“I wasn’t really going to be an actor,” Bri Sudia insists. When I got a chance to interview her over the phone, she was fresh from rehearsal, stretching out after a long day at the Goodman, where she stars as Ruth Sherwood in the Mary Zimmerman-directed WONDERFUL TOWN. “We keep choosing each other, you know? I keep choosing to pursue acting, and acting keeps showing me signs that I can keep pursuing it. It’s like we’re in a very healthy relationship.”
Sudia grew up in New Jersey, just a train ride away from New York City, where she often attended theatre auditions and camps. “I think a lot of people –like, actually, a lot like Ruth in Wonderful Town–grow up with this idea of New York as being this unattainable, beautiful mystery,” she explains,” and for me, I knew what New York was my whole life…and it wasn’t for me.”
Though Sudia earned her BA in Theatre Arts at Rowan University, she intended to make a career interpreting for the deaf. Her first job was at a summer camp for deaf children, and her eventual fluency in American Sign Language equipped her to work as an interpreter in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But, what may have started as a departure from the arts ultimately led her back to theater. “I started focusing on interpreting for the theater and doing sign interpretive performances,” she says, “and it was in doing that that I realized I wanted to be an actor–I wished I could switch places.”
When she began looking for further acting training, she was “wooed” (in her words) by the head of the department at University of Illinois-Champaign Urbana. She earned her MFA in Classical Acting there and often ventured into Chicago for auditions and summer jobs. The contrast between the theatre scenes of Chicago and New York City endeared her to the Windy City.
“There was something about New York that felt very anonymous, that you were very alone,” she says. “The thing about Chicago that I’ve learned to fall in love with is the community.” After attending workshops with Bob Mason during grad school, Sudia eventually worked in a multitude of productions at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, which she considers her artistic home. “They’ve been incredibly supportive to me,” she says, “and Bob [Mason] has been a huge ally of mine, and has sent my resume to other people, and suggested me for things, and had my back the whole way.”
In addition to its supportive environment, Sudia was also drawn to the possibilities Chicago offers for breaking out of typecasting. Growing up performing musicals, she says, “It didn’t feel like there was any room for an in-between girl…I didn’t know what to do with me; they didn’t know what to do with me.” Particularly in New York City, this seemed to limit her casting opportunities. “Because they have so many hundreds of actors to choose from [in New York], they can have exactly what they’re looking for, but here in Chicago you really have a chance to go into the room and say, ‘I’m what you’re looking for–take a chance on me.’”
Classical acting, in particular, gave Sudia these chances. “In Shakespeare, you can be anyone,” she says with excitement. “In Shakespeare, you’re free, in Ibsen you’re free, in Chekhov you’re free…it was more about what you brought to the table and what your take on the character was rather than what you looked like. And I loved that. So I stayed in classical acting, and really didn’t think I would work in professional musicals.”
But Sudia has stayed busy performing in both, taking on Shakespearean roles across the country in festivals in Texas, Arkansas, and Utah (in addition to her many Chicago Shakespeare credits) and performing in the musicals SHINING LIVES, A MUSICAL, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, FAR FROM HEAVEN, and SONDHEIM’S ROAD SHOW.
While understudying for Tribes at Steppenwolf, she was able to combine her passions for ASL and acting. “It’s always going to make my heart really full,” she gushes when discussing the “rebirth” of Deaf West with their production of Spring Awakening, and the growth of inclusivity and accessibility for deaf performers and audiences.
Of working with Mary Zimmerman on WONDERFUL TOWN, Sudia admits, “At the risk of sounding totally cheesy, one of the first things that I ever saw that made a huge impact on me was the Odyssey …I was, I’m guessing, probably 12, and it was unbelievably beautiful and powerful, and it was actually done by Mary Zimmerman. So, when I had my first audition [for WONDERFUL TOWN] there was a part of me that had a bit of trepidation about meeting this person who made this thing that was such a big impact on me.”
Bri Sudia, Lauren Molina and the cast of WONDERFUL TOWN. Photo by Liz Lauren.
But, Sudia, jokes, working with the acclaimed director has been “easy, maybe because I feel like I’ve known her since I was 12.” She elaborates, “[Zimmerman’s] brain is an amazing playground of options and ideas and constructive criticism and new takes and she’s always thinking—I have the feeling that she goes home at night and thinks about us a great deal as her day goes on, and comes in the next day with new ideas.”
When it comes to the cast’s large ensemble, Sudia effusively appreciates the support and talent of the performers backing her up: “When you’re standing downstage center, and you have 26 people behind you, these are the people that you want with you…Some of my favorite moments of the show are the moments when I’m not actually doing anything, and I just get to sit and look at someone sing or stand there and laugh at someone making a great joke.”
In addition to WONDERFUL TOWN, Sudia has major roles coming up in MISS BENNET at Northlight Theatre this winter, and SWEENEY TODD at Paramount next year. The onetime “in-between girl” has become more of an It Girl who possesses a quiet wisdom about her “unpredictable” industry.
“I think the hardest thing to learn is that everybody’s path is different,” she reflects. “Everybody’s idea of success is different…you can’t really craft your path after anybody else in this business. I think at the beginning you try to be like other people, but in this business your brand is you. You are the only you, and you have to learn to represent yourself. Be your biggest fan, and be your biggest cheerleader, because you’re the only person who knows how it’s going to happen for you.”