• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Congleton doesn’t need biggest stage, ‘just a stage’

BRITTNY CONGLETON portrays “Aunt Nance” on a variety of stages in Chicago. The Woodford County High School graduate says she still has the dress she wore while portraying Sally in her high school’s 2002 production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” It’s in her costume trunk. (Photo submitted)

When Brittny Congleton comes home to visit family and friends, she’s often asked, “When are you going to be on SNL?” The 2005 Woodford County High School graduate has friends who have auditioned for “Saturday Night Live” countless times and others who have done commercials, but those aren’t her aspirations. “Even when I was little, my goal was always not to be famous, but just to get to do what I love every day and just be performing all of the time … I don’t need to have the biggest stage,” explains Congleton. “I just need a stage.” That’s why she’s grateful for her day job and her night job. As a teaching artist living in Chicago, Congleton gets to pass along her passion for artistic expression by being silly and creative with preschool students. At night, she gets to make up songs and put on funny wigs to entertain grownup audiences. “What’s so fun is kids, they’ll tell you right away if they’re having a good time or if they’re not entertained. As adults, we’re slightly more polite – but only slightly,” says Congleton. She remembers being cast in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” at WCHS in 2002 as her first experience in a “grown-up musical.” She got to “hang out with upperclassmen,” who were passionate about musical theater, and gain confidence in herself under the direction of longtime WCHS teacher Ken Tonks. He “encouraged us to be goofy and expressive and larger-than-life, which was so fun … because you don’t often get to be that way in high school,” she says. As a ninth-grader, “I was able to look forward to the next four years and making theater – kind of getting a glimpse of my future.” Congleton, who grew up in Midway, discovered a passion for improvisational comedy and being “live and in the moment with people” while performing a one-woman show for her senior project at Transylvania University. Going to an improvisational comedy festival in Georgia and attending a music workshop there compelled the 2009 Transylvania University graduate to move to Chicago, where “musical improv was happening.” “New York is where they put the polish on, but Chicago is so much the place where things get made,” said Congleton, who will celebrate her 30th birthday on May 13. “…People are constantly working and creating new and original work here all of the time.” That’s why creating an original character named Aunt Nance, and being a part of original sketch and musical comedy have become her life’s passions since she moved to Chicago seven years ago. Most recently, Congleton got to originate a role in a friend’s new musical, “Tapped,” which had its start at a festival before blossoming into a full production, “with all the bells and whistles,” at a large storefront theatre. She describes that as an opportunity to “perform with some of the funniest, most talented people who are working in Chicago right now.” Being a teacher at Bubbles Academy, an arts-integrated preschool, for the last five years has allowed Congleton to spend her days working alongside other actors, singers and dancers who rely on performance backgrounds to educate children. “As a teacher and as a performer you never stop learning,” she explains. “There’s always something to try. There’s always a new experience to have. And you’re constantly learning…” Congleton describes being onstage as an opportunity to share a “beautiful” performance with a group of artists. “I may never see you again, but what we created was really important and special. And I’ll never make something like that again with the same group of people. That’s kind of the beauty and craziness of theater,” she explains. Congleton’s earliest onstage experiences came in children’s programs offered by the Woodford County Theatrical Arts Association (now known as Woodford Theatre). She still remembers participating in a WCTAA theatre camp as a 6-year-old and telling her parents, Julie and Scott, “I want to do this forever.” WCTAA’s longtime artistic director Beth Kirchner taught her and other children, who would become her best friends, “the magic of theater,” she says. Being a part of the Second City Training Center in Chicago reminds Congleton of why she embraced theater from the beginning: the value of working with an ensemble. “It’s not just one person being the funniest person in the room. It’s not one person being the best actor. It’s how you can work together as a whole team to put on a unique show for a unique group of people, and make it fun and new and different,” she explains. Of improvisational comedy, she says, “It’s funny because it’s an escape for the audience – what you’re creating for them to watch, but it’s also an escape for you.” A character needs a personality and a back story before a show begins onstage. And then, “You get up there and see what happens. Sometimes it takes you on a crazy journey.” Her larger-than-life idols as a child – performers Liza Minnelli, Carol Burnett and Bette Midler – inspired “Aunt Nance,” a character Congleton has been bringing onstage for nearly four years and will continue to portray until “I’m actually that old, probably,” she says. Besides performing what she describes as “all kinds of stuff” onstage and other times playing “goofy ukulele songs,” Congleton loves collaborating with friends on original Broadway-style songs for comedy shows and cabarets. “The funniest people can tell the best kinds of stories,” she says. “…I would love to do a serious show, but I’ve just had lots of fun and lots of opportunities to do comedy. It’s what I gravitate toward.” Congleton met her husband, James Grino, whom she married in October 2015, while they were working on a production of “Hair” in their native Kentucky. One day, she’d love to have her own weekly cabaret show and open a cabaret theater with her husband.

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