SPRING HILL — Colleen Pulawski usually doesn't get nervous before a performance. But one day in New York City last February, she almost shook with trepidation.
At Springstead High School, she'd shuddered in straw as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, waved a wand as the fairy godmother in Cinderella and soared above the stage as Peter Pan.
Now she was about to enter a studio to perform two monologues for faculty members of Carnegie Mellon University. Fifteen hundred people were gunning for 14 coveted spots in the university's bachelor of fine arts program for drama and acting.
"Do I have to do this?" she would later recall asking her mother, Susan, perhaps not altogether joking.
Pulawski walked into the studio and, as requested, slipped off her heels. Her monologues were both excerpts from plays, Reasons to be Pretty by Neil Labute and Speech and Debate by Stephen Karam. They take about five minutes to do back to back, but the Carnegie Mellon staffers asked her to perform them again in different characters — a good sign.
"I can tell you love what you do," one of them said.
"You're right," Pulawski replied.
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Pulawski will graduate tonight third in Springstead's Class of 2011 and one of just eight seniors in the school's first International Baccalaureate class. Her college application boasted memberships in Key Club, National Honor Society, Student Council and the Springstead Engineering Society.
But Pulawski, 18, owes a bit of debt to an ancient king, a veteran rocker and pop music idol for getting her to that ultimately successful Carnegie Mellon audition.
At Chocachatti Elementary, a magnet school for the performing arts, Pulawski discovered her love for the stage while playing Gilgamesh, a Sumerian king who ruled around 2500 B.C.
As part of the school's microsociety program, Pulawski and four classmates formed a cover band and belted out rock 'n' roll songs. She remembers Bruce Springsteen's Waitin' on a Sunny Day, and another song by Avril Lavigne.
"He was a skater boy … ," Pulawski sang recently, bobbing her head and laughing at the memory as she sat at the kitchen table in the Spring Hill home she shares with her mother and younger brother Jake, a sophomore at Springstead.
Pulawski attended Powell Middle School and Challenger K-8 and danced at John Leggio's Center for the Performing Arts in Spring Hill, learning techniques from Broadway performers.
As as an underclassman performing in Springstead Theater, she considered acting to be a passion, not a potential career choice. She thought pediatric oncology sounded both pragmatic and fulfilling.
"I thought I had to be a doctor, I can't perform for a living," she said. "It's a scary thought."
But by the 10th grade, some of her older friends were heading in that direction. As she watched them visit colleges to find out which fine arts programs were a good fit for them, Pulawski decided she'd have to follow the same path to stay true to herself. She joined the International Thespian Society and worked with drama teacher Becky Pusta to prepare for regional and state competitions.
Pulawski rehearsed like she was already doing it for a living, Pusta said. A natural at taking direction, Pulawski's fresh face, talent and maturity make for a rare package.
"She has an ethereal quality you can't buy," Pusta said. "When you walk into the room, you notice her. She's got that 'it' quality that we talk about. I get some really talented students, but not everything together — the brains and the beauty and the drive and the determination and the savvy and the sophistication."
During high school, Pulawski played Sister Robert Anne in Nunsense, Mrs. Van Daan in Yours, Anne and Mayzie in Seussical the Musical. But her shining moment came in her junior year when she played Frog in the children's musical A Year with Frog and Toad. The cast of eight didn't have a DVD of the show to watch, so they developed their roles using instinct.
"It's a very, very challenging role, and she did it very well," Pusta said.
Last December, Pulawski won a $500 scholarship from the International Thespian Society for students pursuing theater arts. The recognition meant much more than the money, she said.
"To have a sense that other people think I should pursue it, too, that it's not just me and a futile dream."
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As she juggled coursework and rehearsals and duties for her other activities, Pulawski played a crucial role at home, too.
Her parents divorced in 2002. That same year, Susan Pulawski, a former intelligence editor for the Army, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The disease robbed of her ability to do simple things like button a blouse or opening a jar. By early afternoon, she is exhausted.
Colleen has two older siblings who are grown and already out of the house, so she had to step up. Perhaps the biggest challenge for a busy family: Susan can't drive. So Colleen acted as taxi driver and courier, shuttling her mother and Jake and picking up groceries in a gold Toyota Camry free of adornment except for a blue bumper sticker with the word "Coexist" written in various religious symbols.
She kept a positive attitude and made it work, said close friend and fellow Springstead graduate Alexandra Coscia.
"You wouldn't really know there was an issue there unless you asked," Coscia said. "She does it all without complaint for her mom."
Susan Pulawski always knew her daughter had a special presence on the stage, but she admits reservations about her career choice. Why not minor in theater? But she was always supportive, Colleen said, and is reassured that her daughter is going to one of the top three performing arts schools in the country.
"In just about every Broadway or off-Broadway show, Carnegie Mellon has alumni," Susan said. "It gave me some peace of mind."
Pulawksi says she doesn't want to be famous. She just wants to work in theater and see the world.
"I want to be able share my art and talent with as many people as I can," she said. "I know that sounds corny, but it's true. It gives me a sense of fulfillment I don't get anywhere else."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.