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Home > Arts > INTERVIEW: After the Mermaid – A Conversation with Caroline Innerbichler

INTERVIEW: After the Mermaid – A Conversation with Caroline Innerbichler

Caroline Innerbichler (Ariel) examines Tyler Michaels (Prince Eric) in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ 2014 production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

The Ordway’s self-produced production of the classic musical The Sound of Music opens on Saturday. One of the leads in this production is Caroline Innerbichler, a dazzling local actress who recently appeared as Ariel in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ The Little Mermaid and the Ordway’s Pirates of Penzance. Caroline sat down with The Twin Cities Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine to discuss playing Liesel von Trapp and her career in musical theatre.

The last time we spoke, you were still doing physical therapy after suffering a broken ankle during The Little Mermaid. When I saw you onstage in Pirates of Penzance, however, I would never have guessed that you’d ever had the slightest impairment. How are you feeling about things?

It was an amazingly quick recovery. [The accident] came at just the exact wrong time… The bummer was not being able to finish up the run [of The Little Mermaid], but I was able to heal faster than expected.

[Because of the accident] I didn’t get the opportunity to audition for work in theatre for a couple months, but that all changed when I got an offer to do The Broadway Songbook – the Rock and Roll Songbook. My first full stage production after that was Pirates of Penzance…it was a solid year [between full shows]. I was itching to get back on stage!

Looking at your resume, you tend to work in clusters with certain directors. You’ve worked with Peter Rothstein on a number of shows, then a couple shows with Michael Brindisi at Chanhassen, and now continuing with a couple installments at the Ordway… How does that work? Do you just do one audition and ace it for all the shows that they’re looking to cast?

It’s interesting. Working in a smaller theatre city [compared to New York City, Chicago, or LA], once a director finds somebody that they know that they can work with well and fits a certain character type… Putting myself in their shoes, I’d think, “Oh, yeah, I know she’s good at doing this and she’s great with this.”

Anytime you want to work with a project with anyone, no matter your line of work, if you can say, “I know you. I know how you work, we can communicate… [and] she gets the job done…” It just happens that way.

I’m sorry, I’ll have to edit that part out. Years of television and film have convinced me that all stage actresses are drama queens and terrible to work with. I just don’t think our readers will believe that. 

[Laughs] I know, right? We’re all terrible, terrible messes, aren’t we?

Luckily for me, it’s a rarity here. I’ve worked with people who’ve worked in New York, and…you just can’t have too much of an attitude. The people who work consistently, more often than not, work because they’re easy to work with and they’re good at what they do.

Theatre’s such a communal sport that you have to be able to work together. There are so many people that you’re competing with for jobs, so why would you want? Besides, we have the best job on the planet!

You’re proud member of Actors’ Equity, correct?

Yes, I am!

In the greater Twin Cities area, there’s a much smaller collection of Equity theatres than in theatre markets like NYC, LA, or Chicago. Do you find this limiting in some way?

This could explain those brackets of working at a certain theatre for a while. Those are all houses that do present consistent wages, opportunities, and contracts that I can make a living at – especially at Chanhassen, where you have really long-running gigs.

What I’ve found is that there’s more [well-paying jobs] than you might think. There’s always 2-3 musicals going on that have Equity contracts. Like everything else, though, you have to go out and hustle and present yourself. You might think, “Oh, they know me,” but no – I’m going to show up! Make people remember you, because otherwise they’ll get into grooves where they just hire the same people again and again.

The other part of the answer is, “Oh, it’s all luck.” There have been seasons where I look at the whole Twin Cities area and think, “There is nothing for me, personally, right now,” so I have a day job and I need to keep auditioning. That’s an opportunity for me to buckle down and think, “Okay, how can I reinvent my audition book? What can I work? Let’s get some new monologues and take some dance classes and try to make some money in the meantime.”

What is on your audition monologue list right now? 

I have some friends of mine that are so good at picking out monologues for things; I’m personally better with picking out songs. I’ve had a Juliet monologue since I turned 18; I’ve got a Cressida [monologue] from last spring that I really ended up loving…

It’s always a challenge to find a good contemporary piece that doesn’t have a ton of swearing, that tells a good story, and that has an arc to it.

What is on your audition song list, and have you done any auditions trotting out your ukelele?

I haven’t been asked to play the ukelele in an audition yet, but I’m kind of itching for it…I really want to!  [Laughs] That’s a hobby that nowadays is quite useful in theatre because of all the shows with everyone playing their own instruments. Here in the Twin Cities, there was that Our Town [by Latté Da] where everyone played their own instruments, and Sweeney Todd on Broadway… None yet, but I would love it!

Sometimes, it’s challenging to fit something that fits the role you’re going for, because they’ll sometimes say, “Don’t sing from the show.” If they do allow you to sing the show, though, I’m not going waste any time and go right to it, to present, “This is how I sing this.”

I sang a lot from The Fantasticks because it’s a good, high soprano sound for me. There’re a lot of pop-rock shows in contemporary Broadway shows recently – not the Disney shows, because that’s more classical – so I’ll go ahead and shop from different music artists that I listen to. I sing a lot of Kelly Clarkson since she sits in my range. When I was living in New York, I’d go in [to auditions] and sing a lot of Avril Lavigne and Tori Amos. You always want to pick something that no one else is doing a lot of…

You sing the stuff that you love, but it’s hard to find stuff that’s not overdone. It’s not so much, “What material and how good are they at picking it out?” as “Does this person love what they do and are they good at it?”

What was the educational and professional arc that led you to where you are in the Twin Cities?

A page of Session Weekly showing Caroline Innerbichler addressing the Minnesota House of Representatives in support of the Children's Theatre Company expansion in 2002.
A 2002 page of Session Weekly showing Caroline Innerbichler addressing the Minnesota House of Representatives in support of the Children’s Theatre Company.

I grew up in Eagen; my parents raised me on musical soundtracks. [This was] not just Disney musicals, although we’re certainly all raised in that… I’d listen to a musical and just love it. Then my parents gave me what is still probably my favorite soundtrack, Les Miserable, with the 2-CD set, and I’d reenact the scenes with my Barbies and my sister. We only had one Ken doll, though, so he was super busy all the time. (Poor guy!)

Then I auditioned for a community theatre production of Annie when I was 10. My parents were, like, “Want to give that a try,” and I said, “Why not!” I got in and was in the orphan chorus…and I got into trouble on opening night. The choreographer noticed that I was grinning from ear to ear in “It’s a hard-knock life,” and they were like, “You’re supposed to be angry. Stay in character.” I was just having so much fun, I had to bite the insides of my cheeks so I wouldn’t smile.”

After I did that, the bug totally bit me. I decided this was what I wanted to do and auditioned for my first professional production, Pippi Longstocking, in 2001 at the Children’s Theatre Company. That began a huge educational chunk of my life.

I was fortunate to have a parent who could take me to classes and the shows that I was booking. I was trained in the Theatre Arts Training program there since I was about 12. I worked with Matthew Howe, who directed to Pippi Longstocking, who was a brilliant triple-threat director who was the director, choreographer, and music director for just about all the productions he did while he was there [at CTC]… I think this taught me a lot about how everything melds together. You can’t just be a great singer, a great actor, or dancer…you have to use all three skills and intertwine them.

When I started their teen intensive program, it changed my life. I had really amazing theatre training at my high school; there’s nothing quite like working with your peer group and getting to create. Theatre’s really about community, and getting to do that at my high school and really dig deeper with my classes [at CTC] with a bunch of different kids who all said, “I’m going to spend my time on this and work really hard…”

Matthew [Howe] never went easy on us. He would ask, “Do you want people to say, ‘Look at that student actor, she’s cute?’ or ‘Isn’t it great that they’re doing this?’, or to say ‘What a great actor!’ Which would you rather have?” I want to play a character and to be taken seriously.

After my high school program, I decided to audition for the Guthrie’s BFA-Acting program, since I had an older friend who was just about to start his senior year there. I had always loved reading Shakespeare and I loved seeing it…I auditioned for the program and got in.

Like the majority of kids in college, I went right from high school to college with just a few months in-between. I discovered that it was so overwhelming for me – I didn’t know how to manage my time well enough, and I was never a really good student. The regular school system wasn’t for me, and thank goodness for all of my amazingly patient teachers throughout my education (I have ADHD). Thank goodness for the arts classes that I had in my public school. If it hadn’t been for Choir, if it hadn’t been for afterschool theatre, if it hadn’t been for Speech…I would have had such a hard time even motivating myself to go.

I also found that, once it came down to balancing a liberal arts degree along with the very rigorous schedule for these acting classes (which included so much homework on the side, added rehearsals, tons of stuff to memorize…), I was just overwhelmed. I was an 18-year-old kid.

Everyone across the board was saying, “Caroline’s unfocused,” but my movement professor, Marcela Lorca, was saying, “Caroline’s spot-on and where she needs to be.” I realized that this was because she was playing music [in class].

Maybe if I was some sort of robot child who had learned to beat the school system, get all the stuff done, and still had energy to do what I loved, maybe I could have stayed or picked up a music minor, but it didn’t work out. I was [also] actually getting offers from other theatres. The Children’s Theatre was doing a production of High School Musical that my voice teacher was music directing. He said, “Hey, they’re doing this this summer…” and I thought it was perfect – I’d do the show and go back to school…and then I did some soul-searching.

It’d been a year since I’d been onstage. From the age of 11 to 18, I’d been going from show to show to show, sometimes doubling up, and I realized how much I missed it…and decided to drop out of the program. It was the hardest decision that I think I’ve ever made, but I had people saying, “Caroline, you know what? You’re going to work right now.”

Everyone has their type. I have some friends from the program who are only now getting consistent good work because they [finally] look older and can play the mom or dad role, or someone in their 30s. I have a very baby face and I’m petite, so I’ve always played younger, and realized [they were right].

All of a sudden I started working with Peter Rothstein. He directed me in High School Musical and asked me to audition for his other projects. I [then] did Parade with him, which was amazing…I loved working with him, so that turned into [doing] another project. Then I went into a call at the Guthrie during [what would have been] my sophomore year.

Was that Little House on the Prairie?

Yes. It was a big open call – they said “girls aged 9 to 19” so I slipped right in. They were doing a workshop with Francesca Zambello [director of Glimmerglass Opera] and she wanted to use local actors, but they also brought in Melissa Gilbert, who played Ma on the tour and Laura Ingalls on the TV show for all those years. She came in and did the reading with us, and I got selected to play Nellie Olson – the terror, and Laura’s nemesis. Rachel Portman and Donna di Novelli wrote such beautiful music – absolutely stunning, like an Aaron Copland score, with a big, sweeping prairie sound.

They did the reading, and then decided to go with people that Francesca was comfortable with for New York – but they had me understudy Nellie, so I got into the ensemble. I was like one of the mean girls of the prairie.

All during that production there was talk about taking it on tour, but I thought they would go with someone from New York. Then there were some shows in the Twin Cities, and I was offered my union card…and actually turned it down [that time]. That was also one of the most difficult decisions of my life, but I was getting work, and deferred that decision until I was asked to go on the [Little House on the Prairie] tour about a year later.

I turned 21 the first week of rehearsals for the tour. I was living in Millburn [New York], in my own apartment, for the first time ever. In college, I was just 20 minutes away from home, and now [all of a sudden] I was a big kid – taking the train into the city, rehearsing in Times Square. I look back on that and think, “How did I not realize how insane that was?” I was a 21-year-old kid going into rehearsals [for a national tour]. It was amazing – it was a 10-month tour, and I count it as my college. I got to work with veteran Broadway actors, and met one of the original Les Mis Broadway company members, which blew my mind.

[I also got to work] with other people my own age, too, who’d freshly gotten out of their own college programs. That made me think, “Maybe it’s okay to do it differently,” which made me feel a lot better [about leaving the Guthrie BA-Acting program]. I was encouraged by many people in the company to move to New York after the tour, and said, “Let’s do it.” In August of that summer, I moved to New York and started auditioning.

Basil Considine