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Five Questions with Katrina Lenk

tony award winner katrina lenk
Tony Award winner Katrina Lenk.Image: Susan Stripling

By Stephanie Kulke
Fall 2018
People

What does winning a Tony for an atypical Broadway show like “The Band’s Visit” mean to you?

My brain is still like, “WHAT?!” Ours is a story involving people from two cultures we don’t usually see portrayed in musicals, and it’s told in a style with a lot of simplicity and silence — and I do wonder if perhaps our show isn’t that “atypical.” It would be when compared with musicals from 20 years ago, say, but the contemporary musical world is full of shows and subjects and styles that could be labeled “atypical” in their own way. Look at Hamilton, of course, Once, Fun Home and this season SpongeBob and Mean Girls. I think “atypical” could actually be a new, gloriously open and exciting norm, and I think we’re all looking forward to it being more inclusive. 

You are a musician, singer, dancer and actor. How do you decide where to focus your energies?

I love discovering things and creating things. When I’m doing acting work, I submerge myself entirely in that. When an accent is required, I go bananas on that. Any time learning is involved, or discovery, I’m like a raccoon for a sparkling thing. I usually don’t get to focus on more than one at a time, unless I’m working on a musical, and then I’m like a raccoon rolling around in a diamond bathtub.

How did you make the transition from music to theater performance?

I had an extraordinary viola teacher who was also a professor at Northwestern. I wanted to continue studying with him, and there was also an amazing theater school at Northwestern! I thought I could keep doing all the things — and I did for the first two years. But then a required symphony credit conflicted with my favorite dance class. I found the thought of living without that class and the joy it gave me unbearable. So I let go of the focus on the viola.

Do you still play viola?

I do! After not being able to play the viola out of guilt for neglecting it, I missed the sound it made under my chin, in my sternum, the way it felt under my fingers. So one day I picked it back up. I composed music with it, I played in rock, pop, country and folk bands in Chicago, LA, NYC, and I use it in my own band as well. It also came in handy when the opportunity to audition for Once came around.

What were the most valuable lessons you learned at Northwestern?

Everyone tells you, but somehow you don’t believe it — practice actually does lead to improvement. Peter Slowik, my viola prof, taught me how to practice efficiently, how to break something down that seems overwhelmingly impossible into small pieces, how to investigate those pieces, how to love them, how to deal with mistakes made — and then boom! That thing isn’t overwhelming at all. And I have definitely used those tools in every facet of my life.

The second is from my voice prof, Kurt Hansen ’73, ’83 MS, and my dance profs, Juanita Lopez and Billy Siegenfeld. They taught me that having a teacher believe in you when you feel like you’re nothing can fuel a million hours of that practice.

Interview conducted by Stephanie Kulke, fine arts editor in Global Marketing and Communications at Northwestern. 

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