Kia Miller was an imaginative child who honed her craft with the resources she had at her disposal: Disney movies and Barbie dolls.
“I always used my Thanksgiving wishbone to wish that I would turn into a mermaid,” she recalls. “And my sister and I came up with really complex stories for our Barbie dolls, usually involving them fighting for their lives in some sort of natural disaster. Playacting stuck, I guess, although I don’t hide behind toys anymore.”
She became obsessed with musical theater when she was in kindergarten and her mother and her father, a theater teacher, gave her a cassette tape of the Les Misérables cast recording.
“They’re clearly awesome parents,” she says. “I could recite every word to the show. I carried around my little tape player and sang along. I would wake my parents up in the morning by singing, ‘Look down, look down, don’t look ’em in the eye.’”
Miller says she was crushed when her parents saw a production of Les Misérables without her, but they made up for it the following year when they took her to see the touring company at the Embassy Theatre for her seventh birthday.
“I had to sit on a pillow to see the stage and I stayed up way past my bedtime,” she says, “but it was so worth it.”
Her parents fed her craving for live theater by taking her to many plays and musicals after that. She even got an autograph from her hero, Christopher J. Murphy, who played Captain Hook in Peter Pan at the Civic Theatre – never dreaming she would one day become friends and colleagues with him.
Soon she was ready for her first audition: Charlotte’s Web at the Fort Wayne Youtheatre.
“My dad made me go,” she says. “I was very nervous. I had one line in the audition.”
She didn’t get the part, which she says was fine with her, although she admits, “There was some added pressure from being a theater teacher’s daughter.”
The young Miller persisted and was cast as a Baby Angel in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever for the Youtheatre.
“I had three or four lines and had a blast,” she says. “I had no idea that being in a show could be so fun. I made so many new friends from all over Fort Wayne, people I’m still friends with today.”
Miller cites numerous influences on her performance. In addition to her father, she gleaned priceless theater advice from Harvey Cocks through the Fort Wayne Youtheatre from childhood through her early 20s.
“He helped me master the fundamentals of the craft,” she says.
She also learned from Kirby Volz and the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre, working with them as an actor for four years and an assistant director for five. She has continued her collaboration with the group, arranging and directing their fundraiser cabarets.
“Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre gave me an opportunity to try new things as an actor and really challenge myself,” she says.
As a teenager, she also spent a summer at the world-renowned Interlochen Arts Camp.
“They gave me tools and resources that helped me to become an actor of analysis and the teacher that I am today,” she says.
As for her singing, Miller says her longtime voice teacher Mindy Cox gave her an invaluable education on vocal production.
“She taught me how to ‘mix’ [to sing in a combination of head and chest voice],” she says, “which completely revolutionized my vocal technique.”
Cox was the person who introduced Miller to The Light in the Piazza, which quickly became the high school senior’s “favorite piece of musical theater in existence.” It is one which is extremely difficult to pull off, both technically and in terms of talent. It has never been produced in Fort Wayne – until now.
Miller won her dream role, Clara, in the Adam Guettel musical, which is being produced by the Fort Wayne professional theater company Three Rivers Music Theatre. It’s her first onstage role in four years.
With her directing and teaching background, she approached the role academically at first, researching and analyzing the time period, character, script, score and source material.
“As a director, it’s my responsibility to understand the inner workings of all of the characters,” she says, “but as an actor, I get to hone that time and energy into one character. I need to understand the way Clara thinks, moves, and behaves.”
Once her lines and music were memorized, “it was about getting out of my head and being in the moment. Instead of using my director brain and asking, ‘What would Clara think about this?’ I needed to think as Clara. I’m doing my best to be in the moment, listen to my cast mates, and be as honest in situations as I can be.”
Clara is a sweet girl who comes of age in Florence, Italy, during the early 1950s. “She’s sweet and she’s funny, without trying to be. She wants so badly for there to be good in her world and she’s willing to fight for it,” says Miller.
She has also had to rely on nonverbal communication in this role.
“Clara’s not great with words,” she explains. “I feel like I developed many of the relationships I have with other characters in the moments when Clara isn’t saying anything at all, when she’s reacting to something, or waiting, or observing, or listening. Those moments are just as telling to me as the moments when she’s speaking.”
Musical theater is filled with young, naïve ingenues. What makes Clara different, Miller says, is that “she grows in a way that those characters did not. They may come to a realization, but Clara gains control of her decisions in a way that’s different from other characters I’ve played.”
Part of what makes Piazza so special, Miller believes, is its balance between humor and depth.
“This show is funny,” she says. “Really funny. It’s also tragically realistic. The show is an experience. You’ll leave the theater thinking, ‘Life is beautiful. Love is real.’ We’ve been working on this show for weeks and we’re still laughing and crying happy tears at every rehearsal. It hits home every time.”
Director Andy Planck loves the musical as much as Miller does. “His heart is in this show,” she says, “and I can’t wait for people to see his work.”
She also has accolades for the rest of the cast and crew. “I think what makes Three Rivers Music Theatre different from other companies is that everyone came into this process on their A game,” she says. “This show is hard but everyone was willing to work to conquer it from day one. I have never worked with a comparable group of prepared actors, musicians, and technicians in Fort Wayne.”
She also admires the company’s dedication to “not just doing shows that will draw a crowd. They’re about creating art with a purpose, bringing something different to Fort Wayne, making a lasting impact on the hearts and minds of their audiences.”
When she’s not onstage, she teaches at Northrop High School, the same school where her father teaches.
“Growing up, he would introduce me to new shows by producing them,” she says. “Now I’m introducing him to new material. We’re not just father and daughter, but colleagues and collaborators.”
She also directs theater at Bishop Dwenger High School.
“I’ve realized that performing is a lot less stressful than directing,” she says, “but it requires a lot more focus on personal wellbeing and health. As a high school director, my needs are always my last priority. As an actor, your voice and your body are your responsibility and you need to take care of them.”
Once The Light in the Piazza is over, she will go back to teaching and directing for a while. But she says the joy of performing has been officially rekindled.