As with many things in life, it can be blamed on a friendly purple dinosaur.
"I used to be obsessed with Barney," says area actor Lauren VanSpeybroeck of her pre-school interest in performing. "I always used to pretend I was on Barney [& Friends], so I guess that's where it started. And then I would see, say, The Wizard of Oz or something, and for that week, I would be Dorothy Gale from Kansas. My mom would take me to the grocery store and people would say, 'Oh, you're so cute - what's your name?' 'Dorothy Gale from Kansas.'
"That," says VanSpeybroeck with a laugh, "was probably when my mom was like, 'Hmmm ... maybe she wants to play characters ... ?'"
She never did appear on the PBS children's show, and, somewhat incredibly, The Wizard of Oz still doesn't appear on her résumé. But if, over the years, you stopped Lauren VanSpeybroeck in a grocery store and asked her name, she might've very well answered you with "Little Red Riding Hood," or "Wendy Darling," or "Cordelia," or one of the 30 additional roles the 18-year-old has played in educational, community, and professional theatre since 2002.
This wonderfully gifted, effortlessly believable performer's list of credits would be intimidating under any circumstances, let alone coming from someone who just graduated from Alleman High School in June. Peter Pan and A Wonderful Life for the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse. Meet Me in St. Louis and Beauty & the Beast for Quad City Music Guild. Shakespeare's The Tempest for the District Theatre. A Christmas Carol, albeit different versions, for all three organizations.
Plus, King Lear for Genesius Guild, Romeo & Juliet for the Prenzie Players, Into the Woods for the Green Room Theatre, The Secret Garden for St. Ambrose University ... . VanSpeybroeck has been in so many area shows, in fact, that we were even in one together - Circa '21's Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2005 - and, until our recent interview, neither of us realized it. (In my defense, she was among dozens of students who sang in the children's choruses, and we weren't introduced. In her defense, she was nine.)
VanSpeybroeck can currently add two other names to her list of grocery-store aliases: Britt, the put-upon protagonist of Circa '21's StinkyKids: The Musical (running through July 12), and Elle Woods, the ultra-perky pretty-in-pink heroine of Music Guild's Legally Blonde: The Musical (July 11 through 20). And for those of us who've been continually knocked out by the performer's maturity and talent - who have literally watched VanSpeybroeck grow up on stage - her being cast in dual leading roles feels like a fitting area send-off before she leaves for the University of Northern Iowa in August.
"I want to keep acting for as long as I can," says VanSpeybroeck, who plans to major in Spanish and TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), with a minor in Theatre. "For forever. And I do want to come back and do shows in the Quad Cities. It's so full of art. I've visited friends in other cities who say, 'We don't even have a theatre here.' And I'm like, ' Really? Can you live? Can you survive?'"
Breaking the Lazy Susan
The Rock Island resident made her stage debut - and earned her first paycheck - at age six, after being cast as Gretl in Circa '21's The Sound of Music. "I don't really remember it," says VanSpeybroeck of the 2002 experience. "All I remember is I enjoyed it. But my parents knew I liked performing and were like, 'Maybe we'll have her give it a try.' And I ended up falling in love with it."
VanSpeybroeck does, however, easily recall her 2005 experience in Music Guild's Beauty & the Beast, in which she played her first character of the opposite sex: the teacup Chip. That role was especially memorable, she says, because she had to spend nearly the entire show in a box with only her head visible, "and it was so funny because we kept trying out ways that I could swivel. We tried putting a Sit 'n Spin in there, and a Lazy Susan ... and I'm pretty sure I broke the Lazy Susan ... ."
In the spring of 2007, after also appearing in Music Guild's 2005 A Christmas Carol: The Musical, VanSpeybroeck returned to Circa '21 for a Charlotte's Web production that not only found her playing Wilbur's young owner Fern, but a narrator and barnyard animal (an elderly sheep) alongside fellow ensemble members several decades her senior.
"I guess it kind of helped me mature faster," she says of her tendency to be cast in shows opposite adult co-stars, as she was in 2007's Into the Woods and 2008's A Year with Frog & Toad for the Green Room, the Prenzie Players' 2011 Romeo & Juliet, and the District Theatre's 2013 The Tempest. "I mean, I can still be very immature. But I've had to be around adults a lot, and at some point, I guess I started enjoying hanging out with adults in theatre more than kids. I'm totally comfortable with both, though."
And whether working on shows with adults or fellow students - as she did in such Alleman productions as Beauty & the Beast (as Belle this time), South Pacific (as Nellie Forbush), and Oklahoma! (as Ado Annie) - VanSpeybroeck's theatrical M.O. remains a simple one ... and, for her, a somewhat unexplainable one.
"Honestly, I have no idea where it comes from," VanSpeybroeck says of the naturalistic approach to acting she has demonstrated since grade school. "I just feel comfortable on stage, I guess, and just kind of put myself in the mindset of the character, and try to figure out creative ways to portray her." She laughs. "Or him."
Not that VanSpeybroeck hasn't had help from outside sources. Regarding the (sensational) British accent she employed for Circa '21's 2007 Christmas Carol musical, for instance, "It came from Harry Potter. I am a die-hard Harry Potter fan. I listened to the books on tape when I was really young, and then when the movies came out, I just listened, listened, listened ... . I just picked up little things they were doing and tried to incorporate that into my speech."
Her dance training, meanwhile, came in handy when it was time to fly as Wendy in Circa '21's 2009 Peter Pan.
"I had taken ballet for several years," she says, "and had gotten used to holding myself upright, so it became kind of natural to bend into the back of the harness. At first it was like, 'Whoa, I'm not used to this!' But after a while, I knew when I should straighten myself, and then getting pulled up and down just felt kind of natural. I really miss flying, actually."
Laughing, VanSpeybroeck adds, "I actually had several actors' nightmares during the run where I forgot to put on my harness before the scene, and it was time to be hooked on, and I couldn't fly. Luckily that never happened, because my dreams scared the crap out of me."
Fingers Crossed and Hope for the Best
The performer also has many individuals she credits for her theatrical success, from the parents who ran lines with her and drove her from show to show ("Their support has just been insane") to area actors Tom and Shelley Walljasper. The latter couple spent years as her acting and vocal coaches and, as VanSpeybroeck says, even guided her to a callback for the role of Maddie Ross in Joel and Ethan Coen's 2010 screen Western True Grit.
"We found out about the [video] audition from ActorsAccess.com," says VanSpeybroeck, "and I knew I needed help figuring out how to act on film, because that was something I'd never really done before. So I called Tom and Shelley and they showed me the ropes - how the lighting should be, what you should wear - and Tom read the lines with me from off-screen. They helped me so much, with both that and the callback. And I just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best!"
Yet while VanSpeybroeck never got to meet the Coens - with the Maddie Ross role instead going to eventual Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld - the performer says, "It was still a great experience in figuring out how to prepare for something like that." (And what does she think of True Grit? "I have not seen it," she says with a laugh. "I've just never gotten around to it. When I do watch it someday, it'll probably be ... an interesting feeling.")
More recently, though, with her current leads in both StinkyKids and Legally Blonde, VanSpeybroeck's preparation has been more focused on making it through a 12-hour work day.
"The rehearsals only overlapped once," she says, "and we were able to make that happen, because the Blonde cast just ran songs I wasn't in while I was at a dress rehearsal for Stinky. But for a while there, I'd get up at 7, get a bunch of stuff done, leave for StinkyKids at 9:30, get there at 10, rehearse from 10 to 1, have a lunch break from 1 to 2, rehearse from 2 to 6, have a half hour to get to Blonde, and then rehearse there from 6:30 to 9:30 or 10." With a sigh, she adds, "It was a lot of fun."
And, as VanSpeybroeck says, worth the time spent. "StinkyKids is just wonderful. I was kind of worried about it at first, because there are so many words and the notes are just all over the place, and at first glance I was like, 'How am I gonna get all this in my head?' But we just ran it and ran it and ran it until we were able to nail it, and now it's a lot of fun, and I just love the cast."
As for Legally Blonde, she says, "A lot of my friends were fans of the show and were telling me I had to listen to it, and I was like, 'Eh ... I'm good with my Next to Normal and my Spring Awakening and my depressing death musicals." VanSpeybroeck laughs. "You know, 'I'm just gonna sit around and listen to my sad.' But they kept telling me how funny it was, so I thought I'd give it a chance, and I just fell in love with it and was like, 'I have to audition for this.' It's so hilarious and ridiculous."
While she also hopes to direct one day soon, and says that her ultimate goal is "to eventually teach Spanish in a high school and run the theatre department," VanSpeybroeck doesn't envision a time that she'll ever want to fully stop acting. "This is just one of my main passions, and I couldn't imagine where I'd be in life without it. It's such a huge portion of what I do, and what I am."
Besides, for as full as her résumé is, VanSpeybroeck says it's not yet complete.
"I think I'd like to give [Hamlet's] Ophelia a try," she says. "I just want to be nuts. And also, my one dream - my one dream in life - is to have a death scene on stage. I've been dead on stage, but I've never actually died, you know what I mean? It's like the one thing I want to do before I die is die."
Lauren VanSpeybroeck performs in in Legally Blonde: The Musical at the Prospect Park Auditorium (1584 34th Avenue, Moline) July 11 through 20, and information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-6610 or visiting QCMusicGuild.com.
She can also be seen in StinkyKids: The Musical at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through July 12. For information and tickets, call (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visit Circa21.com.