STEVENS POINT – When Kaia Fitzgerald was 5 years old, she got hearing aids. They were pink, sparkly and helped with her speech therapy for the hard of hearing.
When she was 5, she also joined her church choir in Minneapolis.
“I was talkative and liked to sing at young age. As I got older, that talent grew. I have close to perfect pitch, and I’m so proud of that,” she said.
Fitzgerald sang opera and snubbed her mother’s suggestion she go to a drama camp for high school freshmen. But she auditioned and got the lead role. By 10th grade, she played Charlie in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”
“That was really fun. I made kids happy,” she said. “Knowing I can have an impact on somebody doing something I love got me hooked.”
Now a first-year musical theater student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Fitzgerald has already been cast in productions in both semesters. She plays Saint Monica in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” which will be performed Feb. 26-28. A contemporary take on this Biblical account gives Fitzgerald and other cast members room to interpret their characters.
“I’ve had nothing but great experiences with the professors here. Everybody is so kind, and I get to learn from so many intellectual, talented people,” Fitzgerald said.
Last fall’s play, “Unruly Women and Unfinished Business: The Fight for the Vote,” commemorated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment with suffrage literature from three centuries. Fitzgerald played Mary Church Terrell plus two other characters, including one she co-created. Cast members recorded their roles from home during the pandemic and rehearsed in person.
Fitzgerald rehearsed every day. “As a first-year student, it was hard to manage all the work, but it was so fun.
“The environment was so welcoming, I felt like I was able to make mistakes and say, ‘I want to work on that.’ It wasn’t an embarrassment. It was, ‘Let’s all make mistakes together and learn.’ I’m so happy that was my first interaction.”
The directors, Sarah Ross and Laurie Schmeling, were fantastic, Fitzgerald said.
To analyze characters, Schmeling listened deeply to each cast member, including members of color, Fitzgerald said. “The suffrage movement was really for the white woman. What about us? We needed to dive into some of the things we were facing because of the discrimination during that movement.” Some of those issues remain today, she said, notably assumptions about strong black women.
“Kaia is a beautiful collaborator. By casting Kaia in ‘Unruly Women,’ the team not only got a skillful and willing performer but also a driven writer,” said Sarah Ross, assistant professor, Scenic Design, Department of Theatre and Dance. “As part of the directing team, I was thrilled she had such enthusiasm for creating new content along with her fellow castmates. She is the type of artist I hope to continue to work with beyond her time at UW-Stevens Point – thoughtful, compassionate and curious.”
UW-Stevens Point was Fitzgerald’s top choice to pursue her degree. She didn’t even know where Stevens Point was located but discovered musical theater was “an amazing program.” And it wasn’t too far from home.
“It was affordable. And the program was on par with big programs, like $50,000 programs. I looked at the programs, I looked at the professors, I looked at where students are now after graduating, it was the same thing. Alumni are on Broadway, they’re doing residential theater in Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington.”
It’s rare for a theater student to be cast in major roles in the first year, but it happens at UW-Stevens Point.
“Kaia arrived ready to contribute her significant skills and talents to our performances,” said Lisa Golda, associate lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Dance. “She is already an accomplished singer in many styles – classical, jazz, pop and musical theater. The enthusiasm and joy Kaia brings to her voice lessons with me is infectious. She is a creative whirlwind!”
“Nobody realizes it, but I’m actually hard of hearing, which is so funny because I’m in musical theater and I sing,” Fitzgerald said. She uses sign language daily.
“Because of this disability I have, which I think of more as an ability now because of the opportunities with it, I can use it for something I’m passionate about, which is theater.”
Source: University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point