, Minnich is a great fan of the classics. She is a particular fan of Tennessee Williams. “He writes women so well, and his language is just poetic,” she says. “I did get to play the lead in Suddenly Last Summer in college under the direction of Larry Life, and it was absolutely life changing.”

Although she prefers plays, she is drawn to musicals that feature dancing, particularly tap and ballet. However she feels less confident in her singing ability, so she hasn’t auditioned for a musical since college. But she is open if the right show comes along.

Until then, she will continue teaching and acting in plays. She estimates she has appeared in 58 community productions in addition to her professional work. Her busy schedule leaves little time for much else. When she isn’t on stage or teaching, however, she enjoys spending time with her parrotlet Claudio (named after the Much Ado About Nothing character). In her spare time she reads, writes, gardens and has a regular “crafts night” with friends.

As for where she sees herself in five years’ time, she says, “I really don’t think in terms like that. I’ve faced a lot of hardships that have taught me the importance of living each day to its fullest.”

She has lost an inordinate number of friends and family members since she was a teenager. Her father died when she was 23, and she lost six loved ones in 2012 alone, including her mother. “As an only child, you really feel a sense of being alone once your parents are gone,” she says. “I’m too young to have had to go through that, but it has shaped me. I’m still very much in the grieving process for my mom. She was always so supportive. She knew theater was my passion and that it would help me get through once she had died.”

Her only hope for her own future is to gain more confidence and to worry less. She also says that she hopes to one day learn the ins and outs of running a household. “My mom knew everything about running a house,” she says. “Plumbing, wiring, cars – my mom could do it all.”

One thing that is certain is that theater will always be an integral part of her life. “I think if I were doing anything else,” she says, “I’d feel empty, like I was missing something in my life.”

Her lifelong pursuit of education will continue as well.

“I’m still growing as an actor,” she says. “I think we always are.