Back to Her First Love
March 2, 2017
Theatre professionals and amateurs alike often find it hard to balance their lives and their passion. Kat Hickey has found a way to make it work.
Hickey grew up in Akron, Ohio as the oldest of three children and the only daughter. Hers was a close-knit family. Between the car-ride duets with her mom and her dad's collection of Motown, Beatles and R&B records, her parents instilled a love of music in her from an early age, although she is a first-generation performer.
She grew up as Kathy Rapp, a serious, bookish perfectionist with plenty of acquaintances but few close friends.
"I've changed a lot," she says. "I still like to be perfect and really enjoy approval the way I did as a child, but age has mellowed out that fault some."
One of the things that helped break her out of her serious shell was performing.
When her mother took her to a live performance of Annie as an elementary student, she turned to her and said, "I want to do that."
She soon became one of the youngest performers accepted into the Akron community show choir, ETC.
"I spent seven years performing all around the Akron area and traveling around the U.S. and internationally," she says. "This is where I met 'my people.' The friends I made in show choir became the closest friends I had and later were the attendants at my wedding."
While in school, she saw many live community and school theater productions performed by her show choir friends from many different schools. She was soon ready for her first audition when she was 8 or 9 years old.
"I sang 'Maybe' from Annie," she says. "I walked on stage and they told me to say my name and the song I was singing. I watched the judges straining to hear me and realized [too late] that I was supposed to say it loudly so that they could hear me project my voice."
As a seasoned performer, she knew she had sealed her doom even as she exited the stage. She was not surprised not to be cast, but she remembered the lesson and adjusted the next time.
She went on to perform in high school theater, but her breakout role was as Maria in West Side Story in 1996 when she was 21. She took the stage of the fledgling theater company and introduced herself as Kathy Rapp before singing her song. The director misheard her name as "Kat," and the nickname stuck.
At the callback she was asked to perform the balcony scene.
"I wanted this part," she says. "I wanted it really badly. My scene partner was a friend of my brother's, and I whispered to him, 'Follow my lead.' The scene calls for a kiss, so when we got to that part, I slowly leaned in and kissed him. The director gasped."
The pair were cast as Tony and Maria.
But she found true chemistry with John Hickey, "the very cute guy who played Bernardo." He eventually became her husband.
She attended the University of Akron but not as a performance major. Perhaps deterred by fear of parental disapproval or her own insecurity in her talents, she instead majored in psychology.
"But my heart was truly in the theater," she says. Despite her major, she found herself focusing all her energy on electives in singing, dancing, and acting - and taking non-college classes in those subjects at night - while performing in back-to-back shows at the university and in the community.
A year after they met, she and her then-boyfriend John were cast in their first professional show, Jesus Christ Superstar.
"We were so excited," she says. "It was the culmination of a year of dating, auditioning and carefully choosing shows to do together."
They began making tentative plans to move to New York after the show closed and try their hand at theater there. She was already struggling with her course work and knew it wasn't where her true passion lay.
But those plans were laid to rest the closing weekend of the show when they discovered she was pregnant.
"We took a pretty bumpy road from there, honestly," she says. "But I was so blessed to have the support of my parents. I don't know how I would have done it without them."
She says it took her a while to accept this new life role, but she did so with open arms.
"I remember thinking, 'I'll be a young mom. Maybe one day this baby will want to perform and I can get back into it!'"
In the meantime, she found a wonderful new passion: babies. She had always loved them and ended up becoming a doula and later a home birth midwife's assistant. For 14 years she was on call day and night.
By 2002, the Hickeys were married with three kids under the age of five. She struggled to keep theater in her life, at one point co-directing a high school murder mystery with her brother, her second baby in tow. In 2005, John's career brought the family to Fort Wayne where he took over a health care office.
Their kids grew up lovers of the arts, participating in show choir, jazz band, steel drum band, and theatrical performances. And the mother of four found herself being tugged back in that direction.
"It became more and more difficult for me to be gone at births with the multitude of kids' rehearsals and performances," she says. "I just didn't want to miss a moment of it."
Hickey took 2015 off from birth work to focus on herself and her upcoming 40th birthday. "I took a hard look at my life," she says.
She loved her work, was good at it and earned a good, flexible living.
"But at this crossroads, I knew something was missing," she says. "And the possibility of making art with my children while they were still home thrilled me to no end."
In October, she discovered Triple Threat Performing Arts Academy which had just opened in Fort Wayne. It was similar to the beloved studio she had studied at in Akron, and it was a wish come true. She took one voice lesson with founder Andy Planck, and he told her, "We're going to get you back on stage."
She and her daughters took a musical theater workshop class the following January, and she earned a featured role in a song. She was "both thrilled and terrified" to discover that she still had the talent.
The academy's sister organization, the professional theater company Three Rivers Music Theatre (TRMT), had just announced its inaugural season. While preparing to audition for the season-ending production, Next to Normal, she was shocked to be cast as a lead in Hair.
It was her first role in 20 years.
"Playing that role with that cast was a powerful, extraordinary way to return to the stage," she says.
She also booked the lead in Next to Normal, a musical comedy/drama about a woman struggling with bipolar disorder, and has performed in three TRMT cabaret events. In all her recent roles, she has shared the stage with her son Liam who plays drums.
"As a mother, my heart explodes with pride to see him do something that he loves and do it so well," she says.
Her daughter Maddie will play her daughter in Next to Normal.
"She is a fantastic actress," Hickey says. "She embodies the characters she portrays so fully, so completely. As a performer, I'm so excited to work with an actor of her caliber. As a mother, I'm speechless."
Hickey looks forward to exploring the dynamics of their characters' dysfunctional family.
"I know our relationship will be so much richer after this show," she says. "This will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I'm so grateful to have the opportunity."
The former ing?nue says most of her career was spent singing light soprano, so she's been busy working on her belt voice in preparation for the show. "I've spent the winter working technique to improve my endurance and the tone in the middle register," she says.
The normally calm, reserved actor is excited to play the over-the-top emotions of her character, Diana. "As a society, we reward the suppression of big, ugly emotion," says Hickey. "Next to Normal demonstrates the consequences of that suppression and the ripple effects on a whole family."
Hickey says the show is something special.
"The music is incredible. Our cast is incredible. I'm so grateful to have these strong actors to work with and this visionary creative team to guide us. This show is not done frequently, so people should take this opportunity to experience it live.
Her past year of theatrical success has inspired Hickey to make a living as a performer - not something most Fort Wayne residents can say. In addition to her work with TRMT and work in commercials and independent films, she coordinates McMillen Health's "I Need My Teeth" school assembly program and plays the Tooth Fairy in the production. "It's the most fun I've ever had at a job," she says. "I've assembled a great team of local artists and the kids love this show."
Although her primary job remains "running our empire" (balancing schedules and meeting her family's needs), her other passion remains just as important. After she was cast in Hair, her daughter wrote her a note: "Thank you for showing me it is never too late to live your dreams."
"If my kids don't get much else from me," Hickey says, "I consider that a success."