Stage right for Charleroi Area grad
After taking acting classes at California University of Pennsylvania for a single year, Rachel Podwika decided to call it quits.
Acting on a whim, the Charleroi Area High School student decided it was time to pursue her dream of stage stardom.
"I called up my high school theater teacher and said school just isn't my thing," Podwika recalled. "She said, 'There are auditions in Wheeling, W.Va., tonight.'"
Just like that, the Charleroi native embarked upon a life-altering journey.
She auditioned successfully, and Podwika, 32, soon became an established actress in the Wheeling area.
She moved to Wheeling in 1993 and been involved in many theatrical endeavors.
One of her most notable performances came recently, as she and some of her acting friends presented an award-winning interpretation of "Visitors," a one-act play written in Pittsburgh.
As a member of West Virginia's Strand Players acting group, Podwika received a state acting title and a chance to make her mark at the annual Southeastern Theatre Conference.
She shared the "Best Actor" title with two fellow cast members.
"They couldn't decide between the three of us, so we all won," Podwika said.
The three carried that momentum to the next level of the competition, which featured performers from 10 states.
At that showing earlier this year, Podwika became a certified standout. She received the "Best Supporting Actress" award.
Podwika said the "underdog" roll inspired her.
"I didn't expect it," she said of the award. "We went down there as the dark horse."
Despite the odds, Podwika said she bubbled with confidence as she took the stage.
"We really had our roles down and felt really comfortable with it," she said.
Podwika said she is grateful for the success away from home, adding she has never regretted her decision to leave college.
She reflected on the first time she entertained an audience.
"My first role was actually in kindergarten. I played Mrs. Claus," she said, laughing.
Podwika said she relished the chance to emulate her idol, Carol Burnett, by portraying Ms. Hannigan, a villainous orphanage owner, in the classic musical, "Annie."
Podwika said she prefers comedic roles and enjoys performing for children.
"It gives me a chance to be silly or someone else for a while. That's always fun," she said. "I do love comedy. I tend to be silly whenever possible."
Podwika said her home in West Virginia reminds her of the Mon Valley.
"It's actually not a whole lot different from Charleroi," she said. "It's a small town."
She said she enjoys being close enough to her childhood home to visit family and friends.
"I try to get back at least once or twice every couple of weeks," she said.
Podwika said she recently landed a news reporting job at a West Virginia radio station, and is pursuing acting roles in Pittsburgh.
Working in theater has expanded Podwika's horizons.
"I think it's opened my mind a lot with the different people you meet and the different experiences you have and the different roles you play," she said.
At this point, Podwika most appreciates creative freedom.
"I kind of search out things that I want to do," she said.
Her strategy has worked.
"I'm kind of known around here now," she said. "I'm kind of like a big fish in a small pond. I've built a nice little name for myself here, so I'm proud of that."