North Hills grad in City Theatre production of 'Nomad Motel'
Katie Esswein made her performance debut when she was just a few days old.
Placed in a baby seat in the center of a table, she was surrounded my family members who applauded her every move. She's been in the spotlight ever since.
Although she now lives and works in New York City, the 2008 North Hills High School graduate is back in Pittsburgh to play “Alix” in a City Theatre production of “Nomad Motel.”
“She's tough, but she's also got a great heart,” Esswein, 28, says of her character. “I relate to her. I understand her. It was a lightbulb moment when I read the script.”
Written by Carla Ching and directed by Bart DeLorenzo, the play explores California's housing crisis and the life of “Mason” (Christopher Larkin), a “parachute kid” sent to live alone in America while his father remains in Hong Kong. Mason befriends Alix, who is bouncing between different motel rooms looking for her absentee mother. The two teens dream of a better future as they scrape to get by.
The show runs on the City Theatre Main Stage through June 3.
“In a lot of ways this is my most challenging performance because there's so much happening,” Esswein says. “It's emotional and heartbreaking.”
Esswein, who was nominated for a Gene Kelly Award for her work in the 2008 NHHS production of “Dames at Sea,” has a lifetime of acting experience under her belt. She enrolled in the Act 1 Theater School at age 10, playing “Lucy” in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” A decade later, while attending the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she tackled the same role. She jokingly wonders if she'll be able to pass for a second-grader when she hits 30.
Her youthful appearance has allowed her to play a lot of teenage girls on television and in film, but she has aspirations to play the title role in “Hamlet”.
For five years she's been serving as a nanny and bouncing between auditions in The Big Apple. In 2016, she tried out for City Theatre's Young Playwrights Festival. Held each October, the event gives hopeful scribes an opportunity to stage professional productions of their work.
Marketing director Laura Greenawalt says the South Side theatre receives 400 submissions annually. Staff members are now in the process of going through 2018's batch, which will be whittled down to six, winning one-act plays.
Esswein says her festival experience was magical and she's happy to be back at City Theater, which is wrapping up its 44th season.
“The theater community in Pittsburgh is one of the most vibrant in the region,” Greenawalt says. “There's so much good work being done. You can go out any night of the week and catch a live performance. A lot of actors are coming back here because it's cheap, you can make a living wage, work consistently and be close enough to go to auditions in New York or Chicago.”
Esswein recently wrapped on her first feature film called “Adam”, which is now in post-production. After that excitement, she's thrilled to spend the next month at home with her parents, Heather and Rich Esswein, who still reside in Ross Township. A host of other family members, including her brother, Kraig Esswein, came in from out of town to see her on the City Theatre stage.
Her advice to aspiring actors?
“You just have to stay hungry and show up every day wanting it,” she explains. “You face a lot of rejection, but you can't take it personally. Actors have to have a tough exterior while still maintaining their vulnerability.”
City Theatre is located at 1300 Bingham St. on the South Side. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.citytheatrecompany.org/play/nomad-motel.
Kristy Locklin is a Tribune-Review contributor.