Ever since she played an elephant with a slinky nose in Open Door Repertory’s musical version of Kipling’s Just So Stories, Oak Parker Elise Kibler knew acting would be her life.
From the stages at Brooks Middle School to the theaters at Oak Park and River Forest High School, the 22-year-old Kibler has landed on perhaps the most important stage of all — Broadway.
“I crossed my fingers and hoped this is where I’d be,” said Kibler.
A graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, Kibler made her Broadway debut in mid-March in a revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles. The play, which charts 24 years from 1965 to 1989 in the life of its namesake character, stars Elisabeth Moss, Jason Biggs and Bryce Pinkham. The show, at the Music Box Theater, closes May 3.
For eight shows a day, six days a week since mid-March, Kibler plays three distinct female characters: Becky, Clara and Denise.
Becky is a naïve 16 year old who needs some help. She wanders into this women’s group and learns what relationships with women can be like.
Clara is a protester. Denise is an ’80s career girl — she gets married, has a baby and is promoted all within several years. The contrast in the roles is vast and Kibler identifies with the women she portrays. Becky represents the most vulnerable part of herself; Denise the least.
Being a part of this pertinent, relevant play has been an amazing experience, Kibler said.
“The entire cast is incredibly talented. It feels very much like a family,” Kibler said. “Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs are warm and generous. I feel incredibly lucky to have made my debut not only with people I so admire but also in a play I care so much about.”
Kibler’s professional New York stage debut came during her senior year at NYU in an off-Broadway production of London Wall. It was there she met her agents and, a year later, auditioned for The Heidi Chronicles.
But The Heidi Chronicles wasn’t the first major Broadway production Kibler was a part of. A few months after her graduation last summer, Kibler auditioned to be the understudy for another Oak Park product, Tavi Gevinson, in the Broadway production of This Is Our Youth, by Kenneth Lonergan.
Kibler and Gevinson attended the same theater camp growing up, and Gevinson’s older sister, Rivka, directed Kibler in Stop Kiss, a student production performed in Studio200 at OPRF.
“I didn’t even entertain the idea of getting the job; it just seemed too great a coincidence,” Kibler said. After auditioning, she came home to visit her family and got a call a few days later that she was chosen to be the understudy.
“I was completely surprised,” she said.
The play opened at Steppenwolf Theater last summer, with Gevinson, Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin in the cast.
When it came time to restage the show for Broadway, the show’s producer, Scott Rudin, noted for producing The Social Network and who won Tony Awards for The Book of Mormon, flew Kibler and her fellow understudy from New York to Chicago to see performances of This Is Our Youth and familiarize them with the show and its characters.
Last fall, the play opened on Broadway to rave reviews, but Kibler never had to go on for Gevinson. She felt comfortable, because it meant The Heidi Chronicles would be her true [Broadway] debut, she said.
Kibler’s experience has met all of the expectations she first imagined she’d have if she ever got to appear on the stage in New York City. Kibler already had the acting bug at age 10 when she saw her first Broadway production, Phantom of the Opera. The play scared her, but when she uttered her dream of performing in New York City, it wasn’t in the context of that musical.
“I remember I turned to my dad when we got out of the show and said, ‘Someday, I’m gonna be on Broadway,'” Kibler said. “He patted me on my head and said, ‘Sure, OK. Give it a shot.’ My parents will never say never. They say, ‘Why not you?'”
Her time at OPRF furthered her love and appreciation for acting.
“The teachers and student directors chose material that was challenging and juicy,” Kibler said. “Not only that, but they took it seriously, treated us like professionals. OPRF gave me the opportunity to learn by doing.
“It was an exhilarating. It really opened my eyes to just how many parts there were to play. Acting not only informs who you are but gives you the opportunity to experiment with how many people you could be.”
What’s next? In addition to acting, Kibler is writing, a craft she also studied at NYU. Presently, she is working on an immersive piece of theater that will go into production next year, and is back out auditioning.
“I can’t wait to find what’s next,” she said.
Perhaps what’s next will be in a play that will allow her to find what every actor searches for — the perfect performance. That’s where an actor hits every single little beat all the way through.
“The perfect performance doesn’t actually exist, but you keep chasing it and chasing it, and that is never boring — it’s a thrill,” she said.