From stage fright to star

AVELLA – As a little girl, Kaitlin Descutner had stage fright, but she recently took a turn as Princess Fiona in the Columbus-based the Pleasure Guild’s production of “Shrek: The Musical” at the Palace Theater, possibly inspiring other little girls to follow in her musical footsteps.

She began her path to the stage with voice lessons at age 5, but didn’t start acting until she was 13, when she started acting in productions staged by local theater groups, including the Old Schoolhouse Players in Hickory and the Brooke Hills Playhouse in Wellsburg.

“I just liked to walk around the house, singing songs from the ‘Annie’ soundtrack,” she said. “So my mom signed me up for voice lessons, but I was scared to go on stage.”

She struggled with stage fright until going to a summer theater camp in Canonsburg, where she acted in her first musical – and fell in love.

“I finally got the courage to get up there,” she said. “Then I was cast in (Old Schoolhouse Players’) Christmas show. My mom took me up to the (Civic Light Opera) in Pittsburgh, and I was cast in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ as a munchkin. I did a lot of community theater after that.”

As a student at Avella High School, she participated in the school’s musicals and spring shows, but there wasn’t a drama department, so the experience accrued trodding the boards at the Old Schoolhouse, and Brooke Hills was important in Descutner’s decision to pursue musical theater as a major in college.

“In the back of my mind, it was kind of scary,” she said of the sometimes uncertainty of the entertainment business.

“I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. It wasn’t important where I was doing it or what I was doing, I just knew I wanted to be involved. I love it.”

She attended California University, where she participated in putting on productions at the intimate black box theater.

“You were practically sitting in the laps of the first row,” she said. “I loved doing it. It was completely different.”

She enrolled in the theater program and met mentor and instructor Michelle Pagen, who introduced her to the Estill Voice Training program.

“I had always sang in a very classical style, and I wanted that ‘Broadway Belt,'” said Descutner, crediting Pagen for teaching her how to correctly project.

During summer breaks, Descutner participated in summer stock and regional theater.

She landed her first professional job as a costumer at Shadowbox Live in Columbus.

“I got it right out of college,” she said. “I learned so much there.”

Descutner spent the next two years doing eight shows a week, but finally decided to make the jump to acting – specifically, musicals – and auditioned for a role in a Short North Stage production of “Cabaret.”

“I wasn’t getting a lot of lead roles,” she said. “I was mostly in the dance corps.”

She was cast as Sally Bowles.

“I would play her again in a heart beat. I would love to play Sally again. I’ve had so many opportunities,” she said. “I haven’t stopped performing, and I’ve been getting lead roles. When I was younger, I never dreamed of getting these. I just wanted to be singing and dancing.”

Being cast as Fiona was especially meaningful, as the show raised money for the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and there was a special performance filmed for those children who were too ill to leave their hospital rooms.

“It’s a great experience,” she said. “It’s all about the kids, and I’m really excited. I love playing Fiona. It’s great to play someone the kids know, someone they recognize. She’s quirky, but she was stuck in a tower for years and years! She knows what she wants. It’s a challenging role.”

Descutner was up to the challenges in the role – including transforming from human to ogre in less than three minutes.

“I’m really nervous about the quick change,” she said of the musical’s big reveal. “I run off the stage, and I’ve got three minutes to change out of the wedding dress, put on the fat suit, dress, put on the wig with the ears, my ogre nose and paint myself with green makeup. I’ve been through a lot of quick changes, but not with makeup.”

Her next challenge will be performing in Short North Stage’s “The Who’s Tommy” April 10-27 with Tommy Batchelor, who starred in Broadway’s “Billy Elliot.” She will be the understudy for the role of Mrs. Walker, Tommy’s mother.

Descutner hasn’t set her eyes on Broadway – she’s happy to be performing in Columbus.

“I’m happy,” she said. “Columbus has been good to me, and I was born and raised in the country, and I’m still getting used to city life. I’m keeping my options open. I just want theater to be part of my life.”

(Wallace-Minger can be contacted at swallace@pafocus.com.)