Interview: Theatre Life with Nora Palka

The superbly talented performer on returning to Signature Theatre for their current staging of Hair and more.

By: May. 02, 2024
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Interview: Theatre Life with Nora Palka
Nora Palka

Today’s subject Nora Palka is currently living her theatre life at Signature Theatre playing Jeanie in their current production of Hair. The production runs through July seventh in the MAX.

Hair is a homecoming for Nora to be sure. She grew up in the DC area and as you will read, credits Signature with her wanting to become a professional performer.

At Signature, Nora has previously performed in Girlstar, Gypsy, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Other area credits include Orphie and The Book of Heroes and Elephant and Piggie: We Are In a Play at Kennedy Center, On Air at Creative Cauldron which garnered her a Helen Hayes Award for Best Leading Performer in a Musical, and Back to Methuselah and Pygmalion at Washington Stage Guild. Other area stage credits include productions at Keegan Theatre, Studio Theatre’s 2nd Stage and Open Circle Theatre Company.

Since moving to NYC, she now teaches voice at the studio that bears her name.

If Nora’s last name sounds familiar to you, it’s because her mom Sue Palka was a DC television weather fixture for 36 years. Obviously, talent runs in the family.

Nora Palka is an immensely talented performer whose love for her craft shows in every performance. She is a local talent that continues to enchant every time she hits the stage.

Please consider getting your natural high on by grabbing some tickets to Hair at Signature Theatre. Matthew Gardiner’s vision will not disappoint and with company members like Nora Palka on stage, what other incentive could you possibly need to attend?

Was there a particular show that you saw as a child that was the determining factor for you wanting to become a performer?

I grew up fully immersed in the DC theatre scene.  My parents saw at an early age my knack for singing, musicality and performing and almost left me no choice but to fall in love with the art form. However, I can say confidently that Signature Theatre’s 2000 production of Sweeney Todd and the 2005 production of Urinetown in fact were both, among many others, memorable theatre experiences that made me catch the theatre bug. Also, seeing Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002 on Broadway at the tender and impressionable age of 12 left a lasting impact for the type of performer I wanted to strive to be.

Where did you receive your training?

Starting when I was young, my parents had me enroll in various theatre programs. Musical theatre center (now Adventure Theatre MTC) theatre camps, summers at Shakespeare school in Canada, plus voice lessons from an early age all led me to studying musical theatre at Catholic, under the late, great, Jane Pesci-Townsend. I also spent a semester abroad studying acting in London at London Dramatic Academy. The academy itself has closed, but I learned technique there that I feel was paramount to my growth. I’ve maintained studying voice throughout my life with several different teachers. Joan Kaplon, Fleta Hylton, Rochelle Fleming, Matt Farnsworth, Dan Thaler and now Joey Harrell of BroadwayVox studios. I owe all of them so much credit for the training of my voice and technique.

Interview: Theatre Life with Nora Palka
Two photos from Nora's early performing career.
L- Songs from a New World at Open Circle Theatre.
L-R Barbara Catrett, Ashley Ivey, Rob McQuay, Pauline Spanbauer, and Jan Johns.
Photo by Ian Armstrong.
R- Nora Palka and Paul Scanlan in Spring Awakening at Keegan Theatre.
Photo by C. Stanley Photgraphy.

What was your first professional performing job?

Pre college I was in a production of Songs for a New World with Open Circle Theatre directed by Suzanne Richard. It was particularly meaningful to have as a first professional experience, not only because I was a measly 17-year-old with braces, but also because I was sharing the stage with a partially deaf cast and cast members with physical and developmental disabilities. The show was entirely accessible, which at the time was completely innovative. Also, instead of being a musical revue which Songs for a New World typically is, the creative team gave it a loose plot focusing on the people impacted by the Iraq war. Interestingly enough I can almost relate it to the subject matter we’re conveying in this production of Hair! My second professional theatrical production wouldn’t have been til after college, when I played Ilse in Spring Awakening at Keegan Theatre.

You are now living in NYC but you are originally from the DMV. What was it about Signature Theatre’s production of Hair that made you want to come back here to perform again?

Well, it’s been five years since I’ve done a show. It’s actually been five years since I’ve even auditioned for anything in person! I stopped actively auditioning during the pandemic and shifted my focus solely to teaching voice. I’ve missed performing, not only in theatre, but gigging as well. I have to admit, I’ve had a lot of walls up around performing since the pandemic that I’ve struggled to overcome.

I first auditioned and was cast in this production in 2019, so to be offered the same role again in 2024 felt like a sign from higher power/the universe that I should come back. It’s also particularly meaningful because I happen to be pregnant right now, as my character is. Being able to come back to theatre after so much time while also bearing my child feels like something bigger than myself and I am so happy to be sharing this experience with her (my baby).

There are also logistical reasons that made it easy to come back and do this show. I get to stay with my parents and live rent free. I love my parents and cherish my time with them, especially while pregnant, so that’s an appeal as well.

Interview: Theatre Life with Nora Palka
The company of Signature Theatre's production of Hair.
Photo by Daniel Rader.

Some would say that Hair being set in the 60s in now very dated. Can you please talk about Director Matthew Gardiner’s concept for Signature Theatre’s production? Is it set in the modern day?

I think an important thing to remember is that Hair is a musical about the 1960s. While we are definitely not living in those times anymore, it doesn’t take a genius to see that a lot of the subject matter we are tackling in the show is relatable if not feels completely parallel to what we are experiencing today. Protesting wars, standing up against violence and racial discrimination. It’s definitely not as backwards and overtly discriminatory now in 2024 as it was in the 1960s, but you could argue that the present time we are in is equally as wacky if not more so. We now have the added threat of terrorism, gun violence and of course, climate change.

That being said, if Hair were to be set in the present day, I feel it would be a completely different show. Mostly because a major plot point is Claude receiving his draft card and grappling with the idea of being sent to war. The draft card piece is distinctly associated with the Vietnam war, which is thankfully not something my generation has ever dealt with.  Someone could write a 2024 version, but it wouldn’t be Hair. Many feel like political theatre has an obligation to relate, or frankly, spoon feed its audience to what we’re going through presently. I personally feel that is doing a disservice to the piece. Any audience member is smart enough to see Hair for what it is, a time capsule presentation of the past and a reminder that history repeats itself.

I also think there’s a nostalgia factor in Hair that is important for audience members who came of age in the 1960s. I believe that Matt’s vision reflects this idea. Matt has done an incredible job bringing the original intention of the show to life. Every production I’ve seen of it, the plot felt secondary to the music. The show is often confusing and before this production, I felt the book left little to be desired. Matt helped me see the brilliance of it. In the rehearsal room he didn’t let a moment go by without all of us in the ensemble understanding the objective behind it. He’s given the piece a depth that I think honors the goal and utter magic of the first ever production that has made this show stand the test of time.

Interview: Theatre Life with Nora Palka
Nora Palka in Signature Theatre's production of Hair.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Can you please tell us a little something about your character and what songs you are featured in as a soloist?

Jeanie is a dream. She is “that girl” as my friend and Jeanie understudy, Jamie Goodson puts it.  She is the sooth sayer of the group, pregnant and a little off if not straight up delusional. Jeanie can often be seen as the clown in a production of Hair, but there is no question that her character has the ability to contain depths and multitudes. In every production I’ve seen of the show, she’s always my favorite. In our production I believe the tribe sees her differently than the audience does. The tribe loves her and looks out for her and her baby, but also feels sad for her and worries about her erratic emotions. I hope the audience can see that while she does contain all of that, as well as a little bit of darkness, they also can see that she understands the reality of the situation they are in more clearly than anyone else. Jeanie is in love with Claude and fully believes he loves her equally, despite his constant rejection of her. I think she relates to his innocence and vulnerability as it’s something she also possesses. I think she also clings to Claude as if she’s the mother clinging to her child who’s about to be sent to war.

She sings the song “Air” which is a commentary on the environment and air quality. How nothing she willingly puts in her body can compare to what she’s forced to breath in on a daily basis while living in a world ruled by humans.

Interview: Theatre Life with Nora Palka
DC TV weather legend Sue Palka and Nora Palka.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Your mom Sue Palka was a TV fixture in DC weather for 36 years. As working on television is also a type of performance, when you started your acting career, did she give you any advice?

My mom’s advice was advice that anyone could use across all industries. Always be kind. Treat the higher ups at your job with the same respect and kindness that you treat the underdogs, the interns, the janitorial staff, literally everyone with. Also, always be someone to rely on. Meaning, no one should worry that you’ll ever run late and don’t be someone who takes frequent and unnecessary sick days.

Hair will be your fourth production at Signature Theatre. What do you enjoy the most about working there?

Coming back to Signature is like coming home. I always tell my voice students in NYC that DC is my true theatre community and Signature is my home-grown theatre. It feels very full circle having grown up seeing shows at this theatre when it was still in their old space, the garage, and to be working here now. They have always taken such good care of me. They gave me my first ever union job out of college giving me my EMC card, my first experience understudying, then my first job after joining the union. It feels very kismet that they are welcoming me back after my taking five years off in this industry, and that I’m pregnant, nevertheless. I think my favorite part of working here is that it just feels like home.

They also make me feel like I’m way more of a star than I am, so who wouldn’t love that? Maria Rizzo, one of my dearest friends and star of DC stages, buttered me up before I started rehearsals and said “people think of you as a veteran DC actor now. Signature is so proud to be the one welcoming you back to DC.” Which was hard for me to believe until my first day of rehearsals when everyone embraced me with such love and excitement. I’m so grateful to everyone at Signature. They are my family.

After Hair concludes its run at Signature Theatre in July, what does the rest of 2024 hold in store for you workwise?

Well, like I said above, it’s been about five years since I’ve even auditioned for a show let alone worked. Teaching voice has taken over my life and fulfilled my artistic ambitions more than I could’ve ever imagined. Right now, the plan is to have my baby girl and enjoy the first few months of motherhood with my husband Nathan. Nathan and I always have our music that we work on, our duo project Wild Idol, and I’m likely to continue gigging in NYC as well as teaching voice.  

As far as theatre goes, I’m going to let the theatre gods determine that for me. Maybe I’ll get back to auditioning. I tend to just walk down the path that opens up, but we’ll see what’s in store. One thing I know for sure is that once the theatre bug gets you, it never goes anywhere. That’s an incredibly comforting thing for me to remember. 

Special thanks to Signature Theatre's Marketing Manager and Publicist Zachary Flick for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Additional thanks to Artistic Director of Open Circle Theatre Suzanne Richard for photographic contributions.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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