When she was a Ball State theater student, Laura Sportiello said, going to the rehearsal room felt like “a total escape” from the “crazy whirlwind of classes, and studying and getting papers done.”
Now, the 2015 Ball State musical theater alumna is living her dream as a Chicago-based actor as an ensemble member in “Sunset Boulevard,” a musical produced by the Porchlight Musical Theatre.
“The training I received at [Ball State] was such an incredible phase for me to move forward as a professional actor in Chicago,” Sportiello said. “The Department [of Theatre and Dance] created such an amazing place for young actors to train and grow.”
Based off the 1950 movie of the same name, “Sunset Boulevard” follows film actress Norma Desmond, portrayed by Hollis Resnik in Porchlight’s rendition, as she grapples with aging in the theater industry.
“[Resnik] is a beautiful, iconic Chicago legend of an actress,” Sportiello said. “Watching her for the first time [is] certainly a rehearsal highlight.”
In addition to being an ensemble member, Sportiello is the understudy for the role of Betty Schaefer, an aspiring screenwriter in the musical.
After seeing Sportiello perform as Betty Shaefer when the actress was sick, Christopher Pazdernik, assistant director of “Sunset Boulevard,” said it is comforting to know Sportiello can perform if necessary.
“Laura swooped in and was so prepared and really did a delightful job,” Pazdernik said. “Laura is terrific … she just nails the movements, speech and sensibility of someone from that time period.”
Christie Zimmerman, associate professor of dance and Sportiello’s former dance professor at Ball State, said she was not surprised when Sportiello told her about her roles in “Sunset Boulevard” at an alumni event.
“When Laura was a student here [at Ball State], she approached her work with this very interesting balance of seriousness and joy,” Zimmerman said. “She always stepped into a place prepared and was willing to try different things and grow as an actress.”
Compared to her theater experiences in high school and college, Sportiello said, professional rehearsals are “fast and furious” as actors are expected to have all their lines memorized within the first week of rehearsals.
“That [first week] kind of felt like a bit of a boot camp week,” Sportiello said. “It was cool to see everybody come in and unapologetically make the show come to life.”
Pazdernik said many actors in the show were unfamiliar with the musical’s story before auditioning.
“The first rehearsals were really just learning the lines and the notes, so there’s not a whole lot of interpretation that happens,” Pazdernik said. “Then, after knowing [the story] so well, [the actors] have learned that they’re adding their own interpretation to it.”
With a cast consisting of actors who have performed for more than 40 years to those just beginning their professional theater careers, Sportiello said being in “Sunset Boulevard” has allowed her to make new friends while offering a new perspective on classic musicals.
“It’s given me another opportunity to really take ownership of an ensemble role,” Sportiello said. “You can make an ensemble role just as enjoyable and impactful as a lead if you put the work into it.”
During preview performances, which took place Oct. 10-14, Pazdernik said the cast and crew were fixing and improving the show’s costumes, set constructions, prop handling and blocking.
“I always describe rehearsals as minor challenges one right after another,” Pazdernik said. “What makes every production unique is different people will solve those [challenges] differently.”
Pazdernik said one of the most difficult challenges that “Sunset Boulevard” presented was properly scaling down large, cinematic elements of the original movie.
“Coming up with a design that keeps it all clear for the audience in a 200-seat house, you have to appropriately scale the action down for the set and the venue we’re working with but still keep that majesty that is inherent in the material,” Pazdernik said.
Opening night for “Sunset Boulevard” was Oct. 1, which Sportiello said she enjoyed because the audience was full of friends and family.
“There is a sense of an exhale on opening night versus previews because we know from now on, things aren’t going to change,” Sportiello said.
Pazdernik said opening nights make him nervous, but now that “Sunset Boulevard” had a successful opening, he can relax.
“I’m always a bundle of nerves, which doesn’t mean I think anything’s going to go wrong,” Pazdernik said, “I’m just so anxious for everything to go right.”
After “Sunset Boulevard,” Sportiello and Pazdernik said they will be working together again on “Wonder Women,” a show for the Chicago Music Theater Festival happening this winter.
“Laura is extraordinary,” Pazdernik said. “I think she’s going to be a huge star one day, and you heard it here first.”