In December 2017, Catie Zaleski resolved to stop delaying her dreams and started acting. A little more than a year and four plays later, it’s clear she made the right choice.
“When I’m acting I feel like my best self,” Zaleski says. “When you’re passionate about something, you could work on it all day and night, money or no money, and feel like you did something worthwhile. I love all the processes of acting, but some of my favorite moments the audience doesn’t get to see. Behind the scenes, actors work so hard to create and honor characters.”
Zaleski, 24, didn’t do theater in high school or college, but she competed in interpretive speech at both educational levels, which she credits as pivotal to her development as an actor.
“I love acting and I’d always wanted to act,” says Zaleski, who has a degree in international studies with a minor in women’s and gender studies from UNO. “I think the speech world is where my acting skill base comes from.”
Zaleski had done a short film, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and some local web series projects prior to securing her first theatrical role in Kim Louise’s Umurage, part of The Union for Contemporary Art’s February 2018 Centering the Margins series.
“I feel very lucky that was my first experience with theater,” she says. “Being at The Union and working with [director] Denise [Chapman]…she considers the whole person within the process with the culture she creates, like keeping you safe as an actor when doing emotionally taxing work. Theater isn’t therapy; it can be cathartic but it’s not therapy. The whole experience was very affirming of who I am as a person and an actor, but also still challenged and pushed me. I got to be with all black actors, which is rare for black actors. I feel like I am the person I am today because of that experience.”
Next up was The Mountaintop at Omaha Community Playhouse, where Zaleski worked with Chapman at the helm again.
“That was an amazing experience. I got to push myself and expand my range as an actor. We were very vulnerable in that process. It’s politically charged and says things a lot of people might not want to hear,” she says. “I also got to see the leadership of the Playhouse—people like [artistic director] Kimberly [Faith Hickman] who are working to make it a more inclusive space…it was great to see change being made there.”
Next, Zaleski did some stage readings at the 2018 Great Plains Theater Conference, which further exposed her to Omaha’s thriving theater community, followed by a starring role as Agnes in the Playhouse’s She Kills Monsters.
“The [roles] I’d gotten so far, I kind of thought, were for black actors and that might be the only things I’d get cast in,” Zaleski says. “A lot of times when people read scripts and there’s no race assigned, the default is white. And then when I got [the part] and my sister in the show was white—I liked [director] Beth Thompson from the jump. Again, the Playhouse is doing things that make people think, and pushing people’s ideas of family and how people interact in the real world is cool. Working with Beth was amazing.”
With the larger cast, Zaleski says she really felt the sense of community and also enjoyed getting to do stage combat and dig into the physicality of a role.
“I’m in the moment, but I’m also always thinking, ‘What can I take from this experience that will help me grow in the future?’” she says.
Late in 2018, Zaleski performed in Alyson Mead’s The Flora and Fauna, which the playwright offered royalty-free for a brief period with proceeds going to the #MeToo movement.
“It was awesome being surrounded by 20-some other women, and the script is so beautiful and hard and hopeful,” Zaleski says. “I found another community of women there. I’m constantly floored by the people in Omaha’s creative community.”
While Zaleski hopes to focus more on film work in the future, she’s incredibly grateful for her theater experiences. Regardless of the platform, Zaleski says she’s drawn to roles with complexity and projects that eliminate tired tropes attached to race, gender, class, and sexuality.
“I like characters and stories that push people’s ideas of life and humanity, and that show the complexities and nuances of life that we often forget about or are not shown,” she says.
Zaleski is thankful for the professional highs 2018 showed her, but also realizes she has been preparing for these moments.
“I’ve learned you have to be ready for moments, and you don’t always get to choose them…opportunities arise and you have to be ready to go,” she says. “I feel so lucky, thankful, and motivated to do more. My mindset is ‘keep going’ and whatever space you’re in, make sure you give it everything. I want to honor stories out there that need to be told—or maybe they have been told, but need to be told in a different way. I want to make sure that I’m constantly growing and being pushed outside of my comfort zone.”
This article was printed in the March/April edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.