A sustainable arts scene

From New York City to Fort Wayne

Renee Gonzales. Photography by Ellie Bogue

The arts community in Fort Wayne has grown substantially in the past decade, and the people who appreciate that most are likely those who have been away for a while. That was definitely the case for Renee Gonzales who, after finishing her degree in musical theater at Ball State University, decided to head to New York City, where she stayed for almost a decade. Although she visited her family here in Fort Wayne, she was still impressed upon returning to her hometown in 2014 to see how many more opportunities there were for her to make a living as a performer in this city.

That opportunity had no doubt seemed far-fetched to Gonzales as she was first discovering her love of singing and acting as a kid. While she admits to dressing up as Dorothy for the annual airings of “The Wizard of Oz,” she said the theater bug didn’t really bite when she was small.

The beginning of her transformation into a musical theater major began with show choir and musicals at Bishop Luers High School, and, once she was able to drive herself to auditions, performing with the Civic Theatre. It was there she found her calling.

“It really started at the Civic, when I was in a production of ‘My Fair Lady’ directed by Harvey Cocks, that I was standing backstage and thought, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do,'” she said.

Gonzales credits the Bishop Luers program, headed by Karleen Krouse, for making it possible to learn so much about so many kinds of theater.

“She gave us all so many opportunities,” she said. “We would do a play and two musicals every year, and for a small school with a small number of kids, a surprising number of us have gone on to be performers.”

As she completed her work at Ball State, Gonzales knew she needed to land in a large market, one that provided plenty of chances for auditions. At that time, those options were limited to Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Having visited New York on a couple of spring breaks, she had already fallen in love with its pace, people and, of course, Broadway. Her time there was spent auditioning and finding ways to make a living in a challenging economy. When she decided to return to Fort Wayne two years ago, she began finding ways to work as a performer, although theater became a more difficult option.

“When you choose any other profession – accountant, teacher, whatever – you can usually stay in your hometown to work. But the community theaters don’t pay their performers, so that makes it difficult,” she said.

Despite the lack of pay, Gonzales has enjoyed taking the stage a few times since her return, even earning Anthony Award nominations for her performances in “Shrek: the Musical” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” She teaches voice and finds a variety of singing gigs, including in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s Holiday Pops.

“I sing at weddings and funerals, and I play with a jazz trio which performs every Wednesday at Koze Thai Restaurant,” she said. “I’m just happy that I’m able to support myself as a vocalist in Fort Wayne.”

First appeared in the February 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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