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Cat Brindisi on stage at the Guthrie To endure then arrive
Cat performed in the Guthrie's "My Fair Lady" this summer. Credit: Joan Marcus  
Cat Brindisi at the Guthrie
Cat Brindisi's wigs
Cat switched between three wigs as chorus and Eliza Doolittle's understudy

When Cat Brindisi ('11) was Irene Molloy in "Hello Dolly" at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre this fall, her UMD base flowed down I-35 to watch.

One professor greeted Cat by remarking on her new sound, "Wow, you must be taking voice lessons down here!" Cat confirmed that she was taking voice, but says the professor was actually hearing something that doesn't come from training. It was a clear tone that had been buried in a soundtrack of dubious thoughts for a long time. "What I was thinking was, 'No, actually, I quit drinking. Now I'm back to me!"

There are those who can't imagine facing the intensity of the spotlight with enough wherewithal to endure its unblinking glare. Since graduating, Cat has stayed on her mark, center stage in some of the region's best theaters, even when her inner dialog said, "You don't belong here."

Through trial and error she found a way to not only cope with the intensity of her career as an actress, but to thrive.

An Ever-Present Presence

To say Cat took advantage of opportunities at UMD is like "A Streetcar Named Desire's" volatile Stanley Kowalski speaking softly. She was Ariel in "Footloose," Queen Elizabeth in "Richard III," and Hero in "Much Ado about Nothing." The spotlight followed her to Istanbul State Conservatory where she taught a musical theatre workshop and performed "Footloose" with an international cast. "I went to Turkey and made life-long friends at age 19. That was pretty incredible."

She lived off campus with other theatre majors who'd gather, exhausted after rehearsals to do homework or blow off steam, depending on that night. Theater was a constant, but it'd been that way her whole life.

Her parents, director Michael Brindisi and actress Michelle Barber, have been in the business since before she was born; first in Albert Lea and then in the Twin Cities when Michael became the artistic director of the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Cat grew up watching from the wings before confidently stepping on the Chanhassen's "State Fair" stage in 1997.

This was the first of many; the Guthrie Theatre, the Jungle Theatre, and the Children's Theatre Company soon followed. On each, the spotlight focused it's bright light on Cat and the reviews were fantastic. In 2012, Cat won an Ivey Award for Outstanding Production for "Spring Awakening." City Pages named her "Best Emerging Actress in Minneapolis, 2013." "She's tall, exuberant, smiles like a lighthouse, sings like a lark, moves well and has great comic timing," gushed Star Tribune theatre critic Graydon Royce in a recent story about her family.

Despite the praise, Cat says there were times when the intensity of a follow spot felt unbearable. "I was raised in a kind of well-known theatre family in Minneapolis, so I continually felt that people were tracking my success and deciding for themselves whether I'd accomplished enough. I tried to live up to everyone's ideas of what they thought I should be every minute of the day."

Working that hard every minute of the day, an outlet was needed. It lurked backstage then stuck around. Drinking became a way to dim the spotlight, but Cat says it wasn't a welcome stagehand.

In Order to Cope

It was a way to temporarily blow a little steam out of the pressure cooker. "When life became too overwhelming to deal with, I turned to alcohol to cope or to forget about it for a night."

Cat was doing what she loved, and she'd worked hard for her opportunities. Directors were including her on the best cast lists in the Twin Cities and the reviews were outstanding, but Cat overlapped their kudos with her own criticism. "I constantly felt like I wasn't doing enough, that people were disappointed in me, or that because I hadn't become famous that my career was worthless and that I, personally, was worthless."

So she'd drink and then struggle to function through her daily duties. "It just wasn't worth it - showing up hungover to rehearsals, always feeling guilty about what I hadn't done with my day, losing my voice, wasting time, treating my loved ones with disrespect. Ultimately I wasn't the person I knew I was."

Ultimately, Cat knew it had to stop.

A Plot Twist

Cat doesn't classify herself as an alcoholic, but simply as someone who had to stop drinking. "All I know today is that I had to give it up if I was going to be the actress and person that I wanted to be." So she did.

Six months sobriety has given her insight into her life's plotline, allowing her to realize it wasn't as dramatic as she'd once thought. "What I learned by being sober is that my fear of not living up to everyone's expectations was actually a fear of not living up to my own expectations, something much scarier." She calls this the root problem she'd used alcohol to mask, and says she'd never have a healthy relationship with drinking until it was solved.

"While being sober makes me have to face the hard parts of my life with a clear head, I ironically care a lot less about what other people are thinking now. That's because I can honestly say that I am doing my best without feeling guilt."

The Long Run

Cat Brindisi having her hair done at the Guthrie Theater
Cat having her hair and makeup done at the Guthrie Theater before "My Fair Lady"

Half a year ago, you might have spotted Cat tying one on at the bar. Now she's lacing up her shoes and running marathons, her new go-to method for relieving stress. Cat's also added "producer" to her resume. This month her new company 7th House Theater is producing an adaptation of "Jonah and the Whale: A New Musical" at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio.

It's the story of Jonah trying to skirt a responsibility, and later realizing that facing up to it is the only way to escape the storm. It's a familiar storyline to this UMD grad, who's happy to share what she's learned. "If you aren't happy in your career or in your life, know that you have the power to change that. You are in charge of you."

Her advice to current students is to soak up everything they're learning and get going. "Life can be so fun and incredibly rewarding when you are the version of yourself that you deep, deep, down know you can be."

Those who can, Duluth

Story by Lori C. Melton, November 2014

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