Like many driven thespians, Alison Lea Bender is following her dream of becoming a top-flight actor in New York. But the 2005 Gibbs High School graduate's first major professional role comes not under the Broadway lights, but on the boards of her hometown.
Bender, an engaging 21-year-old, tackles the role of Suzannah in the just-opened production of Hair at American Stage in St. Petersburg. Getting to stay at her parents' Seminole home, eat home-cooked meals and play with her dog, Minnie, has eased stress in her first Actors Equity role.
"I do feel comfortable," she said. "This is my very first big, professional show and I'm doing it back home. I get home from these eight-hour rehearsals where we're doing intense movement and material."
Her days begin at 7:30 a.m. when she picks up a fellow cast member. Then her regimen begins: morning stretches, piano warm-up and blocking the show onstage at Demens Landing.
It's tiring, but compared with the nonstop work required for recent New Jersey productions of Miss Saigon and Fame, some down time helps.
"What's great about Equity is you get these breaks in between," she said. "I feel like I'm back at school rehearsing from morning to night."
During high school, she played the role of Cosette in Les Misérables in a student version put on through the American Stage Theatre Company's education department. Julie Rowe directed her in it and was impressed with Bender's soprano voice.
Rowe, now the director of education at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre on Florida's east coast, returned to St. Petersburg a week ago and met with her former student.
"It's something sentimental to be able to say she was part of a summer camp at a professional theater and now she's back as a professional on stage," Rowe said.
Director Eric Davis noted her receptiveness to new techniques. "I think she's working hard and learning a lot from the more seasoned actors in the show," he said.
Once Bender's St. Petersburg sojourn ends in late April, she'll be back in New York, chasing her dreams.
"I feel like I'm really building the steps to my career," Bender said. "I may not be on Broadway yet, but I feel like I could be someone to look out for."
Callbacks for Spring Awakening's national tour are coming up. And she's shooting for a spot on the TV series Glee.
"You have to have that philosophy (that) you can go in for 10 auditions and make it to the final round and on the 11th, get it," she said. "It's all about being in the right place at the right time."