The Season That Put Katrina Lenk on Our Radar — and Why It's About Time
Broadway divas are making room for New York's new renaissance woman on this year's nominations lists.
Katrina Lenk is the first to credit "luck," "timing," "coincidence," and every other power beyond her own hard work and talent for her successes. But no amount of luck can explain the kind of year she's had. In just one season, Lenk originated two roles off-Broadway, one of which became her first role to originate on Broadway, and both of which landed her in awards categories alongside Tony winners like Patti LuPone, Cynthia Nixon, and Sutton Foster — not to mention the luminary of all luminaries, Bette Midler.
"I thought at first there was a typo or I just wasn't understanding what I was looking at," says Lenk, whose real-life self-deprecation is a striking contrast to her résumé of brazenly self-possessed characters. "It's just so strange to see my name. It gives me the giggles."
It's not just her name that stands out from the distinguished pack she's found herself in. The projects she's being recognized for are two of the most artistically daring works of the season: The Band's Visit, a new musical by Itamar Moses and David Yazbeck (based on the 2007 Israeli film), featured an ensemble of actor-musicians, playing an understated score without the flashy elements of typical musical-theater fare. Lenk led the production (playing opposite Tony Shalhoub) as Dina, the sultry and stone-faced proprietress of a café in the small Israeli town of Beit Hatikvaa, where an Egyptian band is accidentally stranded before a concert in the bustling and similar-sounding town of Petah Tikva.
In Paula Vogel's Indecent, now running at Broadway's Cort Theatre (following an off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre), Lenk exchanges Hebrew for Yiddish as a member of an acting troupe who tells the story behind Sholem Asch's controversial play God of Vengeance. Again, there are instruments onstage (Lenk plays the violin), blending music into the many layers of nonlinear storytelling, where jumps in time and character fill out the historical picture of a play that unapologetically celebrates art and the freedom of expression. Throughout Indecent, Lenk performs several iterations of God of Vengeance's pivotal love scene — a passionate, rain-soaked moment between the play's two central female characters.
Considering her last Broadway gig was in Once as Réza — the smart and seductive Czech woman who is required to dance and fiddle simultaneously — projects like The Band's Visit and Indecent seem like logical next steps in a career of multidisciplinary and artistically intricate work. It turns out, however, that this pattern is less a product of her own design than it is the result of Lenk's stubborn resistance to choosing one creative outlet over another.
"I wasn't actively searching for that at all. I always just wanted to do all of the things," says Lenk. "And whenever anyone would tell me to choose I would be like, No! But why?"
Her life and career can be boiled down to a mosaic of creative "obsessions." First was dance, which she started at the age of three, and singing was "just always around," she says. "My parents gave me a tape recorder for a birthday once, and I was obsessed with it. I made up songs and would record them and then play them for my poor parents."
And it didn't stop there. "Acting also happened when I was little," Lenk remembers. "There was the school play in second or third grade — The Pied Piper of Hamelin. I remember thinking, 'I must play the Pied Piper!' I was obsessed."
Clearly the violin also made the list, along with guitar, piano, and oboe. But her first true musical love was the forgotten middle child of string instruments — the viola. "My older brother played the cello, so I would go to his concerts and I remember being like, 'What's that instrument, and why is no one playing it?' Then I became obsessed with the viola as well."
She began her college career at Northwestern University as a viola performance major while continuing her other artistic pursuits. However, her sophomore year, she heard the dreaded words: "You have to choose."
"So I chose to stick more with theater and dance and singing."
The decision came down to a desire for collaboration. "There's something about the group dynamic of either being in a dance project or a play that I really loved."
Her constant state of creative limbo, however, made it a challenge to envision a career where she and her many obsessions belonged. "I wasn't a ballerina, so I couldn't be in the dance world. And I never really felt like I fit in in the usual places as far as musicals. I spent a lot of time feeling like, 'I'm nobody. I'm just that weird person who plays the viola.' There was this search of who am I in the world of storytelling?"
For a while, she thought Los Angeles might be able to give her the answer. "I got bit by the film bug," says Lenk. "I spent seven years trying to crack that world. It wasn't very welcoming. But the theater scene was surprisingly alive and flourishing."
Her move out west, in fact, became her path to New York. While doing theater in Los Angeles, she worked with director Kate Whoriskey (director of Broadway's Sweat), who, in 2010, was making her Broadway debut with a revival of The Miracle Worker. As Lenk remembers, "Kate called me and said, 'You wanna come to New York and be an understudy?'" She wound up covering the roles of Annie Sullivan and Kate Keller, played by Allison Pill and Jennifer Morrison. "I never got to go on, but I guess that would be my first experience on Broadway."
Two years later, Spider-Man came through Los Angeles looking for replacements for the Broadway cast. She booked the role of Arachne and made her permanent move to New York City. "I definitely felt like this is home in a way that I really hadn't felt so much in L.A."
New York seemed to feel the same about her, because Once scooped her up as soon as she was free. "I was coming to the end of my contract with Spider-Man so I kind of went right into another Broadway show — which is nuts."
Not only was it another Broadway credit, but a chance for her to "do all the things" in a show that demanded her expertise as an actor, dancer, singer, and instrumentalist — a combination of talents that subsequently took her out of the ensemble and into New York's theatrical spotlight for both The Band's Visit and Indecent.
For all intents and purposes it's been a dream run for Lenk. And yet, when asked what her young, multitalented self would have envisioned for a career, she's taken aback at her own response: "I guess it would be this. I haven't actually realized that until just now."
So, after all this time, can she confidently say that she's found her place in the world of storytelling?
"Maybe I'm just starting to have an idea…Maybe."