When Rachel Snyder arrived at the University of Kentucky for fall 2011, the College of Fine Arts didn’t have a musical theater certificate program and the Lexington Theatre Company did not exist.
Snyder wasn’t even a theater major.
“I actually started as a math major, with the intent of being a high school math teacher,” she says.
Snyder, who graduated in May, is back in Lexington from her hometown, Dayton, Ohio, to play the leading role of Eliza Doolittle in Kentucky Conservatory Theatre’s production of My Fair Lady for the company’s annual WinterFest. Once she has finished her run with the show, she’ll be off on the journey many aspiring stage actors take: to New York City.
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“Obviously the goal is to be paid to sing and dance and act; that’s the goal,” she says. “I know that’s probably going to mean that I’m going to be a waitress and a bartender for a while. And that’s OK too. As a young artist, I just want to keep working and discovering my artistic voice. There’s always still so much to learn.”
And she thanks UK for setting her on her course.
“I will never be able to express or quantify how amazing UK has been in my experience. The breadth of experience I’ve had the opportunity to get here, the amount of shows that I’ve been able to participate in and the amount of incredible roles that I’ve had the opportunity to play, I think at other schools you don’t get as many chances.”
Snyder chose UK because she would be able to participate in theater as a non-major. In Dayton, she had attended Stivers School for the Arts, a public arts magnet school much like Lexington’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, and she performed with the educational theater Muse Machine.
But as she planned for college, a “practical” side kicked in, and she figured she had better pursue a field with a reasonably certain income.
Her freshman year, though, she got cast in UK Theatre’s spring 2012 production of the Broadway hit Thoroughly Modern Millie. During the production, she says, UK theater chair Nancy Jones approached her and asked, “What are you doing with your life?” “I said, ‘I’m going to be a math teacher,’ and she said, ‘Why?’ So she roped me in, and I realized I was going to regret it if I never gave a professional performance career a shot.”
Initially, Snyder planned a double major in math and theater. Then, in the spring of her sophomore year, she was cast as Wendla, the lead female role in UK Theatre’s Spring Awakening.
“I felt like I was swimming upstream, constantly,” Snyder says of carrying the double major. “I said, ‘It’s just not worth it to feel so stretched that I feel like I’m not being successful in either area.’”
Spring Awakening director Lyndy Franklin Smith also spotted a rising star in Snyder.
“Having cast her as Wendla in our Spring Awakening with UK Theatre and Dance, we recognized her fantastic talent,” Smith says.(She and her husband, Jeromy Smith, usually direct together.) “As I worked with her more in my musical theater technique class, her incredible range became more and more apparent. She possesses an ability to take on vastly different roles with fearlessness and commitment.”
From there, Snyder was pretty much UK musical theater’s leading lady, playing the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Sheila Franklin in Hair and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, which was a co-production with the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre and part of the newly formed musical theater certificate program at UK. For many years at UK, the music and theater programs were fairly firmly divided. But under the new program, students studied in both music and theater programs and performed in each department’s musical productions, giving Snyder an even broader experience than was available when she entered school.
Stepping onto new stages
Snyder also got involved in Lexington theater, performing in last year’s WinterFest production of Cabaret as Fraulein Kost. Then came last summer and the formation of the Lexington Theatre Company by the Smiths.
Wesley Nelson, executive director of Kentucky Conservatory Theatre, said he’d heard wonderful things about Snyder before she auditioned for her role in Cabaret.
“After casting Rachel, I quickly saw that she is a true triple threat. This means that she is equally strong as a singer, actor and dancer,” Nelson said.
Part of the intention of the summer stock company is to get aspiring collegiate theater artists to work with established Broadway talent. In the inaugural production, 42nd StreetSnyder was cast in the scene-stealing role of Maggie Jones, part of a Broadway writing team that had her playing opposite fellow UK graduate Michael Sheehy.
The opportunity to play in the high-level production with Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba persuaded Snyder to delay her New York plans.
“To be in a room working on a scene with Karen Ziemba was incredible,” Snyder says. “I never thought I would have such great opportunities so early. We had like four different Equity guests, and each one of them had a different working style, just how they move in the studio, how they learn their lines, how they connect to a scene, how they notate things — I was trying to absorb everything I could from each of those people.”
Lyndy Franklin Smith, who co-directed the show, says, “Watching her step up and share scenes with seasoned Broadway veterans in our production of 42nd Street, with The Lexington Theatre Company, was such a proud moment. Seeing your student leap from the collegiate nest and take flight is something very special.”
The next thing to delay Snyder’s New York move was My Fair Lady director Wesley Nelson’s offer of the role of Eliza, the flower girl who rises to elite British society through the training of an arrogant phoneticist.
“She’s really striving for something more than what she’s come from, which I relate to and is a really powerful stance to come from,” Snyder says of her character in the show, which runs through Jan. 31 at the Grand Reserve. “She started from this lower place, and she wants to climb the ladder, and she’s willing to work for it.”
The big move
It’s not bad preparation for Snyder, who says many people have told her New York is something she just has to go do.
“They say you’ll never feel like you have enough money, you’ll never feel ready talentwise, you’ll never feel like you have the perfect place, … you just have to go,” Snyder says.
Having a growing community of UK theater and music graduates in New York, including Sheehy, is exciting, Snyder says.
And Nelson said she couldn’t be better prepared.
“This is definitely the right time for Rachel to make the leap to New York,” he said. “She has the drive, passion and the talent to make it in this business.”
As she heads off to pursue her professional goals, Snyder says she hopes to have opportunities to return to Lexington and is excited that Lexington Theatre and AthensWest Theatre Company can provide professional acting opportunities here.
And Snyder appreciates that the musical theater certificate at UK and the Lexington Theatre Company developed while she was there and that she was able to benefit from them.
As 42nd Street showed, success in theater often comes when talent meets the right place and right time. Hopefully it’s a combination that will continue to work for Snyder.
If you go
‘My Fair Lady’
What: The classic Lerner and Loewe musical presented for Kentucky Conservatory Theatre’s WinterFest
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 23-24, 28-31. Note: Jan. 21 and 22 performances canceled due to weather. Ticket holders will be contacted about exchanging tickets.
Where: Table prices range from $40 a person to $350 for tables of 10 with dinner, served at 7 p.m. Individual tickets for the show only are $30.