All You Have to do is Dream, Baby

On her new tour of Dreamgirls, Kayla Pecchioni (’14) isn’t about to fake her way to the top.

kayla Kayla performing in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

“It’s tough to be in this business and not doubt yourself. It’s really hard when you have people who are critiquing your looks, or choices that you make in a song, or critiquing your gestures or the way that you talk. Everything is being critiqued at all times.”

By Brent Donaldson
NKU Marketing + Communications

In most professions, turning down a job applicant based on the way she looks would be grounds for a lawsuit.

But it happens all the time, and it’s perfectly legal.

Theater people, you know what we’re talking about.

Kayla Pecchioni, a 2014 graduate of Northern Kentucky University’s Theatre & Dance program, has been more fortunate than most when it comes to receiving call-backs. In fact, since graduating from NKU and moving to New York City last year, Kayla hasn’t been turned down for a role yet.

The 24-year-old actor and singer just wrapped up a string of singing performances in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, where she accompanied the Rockettes onstage at Radio City Music Hall, and is about to embark on a six-month-long tour of Dreamgirls in South Korea.

This isn’t to say she’s immune to audition-day nerves or that she enjoys the experience. “I’m terrified of it,” Pecchioni says. 

“I’m terrified of speaking in front of people. I am a very outgoing introvert. I had a lot of practice auditioning in college, but doing these auditions by myself where I’m trying to impress people—it’s so terrifying to me. I needed the practice.”

And practice she has. Pecchioni performed in scores of shows at NKU, beginning with To Kill a Mockingbird when she was a freshman and wrapping up with the musical, A... My Name is Alice, during her senior year. 

As Pecchioni approached graduation, she drafted a six-step roadmap she hoped would take her from Highland Heights to Broadway:

Step one: Graduate
Step two: Save money by working at theme parks and on cruise ships
Step three: Move to New York City
Steps four, five, and six: Audition, audition, audition

With step one completed in 2014, Pecchioni began working as an entertainer at theme parks in Pennsylvania and Virginia. She moved on to similar work on cruise ships, visiting countries across the globe yet rarely leaving the port. All of it resulted in a nest egg sizable enough to advance to step three. 

kayla2 Kayla performing in a production aboard the Norwegian Jade.

“They say there’s no better training than those theme park gigs, because you’re working like a dog, doing five shows a day, sometimes in those big furry costume characters,” Pecchioni says. You’re working nonstop every single day without days off. There’s nothing to do but save your money.”

Pecchioni didn’t waste any time after she moved to New York. She found an apartment to share with a fellow NKU graduate and other friends. It was make-or-break time.

“I remember coming to New York and just setting down my suitcases in this empty room. I had already set up interviews for a regular job—survival jobs, is what we call them—but it wasn’t going to start for a while. So I thought, ‘Well, I guess it’s time to audition.’”

The first thing Pecchioni saw on BackStage.com was a casting call for the Christmas Spectacular two days later. Self-doubt crept in and cast a shadow over her confidence.

“It’s really tough to be in this business and not doubt yourself,” Pecchioni says. It’s really hard when you have people—and I understand that it’s their job and they’re trying to make you stronger—but people who are critiquing your looks, or choices that you make in a song, or critiquing your gestures or the way that you talk. Everything is being critiqued at all times.”

As it turned out, none of that mattered. Pecchioni nailed the audition. She was hired to perform in the biggest Christmas theater production in the world.

Pecchioni recalls her first rehearsal being equal parts thrilling and filled with anxiety. When she crossed the threshold of Radio City Music Hall’s stage door—the place where young theater fans line up after shows to get autographs of their favorite performers—“it took my breath away,” she says. “I got very anxious. Are they going to like me? What’s going to happen? Will I be able to learn the show? I didn’t really feel like I was a part of everything until I was backstage. I think later I went home and cried to my roommates. It’s just so cool to watch your work pay off.”

It was during rehearsals for the Christmas show that Pecchioni learned about the upcoming auditions for Dreamgirls. Her family was in town to see her Radio City performance, but Pecchioni carved out just enough time to make the audition. On December 24, she got the call that she’d been selected. Merry Christmas.

Pecchioni leaves for South Korea with the rest of the Dreamgirls cast in mid-February. The tour is scheduled to run through the middle of July. 

In just two short years since graduation, Pecchioni has come a long way since her nervous auditions and rocky start at NKU. She credits her teachers and instructors in the Music & Theatre program— Jamey Strawn, Michael Hatton, Corrie Danieley, and others—for transforming her from wayward student to a rising professional.

"It was so exciting to watch her transform into a triple-threat powerhouse of a performer and never lose her compassion and humility," Strawn says. "She immersed herself in acting, singing, and dancing and improved exponentially, earning respect from her peers and landing major roles in musical theatre and dance. Kayla represented the model student at NKU. At first she was overwhelmed with the environment, but quickly transformed into a strong, confident woman who was eager to learn and committed to success. I always knew Kayla would be successful. She just needed to make that first connection."

Pecchioni's advice to current students? Be authentic, get involved, and trust your teachers.

“They know what they’re talking about,” Pecchioni says. “I was a rebellious student at one point, and I thought I knew better. But they have your best interest at heart. You don’t realize until years later that you should take advantage of the expertise of the people right in front of you. I stayed involved with the people who loved me and cared about me, and that was my theater family. If I hadn’t, this journey would have been a lot harder for me. I wouldn’t be comfortable in my own skin and with my own voice and abilities.

“People are looking for that unique quality in you. That’s what they want. Stick with what makes you, you.”