Theater star Krysta Rodriguez talks 'Spring Awakening' and living loudly

What's it like juggling TV and theater shows and chemo? @krystar0driguez says you just 'keep pushing forward'

Musical theater star Krysta Rodriguez set her sights on one goal for 2015 — beating breast cancer — knowing that that likely meant putting her busy career on hold.

The 30-year-old triple threat, a singer, dancer and actor with an extensive list of Broadway and television credits, had no idea she'd continue to be in demand while juggling chemotherapy treatments and gearing up for surgery.

In fact, she landed a recurring role on an ABC Family hit drama, "Chasing Life," about a cancer-stricken young journalist, partly because of her diagnosis.

"The idea of the series is that your life doesn't stop because you have cancer," Rodriguez said recently. "You still have passions and dreams, and you just try to keep pushing forward."

The same could be said for Rodriguez, who was recruited last-minute to be part of Deaf West Theatre's production of "Spring Awakening," which runs through June 7 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

Rodriguez had been a member of the original Broadway cast of the Tony-winning show, understudying every female role, and jumped at the chance to play the bohemian character Ilse again.

As twisted luck would have it, Rodriguez had just completed her last round of chemotherapy shortly before rehearsals were beginning. But that meant she had only two weeks to prep for this reimagined version of the lauded coming-of-age musical.

That involved her quickly learning American Sign Language, a hallmark of Deaf West's productions, while still shaking off what she called "chemo brain," a fuzzy-headed side effect of the medication.

"Ilse is still one of my favorite characters to play, by far, and I just couldn't miss out on this," Rodriguez said after Sunday's matinee preview. "But other than cramming in some doctor's appointments, it's fit into a perfect window for me."

Michael Arden, director of "Spring Awakening," said Rodriguez was a natural choice because of her history with the Broadway show. She had also worked with costar and fellow "Spring Awakening" alum Andy Mientus on "Smash," NBC's homage to Broadway that aired for two seasons, and Mientus recommended her to Deaf West. But she was an inspired choice, Arden said, due to her current situation.

"Because of what she's going through, she brings a sense of urgency and knowledge to this role," Arden said. "She's so alive onstage and so thrilling to watch. That's a direct result of her having to live in the moment in her life right now. She doesn't say, 'I'll do it later.' I've never once felt like she wasn't giving 100% of herself."

This is Deaf West's second local staging of "Spring Awakening," after a sold-out run in downtown Los Angeles last fall. That show took place at an intimate 99-seat venue.

Its move to the Wallis Annenberg on the Westside expands it to the 500-seat Bram Goldsmith Theatre, where it will once again blend deaf and hearing actors in a show that's performed simultaneously in spoken English and ASL.

There are a handful of new cast members, including Rodriguez, who has "In the Heights," "First Date," "A Chorus Line" and "The Addams Family" among her stage credits. She said she "had to find the physicality" of acting with deaf cast mates and mixing choreography with signing for this incarnation of "Spring Awakening."

It wasn't such a stretch. The Orange County native said she has been focused, perhaps fixated, on the physical since her cancer diagnosis last fall. Once she knew she would need chemo and decided to speak publicly about her illness, she launched a blog called ChemoCouture to give other young cancer patients tips and ideas to boost their self-esteem during treatment.

But what originated as a fashion and style blog morphed into an irreverent warts-and-all look at Rodriguez's cancer journey, from losing her hair and taking fertility drugs to pushing through pain, mental and physical. It chronicles as many high points as low, including new friends made during chemo and fresh perspectives on life.

Along the way, she's become a de facto spokeswoman for young women with cancer, with 26,000-plus Twitter followers (@krystar0driguez) and more than 6,000 on Instagram. She's now penning a regular column for Cosmopolitan magazine's website. Recent entry: "8 things not to say to someone who has cancer."

None of this, from the writing to the oversharing, had been in her wheelhouse until now, she said. "I've always been so private, especially on social media," Rodriguez said. "But these days, it's all about TMI."

That's not such a bad thing. The blog caught the attention of producers on "Chasing Life," who were creating a character that could serve as a mentor of sorts for the heroine. Joni Lefkowitz, executive producer and writer, said she'd imagined a forty- or fiftysomething actor for the role but reconsidered because of Rodriguez's insightful blog posts.

"Though Krysta isn't much older than our main character, there's a worldliness about her that makes her credible for giving advice and showing the ropes," Lefkowitz said. "She brings such an amazing energy and authenticity to the show."

Rodriguez has shot several episodes so far and likely will return, Lefkowitz said, based on her availability, for the summer series. Rodriguez even documented a chemo treatment, "Chasing Life"-style, side by side on her blog with an actual chemo treatment when those two events happened days apart, which Lefkowitz said is further testament to her bravery in an image-conscious industry.

It's becoming second nature to bring her readers and social media followers along on a path that Rodriguez said she hopes will inspire them.

"I want to bust down some barriers and speak to women my age who are going through this illness," she said. "And to tell them, 'There's no time to not live really loudly.' "

 

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