Embracing the spotlight

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Preparation is a key component for success in most occupations, especially when your job is performing under the bright lights of the stage. For students in Northern Arizona University’s Theatre Department, accommodating the rapid turnaround of auditions, rehearsals, and performances, all while balancing education and classroom obligations, can be simultaneously exhausting and rewarding. Just ask Chelsea Hightower, a sophomore theatre major who was cast in the lead of the university’s newest production, Mother Hicks, a Susan Zeder-penned period production that touches on themes of prejudice during the Great Depression.

While most students were acclimating to life back on campus following summer break, Hightower was auditioning for the role of Girl, one of Mother Hicks’ three main characters.

“We had auditions for this season the second or the third day of school,” Hightower says. “Callbacks were a day after that. The day we found out who was cast in Mother Hicks, we started rehearsal that night. We’ve had four weeks to get this show from the page to the stage.”

Pursuing a lifelong passion

Despite her dedication to her craft, Hightower originally intended to pursue a degree in biomedical sciences in order to help people deal with various health issues. However, it didn’t take long for her to realize she needed to change direction.

“When I was growing up, I always had a passion for theatre,” Hightower says. “I’ve been dancing for fifteen years, and I figured if I didn’t go where my heart was telling me to, I would be really upset with myself later on.”

Although the accelerated pace of performing at the university level can be daunting, Hightower cites the high degree of faculty attention as instrumental in helping her to adjust and reach her potential. She believes the guidance she’s received thus far has given her the courage to perform at any level.

“You get a lot of intimate attention,” Hightower says. “The professors are going to know you all four years. Once you tell them what you want to do and where your focus is, they really help you to put perspective on that focus and help steer you in the right direction towards what’s going to be most beneficial to you. At the same time, they are not hesitant to put underclassmen up on stage because they know the only way you can learn is through experience.”

Lights, camera, action

Hightower’s preparation for the lead in Mother Hicks began long before her audition; her experience acting throughout the years has contributed to the performer she is today. 

During her freshman year, Hightower was cast as a chorus member in a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Since then, she has participated in numerous productions both on and off the stage; Hightower has played bit roles in Miscast and New Works, and worked behind the scenes on the university’s productions of Nickel and Dimed and Dancing at Lughnasa. Getting a view of all aspects of the production process, Hightower says, has been helpful to her stage career.

“I think it’s not a bad place to start doing things behind the curtain,” Hightower says. “It gives you a better feel for how things work when you’re onstage.”

As she prepares to take center stage in Mother Hicks, Hightower feels she is ready for the responsibility. While adjusting the demands of a lead role isn’t easy, Hightower says the increased shift in workload will help her hone the skills necessary to grow as an actress and, hopefully, one day open her own production company. She is grateful for the opportunity, and believes her work on Mother Hicks has given her a clear look at the “real” world of acting. 

“The closer we get to learning skills that are going to be the same as in the professional world, the more it’s going to benefit us long-term,” Hightower says. “If we get babied by the professors, it’s not going to help us. If we get pushed really hard and understand how hard we have to work, especially here, then it’s going to be an easier transition into the professional world.”