Local theater helped propel Camano Island native to stardom

Caitlin Kinnunen, nominated for a Tony Award, began learning her art with Village Theatre’s KidStage.

Camano Island native Caitlin Kinnunen has been nominated for a Tony Award for her role as Emma in Broadway’s “The Prom.”

Camano Island native Caitlin Kinnunen has been nominated for a Tony Award for her role as Emma in Broadway’s “The Prom.”

Caitlin Kinnunen’s story sounds like the premise of a Broadway musical itself.

She left Camano Island at age 16 to move to New York City, where she joined the Broadway musical “Spring Awakening.” When the show closed, she stayed in New York.

Kinnunen, now 27, is the star of “The Prom” — the role for which she has earned a Tony nomination for best leading actress in a musical. The Tony winners will be announced Sunday.

In “The Prom,” Emma (Kinnunen) wants to take her girlfriend Alyssa to the high school prom, but her small conservative Indiana town objects and the prom is canceled. Emma is bullied and teased. Enter four Broadway stars, who travel to Indiana to brush up their press and offer to “help” Emma and Alyssa.

Since the nominations were announced on April 30, Kinnunen has appeared in the New York Times and on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” singing the poignant “Unruly Heart” with a bunch of her castmates.

“And nobody out there ever gets to define

The life I’m meant to lead

With this unruly heart of mine”

“It’s an honest and real song, with great emotional impact,” Kinnunen said during a May 22 phone call from New York.

Angie Schworer (Angie) and Tony nominee Caitlin Kinnunen (Emma) in Broadway’s “The Prom.” (Deen van Meer)

Angie Schworer (Angie) and Tony nominee Caitlin Kinnunen (Emma) in Broadway’s “The Prom.” (Deen van Meer)

Being a Broadway actress in the limelight this week is as far removed from her fledgling forays in the footlights as is the distance between the islands of Camano and Manhattan.

And Kinnunen’s parents — Betsy Stam and Randy Kinnunen — are the opposites of caricature stage parents.

“Cailtlin’s nomination is a great accomplishment that she accepts with grace, humility and gratitude,” Stam said. “And that’s what we care most about.”

Stam, who works at Everett Community College, and her husband, retired from local law enforcement, got their daughters Julia (now a photographer) and Caitlin involved in theater when the girls were little. Caitlin was 3 when she first went to theater camp.

The idea was that the girls would learn to speak in public, something that Stam had to achieve as an adult. In addition, being in theater was a way to form a community with like-minded parents. What was important to the Kinnunen girls was that being on stage made them happy.

They took classes and performed with the North West Children’s Theatre (now META Performing Arts) in Mount Vernon and Sky Theatre in Stanwood, which blended into KidStage, run by Village Theatre.

“Caitlin did well, but she learned that she is of no greater value to a production than the tech crew. It was our version of team sports,” Stam said. “She knew that the first time I heard she was a snot, she was done.”

The KidStage motto “Skills for Theatre, Skills for Life” is real, Kinnunen said.

“KidStage gave us freedom, power and professional skills, and we had a lot of fun doing it,” she said. “So I grew up feeling respected, supported and proud of my education at KidStage.”

Isabelle McCalla (Alyssa) and Tony nominee Caitlin Kinnunen (Emma) in Broadway’s “The Prom.” (Deen van Meer)

Isabelle McCalla (Alyssa) and Tony nominee Caitlin Kinnunen (Emma) in Broadway’s “The Prom.” (Deen van Meer)

KidStage director Kati Nickerson has known Kinnunen since she was a child, and went to see “The Prom” earlier this year.

“Caitlin was a spunky, wise, creative, collaborative and brilliant kid. She was born to show us what she can do,” Nickerson said. “And Caitlin can do anything as long as she is allowed to sing.”

At age 11, Kinnunen, who was home-schooled, had the title character in Village Theatre’s 2003 production of “Annie,” and that was followed by her stint as Mary in Village’s “The Secret Garden.”

“Theater in Seattle isn’t given enough credit nationwide,” Kinnunen said. “Some of the incredible work that’s being produced in the Seattle area is just as good as what’s on in New York.”

Kinnunen was in a production of “High School Musical” at Seattle Children’s Theatre when she responded to an open audition in Seattle for “Spring Awakening.”

“I had three call-backs in New York. After I booked the role, my parents decided I shouldn’t pass up the opportunity. My mom and I had two weeks to move to Manhattan.”

Kinnunen said her family has been “a great support system” and she relishes each visit to Camano she can manage. Her mom had a “portable job” and was able to live with the actress in New York for about two years to make sure Caitlin continued her education in the theater.

She then went on to tour nationally with “Next to Normal” and appear in films and TV shows.

Caitlin Kinnunen performs in Village Theatre’s “Footloose” in 2004. (Village Theatre)

Caitlin Kinnunen performs in Village Theatre’s “Footloose” in 2004. (Village Theatre)

“The Prom” had its beginnings more than four years ago, and Kinnunen has been a part of it since the writers introduced the funny and meaningful musical to the workshop cast.

The show ran first in Atlanta, Georgia, and then moved to Longacre Theatre on Broadway this past fall.

“Opening night was truly magical,” Kinnunen said. “Since then, it has been a great job, working with the best people. They are kind and truly want to be there night after night.”

On the morning the Tony nominations were announced, Kinnunen called her mom, her agent and her manager, and then submitted to interviews until it was time to get on the subway over to the theater for that night’s performance.

“I’ve been in New York for 11 years now. And all the hard work with ‘The Prom’ has paid off.”

Sitting in the balcony audience on Sunday will be Kinnunen’s dad and sister. Her plus-one in the orchestra seating will be her mom.

“The Prom” is an important piece of theater, Kinnunen said, and it really needs to be part of the repertoire at high schools across America.

“It’s about love and acceptance, which in our current political climate, we need a lot more of,” she said. “It’s a show that is changing minds. And I can’t tell you the number of young people who have stopped me on the street to say that the show makes them feel safe, respected, seen and heard.

“That’s why we do this.”

• • •

The Tony Awards are scheduled for 5 p.m. local time June 9. KIRO-TV will broadcast the show at 8 p.m. June 9.

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