For our first Wonder Women post, Logan and I were honored to interview Kiira Schmidt-Carper, who has had a professional career as a performer in New York City. Her Broadway credits include Anything Goes,The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Irving Berlin'sWhite Christmas. She now lives in San Marcos, Texas, with her husband, where she’s a member of the Theatre and Dance faculty at Texas State University. Kiira is not only an in inspiring artist but a incredibly strong woman and a devoted teacher. It is the way in which she lives her life with passion, joy, kindness, gratitude, and commitment that make us honored to know her and be able to interview her.
Q: If you could conduct your own interview, what would you want to be asked about?
K: I would want people to know about my family, because I have a really awesome family. My grandmother was a ballerina, and she and my two uncles, along with my mother, were my dance teachers. My mother also plays the cello and has her MFA in art. My great-grandfather was a professional violinist and accordionist. My grandfather was fluent in Portuguese and had a pet monkey. My sister is currently in Santiago, Chile, because she’s dating a Chilean man she met at an artist’s retreat. She’s a chef, but also a dancer and visual artist. My dad has his master’s in piano composition, but then opened a restaurant and was a chef. I think my family is just the coolest and I feel that I just got so lucky.
I would also want to be asked about my love story, because that’s important to me and it has defined who I am today.
Q: Could you tell us about your high school and college experiences?
K: I was a super late bloomer, and really keep busy with dance and school. If I wasn’t at the dance studio, I was at high school dancing or rehearsing for a musical. I was basically a working dancer my whole high school career. I got the musical theatre bug because I went to a performing arts high school, and the dance majors were allowed to audition for the musicals. That’s when I took my first voice and acting class ever. I remember being afraid to use my voice.
In 1999, when I was applying for colleges, I knew I liked musical theatre, so I applied and auditioned for Elon. I auditioned for one school only, and I got in. I sang “On My Own” for my audition and I wrote my own monologue. There was no dance audition.
At Elon, I started from the ground up with voice lessons and the same thing with acting. College was great because I got to grow up, I made amazing friends, and I learned what the craft of musical theatre was. At the same time, because of my lack of training, I was never someone who got roles; I was always in the ensemble. I think that’s important for people to hear, because so often you feel that your college career defines your professional career, and it’s quite the opposite. I find that most of the people who played all those lead roles aren’t even in the industry now.
Q: Are you a type A or type B person?
K: I love this question because I’m definitely both. I’m a type B who can moonlight as a type A if I need to. I am a Gemini, so I have two sides to me. However, I tend to be a chameleon — if I’m in a room of type A people, I’ll pull back and balance that energy. If I’m in a room and no one is taking charge, and shit needs to get done, I will be the person who gets it done.
Q: What would you tell your 20-year-old self?
K: This is funny, because my 20-year-old self was actually pretty chill. Ignorance is bliss and it was 2001, so the world was a very different place. I had no idea what a career in musical theatre was actually like. I was living in the moment, day by day, so I would probably say, "keep doing what you’re doing". But to my 25-year-old self, I would say, "you need to relax and trust the process. It’s all gonna come around. [Don’t] worry so much about what people think about you — and if you could be OK with being single for a little bit, that would be great."
Q: What’s your happy place?
K: My happy place is my house with my husband, Seth, and our two cats. Another happy place for me is taking a class, whether it’s dance or yoga. It’s an environment where I’m comfortable, and I don’t feel responsible for anything else but me.
Q: What’s the strongest, most important relationship in your life?
K: Definitely my husband. He’s my rock and my partner, and I’m very grateful.
Q: How do you take care of yourself?
K: Sleep! I make sure that I get sleep, which I know is difficult at times. I also make sure I’m eating well; I love good food! And I make sure I get massages, acupuncture and chiropractic treatment—prevention is key.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your career, how you started, faltered, got back up, and how you’re here today?
K: My career really started right after college. I did a non-union tour for a year, then I moved to New York and immediately faltered. I had one national tour on my resume and I knew all these people, but no one cared. No one knew me because I hadn't been there. I had been on the road and no one knew my face.
I spent about six months not working, not even getting called back for anything. I was working at Bowl More Lanes, which was a bowling alley in Union Square. I hated it. It was awful. I quit that job after about 2 or 3 months, and then I got a hosting job in Chelsea at the Red Cat. I remember so distinctly, it was winter, and I had to take the cross-town bus to work, and it was really cold and snowing, and I was on the bus just crying. I was so sad that I had to go to work at this restaurant. I was so tired and nothing was happening, and I remember just thinking to myself, “All right, this is it, something has to change. I’m not doing this anymore.”
And then, I kid you not, two weeks later I went on an audition for a replacement in the national tour of “Crazy For You,” and I booked it. Since that day, I have never had a civilian job.
My huge big break came in 2006, when I booked the Kennedy Center’s equity production of “Mame” starring Kristine Branskee. That was one of those magical stories. I went to this huge cattle call and they decided to see non-union dancers. I made it through the first cut, and then I made it through that next cut, and then I made it to final callbacks. Before the final, final callback — which was probably a week later — I had gotten severely ill, and developed laryngitis. I couldn’t say a word. I couldn't sing. Luckily they had me sing that first non-equity day, so they knew I could sing. And I booked the job! When things like that happen, you just know it was written in the stars.
That has always been a huge lesson for me — if things are written, they’re written, and they’re gonna happen, and you have no control one way or the other. That was a really profound turning point in many respects. I turned 25 at the Kennedy Center doing that show and then, five years later, after many other jobs, I turned 30 at the Kennedy Center doing “Follies,” which was really cosmic.
I’ve discovered I love working on Broadway, but I have to leave the city to feel like a human being. In the concentrated time of doing three Broadway shows back to back, and not leaving the city, and not getting time to breathe for myself, I got burnt out. By the time “Edwin Drood” closed in 2013, I felt NYC eating my soul. It got harder and harder to not be home till midnight again and again. In tandem, I was revisiting a relationship with Seth, my now husband, and that was really starting to take priority. I was starting to realize, “I don’t want to be away all the time from someone I love .” And Seth isn’t a city mouse, he’s a country mouse. I knew that he wanted to leave as well.
Q: Do you ever miss it?
K: I did miss it for the first year. I mean, I was still getting job offers left and right to be in New York. It was really difficult to stick to the courage of my convictions. I moved here (to Texas) to be with my husband, who was in school full-time. I really made a bold choice in choosing my marriage over continuing a career along the same path.
Q: How do you find ways to continue to push yourself, career-wise and in terms of personal development?
K: I have to say I’m in the middle of finding out what the answer is. I’m at a crossroads. One of the ways I’ve committed to myself this new year is when I’m choreographing combos for class, I’m trying to be truer to myself and my creative expression, as opposed to following the rules as to what a dance combo “should” be. For a long time, I was holding back my own artistic expression because I thought it was wrong and illegitimate, but it felt very stifling and unfulfilling. I’m balancing the creative dancer in me with the teacher I’m still learning to become, and trusting that one can serve the other and that they’re not mutually exclusive, and it’s actually better for everyone when we’re honest with who we are.
Q: Who is in your circle of badass women? Who are other women in this industry or otherwise that you would want to bring into your circle of women?
K: The people who are super important to me and are badasses are superstar friends and beacons of light in my life. They’re women like my friend Sara, who gave birth to her son drug-free in her apartment in New York; Kelly who I just saw on tour in “White Christmas”; Connie who runs a personal power yoga retreat; and my all my girlfriends from Elon—those friendships have lasted 15 years. I feel really lucky that the women in my life are all independent, strong, and trustworthy. We’re lovers, we’re creative, we’re brave.
Then, of course, in a totally different circle is my mother, my sister, and my grandmother. I also have a lot of amazing female cousins and we’re all very close. I feel lucky I have these two really great circles (of women), and they circle me around me and lift me up.
Q: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn during your personal life and career?
K: One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is that it’s OK to be heartbroken. Your heart will heal. New York is a difficult place to be alone, especially with the demands of the industry, and I had to learn that I was going to be fine on my own. I had to take responsibility for my happiness.
Career-wise, I’ve learned to not take things for granted. At the end (of my career), I fully admit part of my burnout was taking for granted how amazing and magical being a part of the theatre community is. That’s something that I’ve taken a lot of time with here in Texas — acknowledging how insanely fortunate I was, and then forgiving myself for taking it for granted when I did, and trusting that I did everything the best I could.
Q: As a woman in 2018, how do you navigate, deal with, and associate with politics?
K: I struggle with it, I do. I’m a highly sensitive person and it’s disturbing to me what’s happening statewide, nationwide, and worldwide. It’s difficult to come in on Monday mornings and have to talk about another school shooting with your students. I try to find the silver lining, which can sometimes be hard, but it’s possible. One thing that’s frustrating to me is having such passion for what's happening, but it [the passion] turning into anger and not knowing how to channel that or not knowing what to do with it. How do you help [anger] help you, as opposed to it festering? Stay informed. Stay active. As dire as it feels, what helps me is to remind myself that it’s going to be over eventually; there’s no way this is going to last forever.
Photograph by: Phillip Hamer Photography