Like many little girls, Renee Gonzales was obsessed with Cinderella. Unlike most little girls, she was not obsessed with the Disney princess, but rather with the Lesley Ann Warren role in the TV production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. She was obsessed with a cartoon musical called Heidi’s Song. “I knew every song, every dance,” she says. “I would even copy the accents.”
It seems only natural that she would grow up to be a professional musical theater performer.
Gonzales describes herself as an imaginative child who loved creating and re-enacting stories.
“The bunk bed became a pirate ship,” she says. “The bush became a clothes-bush that grew princess dresses. The radio flyer wagon was a horse-drawn carriage.”
At age 8, she directed her first production.
“I found a play, complete with props list and character breakdowns, in my American Girl magazine,” she says. “I convinced my best friend Abbey to enlist her two younger brothers and sister to put on the show. We spent the whole day making props and rehearsing.”
The play was a huge hit among the parents.
“They laughed to tears,” she says. “I couldn’t understand that at the time. I think they were really taken by surprise that a little girl would be so passionate about putting on a play.”
Music was in her blood. “My Grandpa Pete was a drummer in a local jazz band,” she says. “He had a box full of percussion instruments I would raid whenever I visited. My little brother and two of my uncles play guitar. Most of my family members can sing and they appreciate music.”
When she was 12, she discovered a way to combine her love of performing with her love of music.
“I was at a choir retreat in North Carolina,” she says. “I felt out of place. I’d had an argument with a friend and was walking around in a funk. We had a musical performance with choreography to the song ‘Splish Splash.’ I felt so good learning the choreography, focusing on something positive. I finished the class and felt like a new person. It got me out of my own head which is why I think I’m so pulled to musical theater.”
When she was 13, she was ready for her first audition.
“The Missoula Children’s Theatre came to my school,” she says. “I had acne and braces, and my hair was always falling in my face.”
The organization was holding auditions for their signature musical, Beauty Lou and the Country Beast. They lined the kids up in the gym and asked them to step forward one by one and, with as much enthusiasm as they could muster, say, “Hi!” and state their name and age.
“I stepped out, grinning and excited,” she says, “and stated, ‘Hi!! My name is Renee and I’m 13!”
Crushingly, despite her exuberance and stage presence, she was rejected instantly. “They didn’t even let me sing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ like the kids who had made the first cut,” she says.
Unlike some of her fellow rejectees, however, she didn’t cry. Instead, she was filled with righteous indignation.
“I realized then and there,” she says, “that just because you’re overlooked doesn’t mean that you aren’t talented.”
Her self-assurance did not let this disappointment squelch her dream. She continued to go to auditions and two years later she was understudying Meg Boyd in Damn Yankees at Bishop Luers High School. She knew she had found her calling. In a few years, she shocked her family by announcing she was going to major in musical theater at Ball State. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 2006.
The following year she moved to New York City with the intention of trying to make it as a performer.
“Mainly I was just learning how to live and experience life,” she says. “I worked a dozen odd jobs, went on a six-month coast-to-coast national tour [playing Piglet in Winnie the Pooh], saw the country, became a professional waitress in Times Square, sang at cabarets and jazz clubs and met the most incredible people.”
The sweet, imaginative girl from Fort Wayne came of age in New York.
“New York is a big, beautiful beast,” she says. “Living there was eye-opening for me. I think that, more than anything, the city taught me how to look past my opinions of people and situations. I learned to see myself in others, to put myself in their place.”
Her enthusiastic charm helped make New York a better place, too.
“Just a smile or a hello can really make someone’s day in New York,” she says. “There are so many people and yet so many feel incredibly lonely.”
She also learned some other valuable lessons in New York: “You should not buy salon coupons on the street. If a subway car is empty and the rest are packed full, there is probably something unpleasant on said subway car. And there is no Original Ray’s Pizza.”
As Gonzales continues to hone her craft, she has found that the key to acting, for her, “is to listen and talk.” As simple as that seems, she says it has taken years of practice. “Receptivity to other actors is very important,” she says.
This means letting go of preconceived notions – about everything.
“I’ve learned that if I feel kind of stupid doing something, I’m probably on the right track,” she says. “My main goal lately has been to let go of the immediate judgment of what I’m doing and to keep going. That auto-correct voice that says, ‘You skipped a line. That sounded weird. You look awkward doing that,’ is not terribly helpful. I’m learning to let that go.”
In New York she also learned the importance of preparing for auditions by researching the show, theater, director and character as thoroughly as possible. “The more you know, the better prepared you can be for any possible scenario,” she says. “If you don’t have time to prepare, if the show is new, or if you don’t know any of the creative team, a great audition book comes in handy,” she says. “Some people go overboard and have 30 or more songs in their binder. I carry about 12 songs in my book, and I still think it’s too much. I always have about three or four songs that I’m prepared to sing fully, with 32-, 16- and eight-bar cuts.”
She explains her philosophy on auditioning: “Do what you do well and make sure you connect with the material. And most importantly, remember to breathe.”
Gonzales is back in Fort Wayne “for about a year,” to regroup and decide where she wants to go from here. She is keeping her performing skills sharp by playing Christine Colgate in the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre productions of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
When preparing for a role, Gonzales typically invests time in research, character study and scene breakdowns. For this comedy, she says, those techniques have taken a back seat to the importance of listening as her character.
“Christine is a genuine, sincere, warm-hearted person,” says Gonzales. “She wears her heart on her sleeve. As an actor, it can be scary to make yourself that vulnerable. I want people to see me as intelligent, collected, and successful. But Christine is okay with people saying she’s naïve or a goof.”
She says the role has been a gift. “It’s teaching me to let go, stop worrying if people are judging me, and to listen wholeheartedly,” she says. “Receptivity is key to this character, and the only way to be receptive is to be humble and listen to your scene partner. You have to give to get. If you’re not 100 percent committed to the other actors, the scene work and the director, your performance will be lackluster.“
She promises lackluster performances will not be a problem with this production. “This cast is a little more quiet and reserved compared to my New York crowd,” she allows, “but people are coming out of their shells and learning they can express themselves and be in the moment. [We] have really worked hard on this show and I’m very excited for us to [open].”
This will be Gonzales’s 32nd production, and she adheres to the adage that there are no small roles – only small actors. “I love all the roles I’ve played, big and small,” she says. “There’s always something to learn.” She does, however, have a few roles on her bucket list, including Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, Clara or Franca in The Light in the Piazza and Dot in Sunday in the Park with George. “I don’t go for traditional ingénue roles,” she says. “I like leading ladies that have a bit of sass or character quirks.”
Although occasionally she will have sudden epiphanies about a performance after the final curtain (“Oh, that’s what she was thinking!” or “I get that joke now!”), she says the beauty of live theater is that there are no do-overs. “You live in the moment, the moment passes, and you learn from it,” she says. “It’s just like real life.”
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