Moving On Up

Luke Wienecke, Sports Editor

Dancer first, actress second, singer third. That’s how Catie Leonard ranks her performative skills, but why rank them at all? Like peanut butter, jelly, and Wonder Bread, there’s no need to stratify the ingredients, they all work so well together. As she took her final bow after her performance in “Chicago” Feb. 27, it was an emotional end to many of her fellow performer’s love of show business. Unlike Leonard’s pals on the stage, the drop of the curtain marked only the end of a chapter in the long story of her young theater career. But to understand Leonard’s complete dedication to her craft, you have to start at the very beginning.

    Leonard got her start in dancing when she was just three years old. Like many, her mom put her in a beginner’s ballet class. But unlike many, she stuck with it.

“My mom put me in ballet when I was three, and I just never quit,” Leonard said. “I’m the only senior left.”

Ballet is only a small slice of her skill set, however, and as she grew up, she kept tacking on more and more dance classes, soon adding voice lessons and acting rehearsals to her afternoons. As the schedule of classes snowballed, so too did the dream. Leonard picked up tap, jazz, and pop, really rounding out her dancing portfolio. 

She started acting in the Christ The King Catholic School plays beginning in the third grade, and by junior high was claiming starring roles, even notching the classic role of Dorothy in Wizard of Oz. Leonard burst on to the professional acting stage, landing a role in Lyric Theatre’s production of Oklahoma at just the age of 12. Through middle school she maintained a steady docket of more than nine hours of dance a week, combining that with school and Lyric Theatre rehearsals and her work fine tuning her voice. While Leonard might not have had Broadway aspirations when she first started dancing, by seventh grade the dream was alive and well.  Because of Leonard’s talent in dancing, as she transitioned to high school, Pom seemed like an obvious fit. Leonard excelled with the program. 

“She was definitely one of the strongest dancers,” senior Pom captain Jane Nelson said.

But with the huge time commitment, Pom began to eclipse some of her other passions, and the schedule was just too much to juggle, especially with the addition of competitive speech. At the same time, Leonard knew the decision to leave the team would be a difficult one. 

“It was difficult to say goodbye to the team, but I knew I was making the right decision for me,” Leonard said.

After saying goodbye to Pom sophomore year, Leonard was able to fully dial in and pursue her dream. Of course the dancing didn’t stop after moving on from Pom, but it allowed her to focus more of her time on the performances themselves. And there were lots of them. Between speech, her seven professional contracts with Lyric Theatre, and two school productions a year, Leonard was always preparing for the next act. 

“Her biggest strength is her willingness to always improve,” speech coach and play director Brett Young said. “She already has so much talent with acting and singing and dancing, but it’s because she puts in the hours to learn it and to work it.”

The second half of sophomore year is when Leonard really began to blaze her own trail. There’s really no playbook for getting into the extremely competitive world of collegiate musical theatre, and she may be the first McGuinness student ever to set their sights so high. Aside from the pure grind required to pad the resume, Leonard ran into some difficulties as she began the next chapter of her musical ambitions. If you’re a high school football player looking to take it to the next level, you’ve got a whole team of support. There’s dozens of recruiting websites, scouting events, coaches and athletic staff who have sent dozens of kids to the next level. Most of the time, there’s multiple kids in each sport working together to get the exposure that gets them to elite athletic programs in the country. But for a goal like Leonard’s, there isn’t exactly that same level of built-in support at most schools. 

“I did feel lonely a lot,” Leonard said. “It has been hard, because nobody here has really been doing it with me.”

Even if Leonard felt lonesome on her journey to the top, she was always sure of two things: her passion for performance, and perhaps more importantly, the unwavering support from her parents.

“Honestly, they’re the only people that actually understand what’s going on,” Leonard said. “They’ve been very supportive.”

As Leonard moved into her senior year, it was finally time to flex that resume to some of the most selective college programs in the country. The onset of COVID-19 threw a curveball at the admissions process, but the show went on. 

Collegiate Musical Theater programs are notoriously difficult to get into, often only accepting ten guys and ten girls out of thousands of applicants. The process leading up to actual acceptance requires full scale interviews, deep dives into applicants’ resumes, and most importantly, the auditions themselves. With everyone holed up at home in the spring and summer, this process was made even more difficult. Applicants sent in self-taped videos of themselves performing monologues, songs and dances for the admissions officials to review. If those videos are intriguing enough, they narrow down the pool to a few hundred, with the next step being live hybrid interview-auditions over Zoom. Leonard made this cut at every single one of the 22 programs she applied to. Since these proceedings couldn’t happen in person, Leonard’s room turned into a quasi-studio, complete with a blue black drop and lighting. As she performed in interview after interview the butterflies in her stomach seemed to disperse. 

“They were terrifying at first,” Leonard said. “I was nervous because I had done auditions before but never like extensive, like this. And by the end of it, I felt like I was a pro. I felt like I kind of mastered that skill of auditioning.” 

With the auditions solidly under her belt, she entered the next phase of the process: waiting. Auditions were all wrapped up by the beginning of February, but admissions decisions didn’t start to come out until March, leaving a period of suspense that eventually took its toll.

“At the beginning of February, I was in Miss Damron’s (health and wellness counselor) office crying because I hadn’t gotten in anywhere,” Leonard said.

Most aspiring performers take a shotgun approach and apply to as many programs as they can, hoping that they can get into one or two. Leonard’s goal was to get into two and then to make a decision between them. 

She has been accepted into 10, including the top program in the country at The University of Michigan. The wait was worth it.

“When I got a phone call from Ann Arbor, I was kind of freaking out,” Leonard said. “It was a little surprising. The dream for me was I wanted to get into a top 10 school because I wanted to be in a community where I was surrounded by kids who were like minded and wanted similar things so that I could grow in that environment.”

Leonard’s wide net approach worked better than she ever imagined, securing acceptance letters from musical theater programs at The University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City University, New York University, Syracuse, Ithaca College, Otterbein, Montclair State and Ryder University: all elite programs. With the smashing success of being sought out by the top schools in the country, Leonard’s hard work, focus, and sacrifice have more than paid off.

15 years. For 15 years, Leonard has been working, dancing, singing, and acting her way toward a career in musical theatre. And if you take that time span as an interval of success, as a checkpoint towards the end goal, there’s no telling where Leonard’s talent might take her next. 15 years down the road, if anybody reading this story finds themselves in New York City, go catch a Broadway show, and while you’re there, say hi to Catie for me.