Stephanie Longbrake learned from early childhood that all the world’s a stage. Even the living room fireplace.
“I turned every floor I could find into a stage,” she says. “I wasn’t necessarily comfortable in my own skin, so escaping and pretending to be someone else was natural for me.”
Fortunately, her parents understood. “They cultivated that creativity,” she says. “I think they could tell fairly early that volleyball wasn’t going to rev my jets like Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
Not only did her family cultivate her love of theater, they shared in it.
“My dad is a Renaissance man with musical instruments. He has a beautiful singing voice, and he whistles with the sweetest vibrato. My brother is deeply gifted at both music and photography. My sister-in-law is a professional actor in Chicago. My aunt has written and directed for over 40 years.”
Her biggest artistic influence, however, was her mother who was a performer, writer, director, and teacher. “We have home movies of my mom and me role playing in our kitchen,” Longbrake says. “She passed away while I was in high school, so she hasn’t seen me perform as an adult. I like to think her influence colors the characters I play.”
Her mom taught her early on to make the most of any role, no matter how small or potentially embarrassing.
“My first role at Blackhawk Christian School was the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland when I was in elementary school,” she recalls. “I was hurt that I’d been cast in what I thought should be a boy’s role. My mom helped me embrace the quirkiness and oddities of the Mad Hatter, and I ended up having fun.”
She had lots of exposure to theater from an audience perspective as well.
“One of the great things about attending Blackhawk is that as elementary students, we attended matinees of the high school plays and musicals,” she says. “Watching my mom prepare and rehearse the shows she directed there taught me a ton about theater. I went to rehearsals with her, and I loved observing the process.”
After graduating from Blackhawk, she earned a B.S. in Vocal Music Education at Indiana Wesleyan University.
“I was cast in a couple of musicals in college,” she says, “but they didn’t compare to what I’d been able to participate in during high school.”
Her first community theater production was Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre in 2008. She has been in a total of 14 musicals in Indiana and Ohio and hopes to try her luck with a straight play in the future.
But for now, she’s content to hone her musical audition skills.
Unlike many actors who have a set list of go-to songs they will sing audition after audition, Longbrake takes a different approach. If she lands a role, she removes that audition song from her book.
“I’m a tad superstitious about it,” she says. “A good number of songs have been ‘retired,’ but my audition book is still full of songs that need a second – or third – attempt.”
Also unlike many actors, she actually enjoys the audition process.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t get nervous,” she says. “The worst part for me is always the wait between auditions and getting the ‘congratulations’ or ‘we’re sorry’ phone call. Whether it’s a day or a week, it feels like you’re waiting forever, and you’re constantly checking your phone.”
She says it took her a while to figure out where she fit in to the theater scene.
“In high school I tried to make my vibrato sound like Audra McDonald,” she says, “until a director asked me to ‘calm the vibrato down.’”
She says she now has a better understanding of her strengths.
“I don’t fit the ingénue type,” she says. “I’m a soprano who can belt, so I tend to audition for roles that have a brassy solo number.”
She prefers playing supporting characters to leads anyway.
“A lot of the comedy in a musical is written for supporting characters,” she says. “There are also shows that are more fun to be in the ensemble.”
Whatever role she plays, Longbrake says she continues to learn from and be inspired by other Fort Wayne actors.
“Nothing makes you step it up faster than a great scene partner,” she says. “Great actors – and we have tons in Fort Wayne – know when to take focus and when to let a scene partner shine. Give and take is part of what makes theater magical. When it doesn’t work, it’s like a row of people giving monologues. Observing and learning from each other makes us better performers.”
Her fellow actors have become her best friends in life as well.
“We have a strong community of actors in Fort Wayne,” she says. “They encourage and help me be the best version of myself.”
She doesn’t take for granted the importance of a supportive and insightful director either.
“I learn so much from directors who encourage me to explore, play, and risk failure,” she says, citing such directors as Craig Humphrey and Doug King.
King is directing her current show, A Christmas Story: The Musical, at the Civic. She plays Miss Shields, the school teacher.
“Hers is a no nonsense classroom,” says Longbrake, herself a music teacher at Perry Hill Elementary School.
“I have to fight my instincts often, as my real teaching style is much more playful,” she says. “You do see a tiny glimmer of her compassion as she’s trying to save Flick from being forever frozen to a flagpole, but it’s evident that she cares far more about grammar and punctuation than she does people.”
She has enjoyed rehearsing the classroom scenes with the young actors in the show.
“Early in the rehearsal process, the kids were sneakily passing a book back and forth during a scene,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, they’re already making fun acting choices on their own!’ I walked over and took the book away, as Miss Shields definitely would not tolerate passing notes and other items in class.
“After the scene, one of the kids asked if she could have her script back. It turns out, they’d been sharing a script, not passing notes. She was worried I was going to keep it. We’ve kept that in the scene since then.”
Longbrake says that King and the rest of the production staff and cast are very aware of the risks they are taking, staging a beloved and extremely recognizable story as a live musical. They walk a fine line between being offputtingly original and providing the audience with a carbon copy of the movie they could just watch at home.
“We’ve kept those non-negotiable moments and catch phrases from the film while allowing the actors freedom to explore and play with these characters,” she says. “Because this is a musicalized version, we often break into song and dance. Our production has dancing lamps; you’re not going to get that in the film.”
Not many stages in town can accommodate a chorus of dancing leg lamps.
“An exciting part of being in the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre is that everything can be big,” says Longbrake. “The stage itself, the orchestra, the set pieces – many musicals require a larger-than-life feel, and the Civic has the space to produce those kinds of shows.”
When she’s not portraying a teacher on the big stage, she goes back to teaching in the classroom. But she doesn’t feel like she strays too far from the stage even then. “Being a teacher is like being an actor all day long,” she says. “Plus, you have a captive audience!”
Her job as a music teacher is another inspiration to her art.
“I actually get paid to cultivate creativity and musicianship,” she says. “In my mind, that makes my job one of the best out there.”