Please Meet Karen Toto-Hockenberry

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We have known Karen for many years – in fact our paths have crossed in many ways from directing to choreographing to performing together in a production or two. She has a ton of energy and keeps herself busy with a lot of interesting stuff. The proud mom of two amazing sons and the wife and co-pilot to an incredible guy – we thought her story would be great for our “Step Into Your Limelight” interview series. It’s always nice to see a person hit their stride several times in life – and Karen definitely fits that bill. Enjoy!

Karen – welcome to the “Step Into Your Limelight” interview series. You always seem to have a positive outlook – What is making you smile these days?

Playing Electra in Gypsy at the Media Theatre and finding out that my name (Karen Toto) is on the Billboard on highway 95 as one of the Burlesque Dancers…what a hoot!

That’s awesome and fun – we have seen it and it is a hoot! You have had such an admirable professional performing career – tell us about some of your fondest memories and productions.

Wow – there are so many it’s difficult to pick…I loved touring with both My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and 42nd Street starring Barry Nelson…in addition to the thrill of performing in those productions I had so many fantastic experiences seeing the country, hanging out with the MOST FUN people, and doing what I loved, all at the same time. I went Hot Air ballooning in California, did aerobatic gliding over the desert in Arizona, and went to the Magic Castle in L.A., just to mention a few. But the epitome was definitely Opening Night of My Fair Lady on Broadway…My Dream come true!

It’s a lot of fun looking at your old pictures from those productions – you can immediately tell you were enjoying every minute and were surrounded by incredible people. You were a bona fide triple threat (singer, dancer and actress) in the business on stage and television – yet you switched gears in life and pursued a career in helping people find their dream homes – what prompted this life change?

John and I wanted to have a business together as we were about to start raising a family and wanted more control and to not have to travel away from home …I always had a great interest in Real Estate so it seemed like a good transition.

Tell us how your experience in the performing arts has contributed to your success as one of the nation’s top rated Realtors? What tools do you find yourself using today that are a result of your arts education and experiences?

Hard work, discipline and great preparation are needed in both …also every time you go on a Listing Presentation it’s similar to auditioning. You need to be totally prepared. So I went from auditioning for Shows to auditioning for Listings!

That’s a lesson we hear a lot – the preparation process of being in a show helps with the preparation of so many other aspects in life – love hearing you make that connection again. Recently you put your toe back in the water and landed a role with Media Theatre’s “Hello Dolly” with Philly’s own Andrea McArdle – how much fun was that?

It was a fantastic experience! Andrea was super nice, very down to earth and we had a super cast! It was a blast!

Was this your first performance in a long time? How nervous were you auditioning?

Yes, I was nervous but since I have a day job, there is much less pressure. I really wanted to do it, but if I didn’t get it I figured there would be another opportunity in the future.

So share with your fellow performers what you did to help you prepare to nail the role? Did you take refresher classes?

I took singing lessons from Bill Mayo at Limelight. That was really helpful as I had not sung in a really long time. I teach Zumba so I do still dance and I workout, so I was not as concerned about my dancing.

So basically back to that “being prepared” thing, huh? What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself during the rehearsals and performances of that production?

The joy of performing never leaves you and I felt the same as I did 30 years ago when I did 42nd Street. The years just melted away.

Does this mean we can expect to see more of you on the stage?

Hopefully, I’m very fortunate to have my husband who can takeover when needed.

What excites you most about performing in front of a live audience?

There is an energy that cannot be duplicated when performing before a live audience. It’s great to hear their responses, their applause, their laughter…there is nothing like it!

Tell us, have you performed your dream role yet?

No, I have not performed my dream role yet… I would love to play Adelaide in Guys & Dolls. (tee-hee)

We hear you have exciting news about a new role you are preparing for. Can you share with us what’s on the horizon for you?

Gypsy rehearsals start Aug 31st. I was asked to be on the Board at the Media Theatre and I have accepted. And continuing to sell lots of homes & find folks their Dream Home. It’s a Busy life!

Wow – I guess you will never slow down – such exciting things ahead of you. Thanks for taking the time to share your story. 

Folks – make sure you get your tickets to see Karen knocking them dead in Gypsy – opens September 23rd at Media Theater!  Congrats and break a leg, Karen – We couldn’t be more proud!

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Pat Shane

Limelight Interviews Pat Shane– We’ve Enjoyed Watching Him Grow!

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Pat Shane is no stranger to Limelight Performing Arts Center. He currently teaches a Youth Theater class at our studio but his roots with us go way back many years at our three-week summer camp, West Chester Summer Stage (WCSS). First he was a performer and more recently as an instructor and camp counselor with WCSS. Pat is keeping himself very busy in the performing community — his words of wisdom and experiences make his advice relevant to many of the young performers in our studio. It’s been such fun watching him grow over the years and the sky is the limit for his future.

What’s new? What are you up to these days?

It’s been a very fun year for me!  At the beginning of 2014, I started an Acting Apprenticeship with the Walnut Street Theatre.  This consisted mostly of a touring production of an educational show that reached almost 80 schools throughout the Philadelphia/New Jersey area.  I was also given the opportunity to understudy in one of their Mainstage productions, Other Desert Cities. Currently, I am a teaching artist with the Walnut Street Theatre, as well as a performer in the Media Theatre’s production of Les Miserables.

How has your theater training helped prepare you for where you are today?

I received my theatre degree from Bucknell University, a liberal arts college not well known for the dramatic arts.  This led to small class sizes and productions.  However, it allowed the faculty to give as much individual attention as needed to each actor.  I looked into the larger conservatories, but there you are practically a small fish in a big pond.  At Bucknell, I was able to nurture my talent in an environment that had the time and resources to challenge me.

What was your favorite role? Where did you perform it?

There is one role that will always have a special place in my heart.  The Fall after I had graduated college, I got the part of Gary Soos: a naive Teach for America student determined to change the educational world (and a lover of puns).  The show was called Awesome Alliteration: The Magical Musical and it was presented as part of the Philly Fringe Arts Festival.  The role was comedic, romantic, passionated, and absolutely cartoonish.  It was a blast to play, and I hope to play it again one day.

How did you prepare for the audition? Can you share some of your tricks?

There are 3 things I do before every audition:
1) If it’s available, read the play.  If you are auditioning for a musical, listen to the music.  Go on YouTube and watch the dancing.  Just like a football player studies film before a game, an actor must prepare.  In some auditions, the director likes to ask you about the character you are auditioning for.  Make sure you have something intelligent to contribute.
2) Find material appropriate to the production.  Don’t use a Shakespeare monologue for a modern play.  Don’t sing a Taylor Swift song for My Fair Lady.  It seem’s like common sense, but casting directors tell stories all the time of inappropriate audition material.  No matter how good you may sound, they will shut you out.
3)  Don’t over-prepare.  Memorize your monologue, perform it a few times in front of a mirror.  Learn your song, and sing through it a few times.  THEN STOP!  Casting directors aren’t looking for a perfectly polished audition piece.  They want to see some naturalism and organic moments throughout the audition.  Also, many directors will give you notes and have you sing or act again.  Make sure you are flexible enough in your approach that you are able to change it to what the directors say.

Are you still performing today?

Yes, I am, and I’m very lucky to be doing so!

True or False: Regardless of how well you prepared for a role — you still get nervous before walking out on stage.

100% true!  The nerves spawn from an excitement to do well, an excitement for the audience to enjoy it, and an excitement to share the experience with my fellow actors.

How do you prepare for a role? What is your approach to getting inside of a character?

While many actors like to work on their own, I think that character development is a team effort.  Sure, I’ll have many ideas on what the character should be, but I believe the input of the director, choreographer, and the playwright play an important role.  As for getting into character, I try my best to take on their point of view.  Why do they act the way they do?  If there aren’t clues in the text, does my backstory make sense?  Do I need to make up a backstory to give him more depth?  I very rarely have a grasp on my character until the middle of the rehearsal process.

What was the funniest thing that ever happened to you onstage?

Oh boy, this is also my most embarrassing.  I believe in the Macbeth curse…

I was performing in Macbeth during the summer in between my Sophomore and Junior year at college.  One the roles that I played was Banquo’s Murderer.  During Banquo’s death scene, as I approached him with my ax, I felt the elastic in the waistband of my pants give out.  So there I was, ax in one hand, and holding my pants up with the other.  I had to finish the murder like this and pray to God that no one in the audience caught glimpse of the Simpsons boxers I had on underneath…

Tell us about a role you really wanted but didn’t get — what did you learn from the process?

A specific role doesn’t come to mind, but I’m always disappointed when I don’t get the role I auditioned for, even when I’m not right for it! The biggest thing I’ve learned is that just because you didn’t book the part doesn’t mean you aren’t talented. There are so many factors that contribute to the casting process, and as long as you are willing to keep trying, you will find success.

How do you handle rejection?

It takes time, reassurance, and hanging out with friends and family.

Tell us about any special training you have.

I spent one summer training with the San Francisco Mime Troupe located in the Mission district of San Francisco.  The training consisted of commedia dell’Arte and physical theatre. In layman’s terms, it was clowning! The troupe specializes in satirical political theatre with emphasis on parody and clowning. I learned that even the most mundane activity can have comedic effects when done at extreme levels. It was a fun and challenging summer!

What excites you most about being in front of a live audience?

Interestingly enough, for me, I love the control. When I’m speaking or singing on stage, I sometimes become fully aware that I have the power to control the emotions of the audience. Their enjoyment rests solely on my performance, and that’s such a rush for me!

Which do you prefer most: plays or musicals? Why?

I prefer to act in plays, but would rather watch a musical! I’m not the best dancer, so musicals always impress me more than straight plays.

Which do you prefer most: Sinking your teeth into a gritty dramatic role or an outrageously funny role? Why?

Comedy will always trump drama for me. I would rather make someone laugh then cry (I think that’s a good life motto too!)

Who is your favorite playwright?

David Mamet — love all of his works!

Who is your favorite lyricist and composer?

Stephen Schwartz! Godspell, Pippin, Wicked…you can’t go wrong.

Tell us about your dream role.

Like any male in their 20s these days, I would love to be in The Book of Mormon! The musical is funny, endearing, and jaw-dropping at moments. I think performing in that show every night and seeing audience reactions would fuel any artistic spirit.

Have you ever considered directing  does that interest you?

No! I tried directing in college, and all I wanted was to be up on the stage!

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