Kelly Baker was too afraid to sing “Happy Birthday” to casting directors in elementary school.
But now, she sings with the cast of a Tony Award-nominated musical.
The UCLA alumna joined the cast of “Bright Star,” written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, which will run at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown LA until Nov. 19. Baker said studying musical theater at UCLA prepared her for professional theater, but productions at UCLA were much slower paced and only required her to learn one role at a time. In “Bright Star,” she landed the role of a swing – a person who is trained to cover multiple ensemble roles.
“I had to learn three roles, and I didn’t really get to be up on my feet doing it; I just kind of got to watch it and learn,” Baker said.
Baker began her career with an ensemble role in the musical “Cats” when she was 10 years old. As a student at UCLA, she moved on to bigger roles, including one as the antagonist Norma in the school’s production of “Carrie the Musical.”
However, her role in “Bright Star” required more preparation and had a shorter rehearsal period than previous productions she has acted in. At UCLA, students would rehearse productions for entire quarters, and Baker would have nearly 10 weeks to prepare. But in “Bright Star,” rehearsals only ran for around four weeks.
Baker also had to develop her roles by herself, which included videotaping every rehearsal, making notecards and studying, she said. At UCLA, she was able to prepare more with her peers – after practice they would gather and talk about their roles.
“You bring your work into rehearsal when you are doing it professionally,” she said.
Baker’s roommate Adam Turney would return home from work to find Baker on the floor of their living room, furiously writing down her cues. During rehearsals for “Bright Star,” Baker would come home from eight to 10 hours of rehearsal and stay awake for five to six more hours perfecting each of the roles she had to learn.
“She’s growing in the sense of work ethic. … To be working almost 24 hours of the day, to make sure you’re perfect in what you’re doing … that’s definitely admirable,” Turney said.
Baker said the meticulous notes she made were something she had never had to do before her time as a cast member of “Bright Star.” At UCLA, she would scribble down notes as she acted out parts, but for “Bright Star,” rehearsals consisted more of watching other performers and learning her parts by viewing their performances.
Baker never had to prepare for more than one role at UCLA because performances don’t typically require a swing or even an understudy, said Jeremy Mann, director of singing for the Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program and Baker’s voice coach.
“We try to emulate the professional model as much as possible,” Mann said. “(Having a swing) is not as practical for us here; it’s really practical in the professional world because there are long runs of shows.”
Baker said she was intimidated by the actors’ talent when she first watched them perform, which caused her to doubt her own abilities. She used positive affirmations and worked on trusting herself to build up her confidence.
“There will be times when we’ll be going onto another section and I’ll … be like, ‘What do I do next?’” Baker said. “I don’t have those scared moments often, but when they pop up my gut is like, ‘You know what to do,’ and my body does it.”
Baker said she repeated a confidence-building mantra to take on parts that were completely new to her. And by using the skills she picked up acting in UCLA productions, she was able to push past her fear.
“When you get out into the world where you’re experiencing professional theater, you realize, ‘Oh, you know, productions really don’t get that long,’” Baker said. “It’s nice because it’s like you get it up on its feet, you get moving and you feel like the ball is really rolling.”