Today, The News-Gazette's Melissa Merli visits with theater actor/director Dawn McDaniel, 41, Urbana
Q: So you were born a Hamelberg here. What high school did you go to?
A: I went to Centennial during the Keith Page years. Remember him, the weatherman? He was drama director. I graduated in 1990.
The summer between my junior and senior years, I went to audition, very naively, at the Station Theatre for Rick Orr's "La Cage aux Folles." I knew nothing about it. I was cast as the only female in the chorus of male drag queens. I was 16. During my college years, I came back every summer and started doing ingenue roles at the Station and in Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company productions. It was a great training ground.
Q: Did you major in theater at Illinois Wesleyan?
A: Yes, it was a bachelor's of fine arts program in music and theater, with a minor in dance. You went to class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to get all those in, plus your gen ed classes.
Q: What did you do after you graduated?
A: I went to combined regional-theater auditions in Atlanta. My first job was in South Carolina — I was Little Bo Peep in children's shows. I did that for two or three months, then went to combined auditions in Indy for dinner theater. I got a job at Bearcreek Farms near Fort Wayne. The summer of '95, I came back here to direct the Champaign Park District summer youth theater show.
Then I thought instead of returning to a combined theater audition, I would move to New York City. I attached a U-haul to my car and drove myself there. I was 22.
Q: How did that go for you?
A: New York was awesome. I immediately started taking dance class and classes on how to audition. I started working as a Clinique girl at Macy's Herald Square. I auditioned like crazy.
Ninety-nine percent of the auditions, though, were for places outside New York: summer stock, cruise ships, regional theater.
My first job out of New York was at a theater near Philadelphia. It was a four-month contract. I met my (future) husband (Cyrus) there. He was working as an actor. I was dead set on going back to New York, but when the theater offered me a contract, it turned into 21/2 years of full-time, year-round work. Then Cyrus, who's a CPA, left the theater and went to work at Arthur Andersen in New York. After two weeks, he came back and proposed to me. I happily said yes, and then I moved back to New York.
Q: What then?
A: I started taking classes at the Acting School for Film and Television and got an agent to do commercials. Three months before 9-11, my husband got transferred to Chicago.
Q: What did you do there?
A: I did nationally syndicated voice-over work and a bit of consulting on audition workshops for college kids, and we had two babies.
Q: When did you move back here and why?
A: In 2006. The glamour of being in a high-rise with laundry in the basement and no parking kind of wears off when you have babies.
Q: What have you been doing since you came back here?
A: I've been home-schooling my kids — they're 9 and 11 — and it's been a blast. Because of my kids, I decided to audition here for only my bucket-list shows.
I did the CUTC benefit show at Centennial for the Kathy Murphy Scholarship Fund, and when CUTC did "Into the Woods," I was Jack's mother. And then in December, I saw that the Station was doing "Chess." I loved the music and knew I wanted to be in it. I was cast as Svetlana, the Russian chessmaster's wife.
Q: And now you're directing "Schoolhouse Rock Jr." for the CUTC Broadway Beginners program. Are your kids in it?
A: My daughter, Claire, is. She has bright red hair and was Annie in the CUTC Broadway Beginners production last year.
I wasn't involved in that program, but it was so much fun for her, I wanted to be involved in that program. It's really a thrill to do a show with my daughter with a company I started working with when I was 19. It's just come full circle.
Editor's note: The last production of "Schoolhouse Rock Jr." is at 5:30 p.m. today at the Orpheum Children's Science Museum, 346 N. Neil St., C. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for kids.