Katie Owen has been active in the past several productions by Paragon Music Theatre, but she was going to skip tryouts for this spring's production of Gypsy.
Owen had just left her job late last year to go back to school at Eastern Kentucky University for a master of arts degree.
"I was thinking that I need to focus on school, because that's my priority, and it's a new sort of routine for me," Owen said. "I said, I just need to get my feet wet in the whole school environment."
Paragon actually was what propelled Owen to get a degree that will allow her to teach music in schools, from elementary through high school.
When she was in last summer's Paragon production of The Sound of Music as one of the nuns, "It was about that time that I started feeling the pull to do this," Owen said of going back to school.
It just so happened that Paragon director Ryan Shirar was teaching at EKU. "He got me in touch with some of the people that helped me do this," she said.
But her sister and parents didn't think that going back to school should preclude Owen, who has performed for many years in Lexington Singers and productions such as University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's Grand Night for Singing, from auditioning.
She ended up landing one of the biggest, most iconic roles in musical theater: Rose, the ultimate stage mother.
"We were noticing when we were rehearsing the overture that every song was one that Rose sings," Shirar said. "Then we said, 'Well, she sings almost every song in the show.'"
Stage director Robyn Peterman-Zahn says, "I told her, 'You're going to work harder than you've ever worked for a show, but you'll be great.'"
Owen says the part is a big change from her usually lighter, comic roles.
"The first time we ran all of Act I, I was exhausted, in a good way, but exhausted," Owen said. To get through, "making smart choices is No. 1, and before every rehearsal just mentally putting myself where I need to be."
Owen has stopped to consider the footsteps she is stepping into: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters, all of whom are Broadway icons who have played Rose on the Great White Way.
"Of course, this production is not at that level," Owen said. "But it is important to know the history behind what you're doing."
It is also important, she and Peterman-Zahn say, that she finds her own nuances to the fact-based character, a woman raising two daughters in show business, one of whom becomes striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee.
"A lot of people, when they think about Rose, just automatically go to this monstrous stage mother," Owen says. "In my mind, that's not what she is. She's a very determined woman, she knows what she wants and she's not afraid to go after it. There's a lot of confidence to her.
"But there's also this side to her that she truly loves her children, and she really falls in love with Herbie (the girls' manager). She just shows it in a weird, unconventional way . ... Having the confidence to make tough decisions I draw from Rose. Now, I hope I don't treat my support system the same way she treated hers."
Her support system includes her father, Bill Owen, the president and CEO of Lexington Center Corp., which manages Lexington Opera House, where Gypsy will play.
"He's our biggest cheerleader," she says of her family's artistic endeavors.
Her mother, Debby Owen, was part of the trio, with Opera House manager Luanne Franklin and retiring drama teacher Cindy Kewin, that brought many Lafayette High School musicals to the stage. Her younger siblings are both involved in music: Sister Kristen is in New York, and brother Grant, who works in commercial real estate, is a songwriter on the side.
Adding to the good fortune of deciding to audition was the school calendar. The production falls in the week between the spring and summer semesters at EKU, allowing Owen to just be an actor this week.
But she is also gaining experience she can take into the classroom.
"I hope it can help students realize that music can always be a part of your life," Owen says. "That's something that's so important about arts education — instilling in children a love for culture ... and if kids have a talent for it, and they can be a part of their community in that way, and there's always an opportunity for that to be part of your life."