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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Elise Kinnon of 'Half a Sixpence'

The dream of performing on Broadway does not belong only to the youth of America. It stirs in the hearts of young people thousands of miles away, across oceans. Like Elise Kinnon, who grew up in Brisbane, Australia. "Since I was very young, I always had aspirations to move to America to do the Broadway thing," she says. When Kinnon was 15, she traveled to the U.S. with her dance studio's Starz Production Team to perform in NYC, Orlando and Las Vegas. While in New York, she saw her first Broadway shows, Rent and Fosse. "I was like, 'This is what I have to do. I'm going to move to New York and I'm going to make it work somehow.'"

Kinnon, who's currently performing in Half a Sixpence at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut, hasn't yet made it to Broadway, though she's been called back several times for Jersey Boys and, earlier, Tarzan. She's been living in New York since March 2005 and building up regional and tour credits. Half a Sixpence, which runs through Sept. 19, is her second consecutive show at the Tony-winning Goodspeed, following the extended run of Happy Days: A New Musical. She's done bus-and-truck tours of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Mame, and was seen in Smokey Joe's Café at the Broadway Palm theater in Fort Myers, Fla., and the 2006 Christmas show at Fireside in southern Wisconsin.

She has also worked in Asia, but not in Australia. "I would love to perform on my home turf, so that my family could see me." Her brother, Stuart, is a business student in Brisbane, and her eldest sister, Leah--who sings in a band--lives there with her husband and baby daughter (another sister, Amy, resides in Canada). Kinnon describes the musical theater biz Down Under: "It's on an extremely smaller scale, and it's very clique-y. If you went to certain schools, it's a big clique over there. The same people work nonstop, and other people who have been trying to break into the business for years can't get a job."

Shortly before Kinnon left her native country, she was invited to train with both the Brent Street dance company and ED5 dance school--which probably would have secured her future in Australian musical theater. "From that, you meet a lot of people in the industry," she explains, "and your teachers are the people that are auditioning you and choreographing the musicals. So I would have done that, to get my networking, and then I would have done musical theater in Australia." That would have put her in the "clique"? "Yes, from doing those companies." Instead, at age 18, she went to Osaka to entertain at Universal Studios Japan. For 13 months and as many as six shows a day, she was part of the dancing ghoul duo Hip and Hop in the "Universal Monsters Live Rock and Roll Show."

Commence culture shock. Or perhaps more accurately, geography shock. "Where we live in Australia is on acreage, in the outback," Kinnon says. "We literally have koalas and kangaroos in our backyard--and a lake and dam where ducks would breed. I was used to space and quiet, and then I go to Osaka, which is extremely industrial, with noise and hundreds of thousands of people packed into apartment blocks."

Further adjustments were in store when she moved to New York. First, there was "the sheer amount of people." Then there's the way those people conduct themselves. "Everyone's in a hurry!" Kinnon says. "Aussies are incredibly laid-back. When you order a coffee, the guy behind the register's like, 'And how's your day been?' and la-la-la, he wants to have a conversation. The first time I came to New York and I ordered a coffee: 'May I please have this...' [Imitating rushed customers and staff] 'What?!...Bleh!...Out of the way!' I was dumbfounded."

Kinnon moved to New York following her Japan gig with her mother, who'd been transferred in her job with a transnational education network. She didn't have to deal with any green card/visa issues since she was under 21 and thus a dependent. "I pretty much hit the ground running and just started auditioning. In Japan, three quarters of the people I worked with were Americans, so I had met heaps of great people that kind of taught me the ropes."

There were some details they overlooked. "The whole stapling headshots and résumés back to back--that's not what we do back home," Kinnon says, noting the Australian method of attaching them both face-up with one staple, as you might with a report. Furthermore, "I didn't realize that people often dress up for their auditions: [For example,] if they're auditioning for The Wedding Singer, they'll go in 1980s-style clothes and tease their hair." She had figured it out by the time she actually auditioned for Wedding Singer, but for another show that was her first singing audition, "I wore jeans and joggers--sneakers--and, like, a blazer. I had no idea that girls wore beautiful shoes and pretty dresses."

Her U.S. debut occurred in August 2005, at Long Island's Gateway Playhouse. She played Susan and understudied Georgie in The Full Monty. Soon after, she was offered three jobs at the same time: another regional production and two tours. She chose to do the Mame tour because she had a featured role, Agnes Gooch. The Millie tour was in 2006, and she spent the second half of 2007 on a 42nd Street tour in China. It was yet another learning--or "character-building," as Kinnon calls it--experience. "Touring through China, sometimes on a bus, with the traffic and the pollution, and weaving in and out of traffic, and people on bicycles with their kid in one arm and their husband in front of them... We were scared for our life sometimes."

Of course there were a lot of positives too: "I climbed the Great Wall of China, I met some wonderful friends on the tour." She even got to spend time in Shanghai with a friend from Australia, who was there choreographing performances for the Special Olympics World Summer Games. Shanghai turned out to be her favorite place in China: "lots of great shopping, and we found some really good places to eat." Dining in Asia could be a challenge for Kinnon, a vegetarian. "I learned very quickly in Japan and China how to say 'I don't eat meat,'" she says, then demonstrates for me in Japanese.

While she was living in Japan, Kinnon did a lot of traveling. "I caught the Shinkansen, which is the bullet train, from Osaka to Tokyo. Visited friends of mine that were working at Tokyo Disney. [I went to] Kyoto, where a lot of the temples are, and Nara. Hiroshima was pretty incredible, seeing the Peace Museum and the thousand cranes. I was just immersing myself in the culture. A lot of people who go over find it very frustrating: We can't speak the language, we can't get a big meal--because all their portions are so small. I just decided that I was going to go over there and live like the Japanese. I went and prayed with the Buddhas, and I saw the deer, and went to the hot springs. It was such a great experience."

Here in America, she's seen the country while touring with shows. "I love San Diego and Santa Barbara," she says. "I find that they're similar to Australia: the beaches, the laid-back lifestyle." Kinnon hasn't had to take any dialect classes so she can speak (and audition) with an American accent--she's been able to learn by herself. "We saw a lot of American movies and TV channels when I was growing up, so I feel like it's something that's not difficult."

When she was back in Australia last December for the first time since she moved, her friends and relatives said she sounded like an American in her everyday speech. Over here, it's a different story. It's only natural for her to use Aussie slang. "Every time I start with a new show," she says, "I have to explain myself: 'No, no, no, I mean this afternoon.' 'Cause I'll say 'this arvo.' I'll say something like 'Can I have my sunnies?'--sunglasses--or 'You want to get some brekkie?...I mean breakfast.'" Dancer jargon required some translating too. For instance, tap dancing's pull backs are called grab-offs in Australia, and the steps we call flaps were "hit springs" to Kinnon. And she hadn't the slightest idea what to do when asked at the 42nd Street audition to perform a Maxie Ford, a States-only name for a common tap dance sequence.

From the age of 10, Kinnon trained in tap, ballet and other styles at Conroy Dance Centre, Brisbane's largest dance school. Sports had been her family's favored activity, but "I just always bugged my mum: 'I want to dance, I want to dance, I want to dance,'" she says. "For years, that was my life--and I'm so grateful for it, because when other kids were in high school getting into mischief, I had that discipline and training," she continues. "They [Conroy] gave me a really good hard-work mentality." Kinnon still stays in touch with her dance teachers, and one of the school's directors came over to see her in The Full Monty.

For secondary school, Kinnon attended a dance-oriented "school of excellence"--similar to a magnet school in the U.S.--at Brisbane's Kelvin Grove State College. The curriculum included dance lessons at nearby Queensland University of Technology. She capped off her high school years with the lead role of Roxie Hart in the school production of Chicago. After graduating, she took the classes at her studio-affiliated Conroy Performing Arts College that were needed to earn a Commonwealth Society of Teachers for Dancing (CSTD) certification.

While Kinnon is establishing her career in the States, it's important to her to maintain close ties with her homeland. "I hope that me being over here can encourage other Australians to see that it is doable," she says. "It can seem so impossible to come over here and work, with the caliber of American performers, to be up to their standard." She's been writing a how-to book for Australians and other foreigners who want to come to U.S. to go into show business.

A poet and avid reader, Kinnon says she'd also like to write a biography of her grandmother, who lost her mother at a very young age, was subsequently sent to a Catholic boarding school with strict discipline ("nuns would lock her in the cupboard") and has, says her granddaughter, lived "an interesting life." Musing on the origins of her passion for performing, Kinnon says: "My grandmother was still tap dancing when she was 80 years old, and she was part of an amateur theater group." During their telephone calls, Kinnon sings tunes from the shows she's in to her grandmother.

"She is my biggest fan," Kinnon says. "When I was working in Japan, my 86-year-old Nana flew by herself to Osaka to see the production. She would just kill to get over and see me in a production here, but it's a long way for her. She'll ask me how my interviews are going--she calls them 'interviews' instead of auditions. I've got an envelope of photos I'm about to send to her from Happy Days and Half a Sixpence. She loves the costumes, and she loves hearing all the show gossip: 'Tell me the goss, Elisie!'"

Kinnon has also gotten a lot of support from her mother, with whom she still lives. "Even though she was a single mum, she was always giving us the opportunities to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives," says Kinnon, whose parents divorced when she was 3. "She encouraged me to keep striving for it." When Kinnon was growing up, "we'd often go see theater, and my mum always made it a point for us to meet the actors after the show," she recounts. "At the stage door, when I was 8 years old, I was awestruck to shake their hand and have a photo with them. To me, that has set such a good example, because at Goodspeed they'll do the talkbacks after the show some nights and I want to do it because I'm thinking about maybe some other young child who's passionate and gets to meet an actor and learn about it." She also recalls: "I was always very inspired by Anthony Warlow, who's probably one of Australia's best performers. I saw him play Daddy Warbucks in Annie when I was younger, and I was just in awe."

As she works her way toward Broadway, Kinnon is also trying to break into film and TV. She has taken soap-opera and commercial acting classes and has auditioned for a television pilot and some commercials. She cleared one hurdle--getting an agent--early in her stage career, almost by accident. "I had auditioned for [a regional production of] Nunsense," says Kinnon, "and the casting director, Carol Hanzel, called me the next day and said, 'You didn't book the job, but I want to help you out.' And she phoned [talent agents] Dulcina Eisen Associates and recommended me to them."

When Kinnon did Happy Days (based on the '70s TV hit and written by the series' creator Garry Marshall) at Goodspeed earlier this year, she received her Equity card. She also got her first taste of being a swing. "I had a couple of friends in Australia who've swung a lot of shows and they gave me a lot of good hints, about doing up index cards and cheat sheets," she says. "The first day of rehearsals, I had no idea how I was going to learn everyone's track--in the opening, every couple was doing something different. But I figured it out and I went on the first week of previews." She went on frequently throughout the run, including every performance in the final week. During that time, she was also rehearsing Half a Sixpence every day. There wasn't supposed to be any overlap, but the Happy Days run had been extended and Kinnon was asked to take over for someone who'd dropped out of Sixpence. She may be back with Fonz and the gang later this year, as Happy Days is slated for a national tour (casting has yet to be announced).

Kinnon loves doing period pieces, and with the two shows at Goodspeed she's time-traveled to the 1950s Midwest and then the English seaside circa 1900. In Half a Sixpence, where her roles include a shopgirl in Shalford's Emporium, she most enjoys the first-act number "Money to Burn." "It's a challenge, being thrown around and doing jump splits and playing with banjos and mugs and spinning on stools, and all of the percussion-y stuff," she says. To watch an excerpt from the number on video, click here; Kinnon's the blonde wearing a vest.

Photos of Elise, from top: hoofing with Half a Sixpence star Jon Peterson; in NYC's Bryant Park on a recent day off; dressed for "We're in the Money" in 42nd Street; as the Shimmy Girl in Smokey Joe's Café; with her grandmother, Marion, in Australia in 2005; as a '50s teen in Happy Days, with Leah Sprecher (left) as Mrs. C. [Half a Sixpence photo by Diane Sobolewski]

*** Read about another Half a Sixpence cast member here. ***

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Adrienne Onofri has been writing for BroadwayWorld since it was launched in 2003. She is a member of the Drama Desk and has moderated panels (read more...)

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