Broadway star and Theatre Raleigh founder makes an evolutionary move
Lauren Kennedy Brady is giving a tour of Theatre Raleigh, describing her vision for the many rooms and spaces. At one end of the sprawling lobby, she approaches a makeshift stage and a scattering of comfy furniture. Earlier this year, before the 300-seat main theater was finished, the company staged “Forever Plaid” in this makeshift area. “We turned all these couches and bar tables around and built riser seating,” she says. “So it felt like a cabaret.”
Kennedy Brady is Theatre Raleigh’s producing artistic director. She is also the executive director of the organization and has operated Theatre Raleigh for nearly a decade. But this is the second act in her professional life. Before she came home, she starred on Broadway, earning credits in “Sunset Boulevard,” “Les Miserables” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”
Kennedy Brady graduated from Broughton High School before attending the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Two years into her college career, she took a master class taught by an agent who sent her on an audition for “Sunset Boulevard.” When she landed a role in the ensemble in 1994, she had a decision to make. She remembers, “This is what I’m here to do. My parents were so supportive. It’s Andrew Lloyd Webber. Glen Close is starring in it. How can you really turn that down?”
But after more than a decade based in New York, Kennedy Brady felt the tug of her hometown, where her family had deep roots in the theater community. Her parents are the patrons behind the Kennedy Theatre at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. Her father and brother ran a summer series in the 133-seat theater for a few years, while Kennedy Brady served as a creative consultant from New York. With the theater unable to make money, she took the patron list and started over, founding Theatre Raleigh in 2008 before becoming a nonprofit in 2011.
Today, the theater company continues its transformation on Old Wake Forest Road. The new home became available in June 2020 when a church vacated the space. The location is hardly what you would expect for a professional theater, occupying one end of a brick-and-siding strip mall. “Yes, it has its idiosyncrasies, and yes, it’s a warehouse-y, office complex-y thing,” Kennedy Brady says with joyful resignation. “But as long as it’s evolutionary, then we’re good.”
How did theater become part of your life?
My parents loved theater. When we were kids, they would take us to New York and we would see six shows in four days. They passed on that love to three of the four of us. My sister and I started auditioning for all the different community theaters and doing a ton of shows. Then you get bitten by the bug and you can’t imagine your life being anything else.
I started doing shows with professionals when I was in eighth grade. All through high school, I would do shows at North Carolina Theatre and people would fly in from New York. They would be staying at a hotel downtown, and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s just what I want to do.” It just seemed like such an awesome life.
Can you describe what it feels like to be on a Broadway stage?
It’s like playing in the major leagues. A lot of people play baseball, but not many people play in the major leagues. A lot of people do theater, but not many people actually make it to Broadway. It is something that is truly special. It’s the thing you say to yourself when you’re out there in that moment, like, “Oh my God, I’m living my dream.”
Is the lifestyle for a Broadway actress what we think it is—just endless auditions, mixed in with waitressing and doing whatever it takes to make ends meet?
It’s pretty much that. It’s mostly schlepping and waitressing and side hustles and babysitting. I was really lucky though. I thank my lucky stars because I know it was not most people’s experience, but I did get a job right out of school. I did it in Los Angeles for 10 months, I did it on Broadway for a year, I toured for a year. So by the time I was 23, I had three years of professional work making great money. It was almost like false advertising: I’m working all the time, it’s amazing! But the next show I did was “Side Show.” It only lasted for three months, then closed. It was not a success. And then I didn’t work for a year. You’re on this high and everything is amazing and then, boom! Nothing.
So, what happens then?
You just audition like it’s your job. It’s not easy, it’s not glamorous. You go on a hundred auditions and maybe get a callback for one or two. It’s a numbers game. You have to have a lot of patience and a lot of passion to withstand the rejection. I also look back at those times and think they were the best time of my life. You cared about something so deeply and you had this dream. When you’re acquiring the dream, that’s the most exciting part. Being at the top is never what you expect it to be. It’s never quite as amazing. It’s always riddled with frustration and disappointment.
Did you ever think, this isn’t the life I expected or wanted?
You lose perspective. I was never at the top. I can certainly say I starred in three Broadway shows. I played Fantine in “Les Mis,” Lady of the Lake in “Spamalot” and Daisy Hilton in “Side Show.” But it was always just a little different than you thought. It’s hard, the work you have to do to stay at the top of your game at that top level. It’s really intense. You give up a lot of your life. You give up going out to dinner with friends or staying out late. You’ve got to be quiet for 12 hours [before a performance] so your voice is in tip-top shape.
Were these the first thoughts you had in the progression of coming back to Raleigh?
I was working on the decision about 15 years ago. I had a child and I was working at the top of my craft when I had my daughter (Riley, now a freshman at Duke University). My ex-husband at that point was very supportive, so I was continuing to work. When I was doing “Spamalot” with David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria—a really tip-top experience—I found myself not wanting to do what it takes to stay at the top.
I wanted to get up at 5 a.m. with her and spend time with her. Then I’d have to take a nap in the middle of the day and then train in, because at that point we were living outside the city. The sacrifices they have us making to do that—I became less interested in doing. That’s when I started thinking about directing and producing and shifting to something that wasn’t about me being in top form, but something about me supporting other people being in top form. That took about five years, and then I moved down here.
What made you think you were prepared for operating your own theater?
I’ve always been somebody who will work the problem. I will just figure it out. My husband, my technical director and my carpenter friend, we just rolled up our sleeves and started working on the lobby. We ripped out carpet, we laid the floors, we put wallboard up. That’s how we spent the first year of COVID-19. When else could you stop doing productions? It was one of the silver linings we chased during that time. Then I just started falling in love with the whole idea of this. Ultimately, I now feel like I’ve sacrificed nothing. The work is the same here as it is there. There may be a few more zeros at the end of the budget, but it’s really the same.
Where do you find all the actors? Is the acting community pretty deep in the Triangle?
There is a very rich artistic pool here in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary, Apex, Holly Springs. People are willing to drive to go where the art is. But we also bring in people from New York. With “City of Angels,” we had seven people from New York. This is professional theater, not community, so we pay everybody who works. It’s good enough to justify that they’re here six nights a week from 5:30 to 10:30 for rehearsal for three weeks, then two weeks of a run of a show. It’s professional in that sense. The talent is high. It’s fun to see people come from New York, and you get to watch this sort of great marriage of the local passion and how it inspires the New York actors. It sets a level of output and work ethic.
What would success look like for Theatre Raleigh four or five years from now?
Being regarded as one of the best theaters in the area is absolutely my goal. Not just within the community, but nationally. Because I lived in New York and L.A., I would love for Theatre Raleigh to have a great reputation in New York for actors to come down and work here. And I think we’re getting there with what we’ve got. But also for the patrons to trust what I’m presenting. I was always driven by the development of new plays and musicals. You have to earn that support from your patrons. I have really created a great patron base that wants to see new shows or riskier titles. The fact that I don’t have to do “The Music Man” and “The Sound of Music,” and things that everybody knows is great. So that’s cool.
If I’m developing a new show every year, that would be my absolute dream come true. Adding to the canon of American theater has always been exciting to me, and I would love to be able to be a part of that.