Spring Awakening alum Kathryn Gallagher talks about creating her sound, speaking her mind and celebrating authenticity in art


Kathryn Gallagher made her Broadway debut as Martha in the 2016 Tony-nominated Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening, and has since released several of her own EP’s. Blending folk, rock, musical theatre and personal narrative, Gallagher is open about her own struggles and the eclectic mix of inspirations that surround her life.

Gallagher will also make her Feinstein’s/54 Below solo debut in a fresh, eclectic new cabaret on May 25, debuting new original music and sharing stories of “growing up and messing up.”

Stage Door Dish sat down with Gallagher to chat about her upbringing in the theatre industry, her adamant inclination toward songwriting, and her upcoming solo show debut.

First, you are an LA girl living in NYC, right?

 I am. Well, okay. . . I don’t know. I lived in New York City until I was 11, then I moved to LA, so I had a lot of my formative years there. But my cell is still 917 and I refuse to ever change that. In my brain, I’m a New Yorker, but everybody’s like ‘you’re from LA,’ which I am because I spent so long there. When I was living there with a friend of mine for the first two productions of Spring Awakening and we transferred to Broadway, in my mind, I was still going to stay in LA. I kept paying rent in LA. Then I got back to LA after Spring Awakening closed, and you know when life kind of continues without you, and you think it’s going to stop where you left off and it doesn’t? You know that makes sense, but you really don’t expect it. I’ll be honest, it was really sort of this heartbreaking homecoming. Nothing felt the same and I didn’t quite know where to go to dinner, I didn’t know who to hang out with, and I didn’t know who to call. It was two to three months where my life was really in flux and my roommate at the time was like ‘Hey, I’m going to move out in a couple of weeks with my friend who I subletted the room to.’ As soon as that went away, I guess I could finally admit that I should be living in New York, because I knew that all along.I really knew that New York was where I had more of a life and more of a job and more of a community, but I had this idea of this perfect world I had before in LA with the house, the dog and the friends, and it was beautiful. Then when that went away, not by my choosing, it made it really clear to me that I should be living in New York.

At first, it was super sad and weird. I moved here officially only in June. It was this weird, crazy, heartbreaking transitional period, but I think those periods of time always happen when you know you’re making the right decision. You go through those periods of time where the world gives you no choice but to change and to make a transition. So I officially moved to New York in June and I can’t imagine ever living in LA again.

Obviously Spring Awakening was in the Brooks Atkinson, but that wasn’t your first time being backstage in that theater.

It’s funny because my dad was in a ton of Broadway shows, but I was eight years old when he was doing Noises Off there. It was the most aware that I was. He did The Country Girl when I was 14 but we were living in LA, so when he was doing Noises Off it was the most time I think I’d ever really spent with him as a kid. For one, because he had a steady job in the city where I lived – usually when he had a job it meant he was in Vancouver or LA or somewhere far away, and so I loved that. I would go visit him all the time and I knew Pat the doorman. I would watch the show, and I didn’t really understand it that much, but we were really close with Patti [Lupone] growing up because she lives in Connecticut and Patti’s son Josh was my age too, so we grew up together. So going into that theater, it was like I got my dad, I got Patti, who’s known me since I was born, this whole kind of community in this theater and it was really this golden time where I think I idealized Broadway as this wonderful place where families exist and do plays . . . what’s better than that? Then, thirteen years later, I found out that we were going to be in that same theater and my first question was wondering if Pat was still there and he was! He was our matinee doorman. It was the coolest thing.

I vividly remember – there was one seat. In Noises Off my dad ran down an aisle in one scene and so when I would go see the show, they would put me in the back of orchestra house left on the aisle in the very last row so my dad could hang out with me for the scene before he went on. It was like ‘Take Your Daughter to Work Day’ and I remember sitting there and watching him sit next to me and then go on stage, and then when I was doing Spring Awakening, there was one night where he had just landed and he decided to come and watch the second act. I looked out during Purple Summer and saw him in the back of the house where I stood as a kid . . . and I’m not that sentimental. I don’t like to cry. But I was a total mess. And there’s a huge Noises Off poster in the basement, too, which is cool.

I find it so interesting – being a second generation actor. What was it like growing up with such a force in the entertainment industry?

Well, it’s interesting. A lot of my friends growing up in LA have actor parents, too, so it’s something we talk about because a lot of my friends are actors. I think one of the things that we all sort of battle with – I know I do – was that I ran to music and I think wanted to be really different from my dad. I was like ‘I’m not an actor, my dad’s an actor. I’m not that.’ I’m a writer, I’m a songwriter, I’m a singer. So I really wanted to distinguish myself. But I think that even with my ego being like ‘I’m different,’ I was really just orbing this respect for the actual craft of it. My dad passed on a real respect for icons in theatre history and respect for the text and the story. I was always raised with no disillusions of fame and glory.

I was 13 and I was about to have a really big meeting with a record label and my dad said to me in the car, ‘You know, whatever hole in your heart that you think fame might fill – it doesn’t, it just makes it deeper and a little bit lonelier. Because you’ve got you as a person and you’ve got the job.’ He always made that really clear. Your job is to tell this story and if you can focus on that and find the importance in what you’re trying to say or the story you’re trying to tell, then the rest of it doesn’t even matter. It obviously is part of it, but my dad definitely showed me – watching him work and watching him grow and focus his energy – if anything, it’s a family business. I just watched. He never really tried to teach me anything about acting – I wouldn’t listen. I just watched him have respect for his job. It was just osmosis.

Can you talk about your songwriting? 

I started writing songs when I was 11 years old. It’s just my favorite thing to do in the world. In high school, I got my first record deal at 15 and left my first record deal at 16. We didn’t share the same vision. I just really hustled. I played my first gig at The Whiskey at 15. That was when I started gigging around LA. I went to college for music, for songwriting and theory, and studied every aspect of it. I left college, and I will say one of the reasons I left college was because when I was there, I didn’t get to do theatre and I didn’t realize how much I was going to miss it. In high school I was always doing a musical or a play on the weekends and then I would have band practice at night on the weekdays and then rehearsal for whatever musical I was doing on Saturdays and Sundays and then dance concert . . . everything was always a part of it. I was under this false pretense that one day I would have to choose. I was like ‘Well, I’ll choose music,’ because I always felt like that’s what makes me different. ‘One day, I’ll go back and do theatre again, but I should do music first.’ I had this whole plan in my brain. The best laid plans, you know? And so once I started studying it in school, I dropped out of college and started writing songs around LA. I just started gigging because that was kind of all I knew how to do.

Just when I was getting really frustrated with it, I got a call from Michael [Arden] being like ‘I’m doing this thing.’ Songwriting has always been the thing that I fall into the most naturally. Every morning I wake up, I play guitar, and I work on a song. That’s what makes the most sense to me. But it’s all the same art. Theatre, songwriting, pop music, standup . . . it’s all telling stories with just different ways into it. The songwriting stuff, playing in bars . . . that’s home to me. There’s nothing that makes me feel more at home than being with my guitar in front of an audience, singing my songs on stage to people. That is the most comfortable I will ever be in a room with someone. Off-stage, that’s far more awkward for me. But if I can be on that stage with a guitar, I’m chilling.

What’s it like to play in a very chill, low-key environment and then be thrown into this after working on it in LA and come here and have this whole reception?

You know, I started to get the idea that we might be onto something even at ICA. We sold out pretty fast in LA. It was a real big hit. We started having these people that became really passionate about it and already people started writing us letters. I had this idea – I even remember texting my band at the time saying, ‘Hey guys, I’m doing this production of this show and I think it might be really special and I wouldn’t tell you this if I didn’t mean it, but I would like you to come. I think this could be a special thing.’ I saw the way that people, especially young people, reacted to it. Stage-dooring for the first time was like the thrill of a lifetime. It was such an honor and such a thrill to get to talk to people that were affected by the show, and I loved it. I love talking to people after shows. I love interacting with the audience and hearing what they think. I love knowing the people who like the things that we’re doing. I think we couldn’t do what we do without them. And so to know that they get as much out of it as we do is really awesome. That conversation and dialogue that live theatre allows is brilliant.

Could you talk about the contrast as an artist performing both as a folk singer-songwriter and a high-energy rock belter? 

My biggest hurdle in the past year and a half has been defining my sound as a solo artist. I write folk songs on guitar but I love playing with a full band. I always want to do high-energy stuff, but naturally I just write sad songs. The stuff we’re working on now is definitely more of a pop sound. I’m so excited to play it for people. That’s sort of why I’ve been back and forth in LA a lot – waiting until I have the right group of songs to kind of re-launch. That’s why I haven’t released anything in like a year and a half. It kills me – I’m so ready. But yeah, I’m really excited about everything we’re working on because I think it is sort of a middle ground between sad, folky country and rock. In every show I do, I want there for a full band and a hair flip. That’s very much a part of who I am. I also want be able to put on my guitar and sing a sad song about a heartbreak.

Do you have a favorite song that you’ve written?

Yes. It’s called ‘Dear Little Girl’. It’s not released yet, but I’ve played it live. I’m going to be playing it at 54 Below. It took be about two years to write that song. When I actually figured out what the song was, it took me twenty minutes. But I was trying to write that idea for literally two years. That’s my number one favorite song. I’m looking forward to finally releasing it.  

Let’s talk about your big 54 Below show!

Yes! I’m really excited. I’ve been working really hard on making it very different than my solo shows. I’m really bridging the two worlds together. I’m going to be doing theatre stuff and I’m doing to be doing pop stuff and I’m going to be telling a lot of stories. I’m writing them out beforehand so I know what I’m going to say. I’m really trying to make it have an arch. There are a couple of things I’m kind of nervous to say . . . I’m getting really honest in it. I don’t know if I’ll regret it. I started writing a book at the beginning of this year based on this Cosmo article that I wrote last year and that kind of inspired me to start looking back on everything. I figured this show is a good time to work out some of my book material. It’s going to be different than 45 minutes at Rockwood, that’s for sure. Full band, doing it all . . . there’s definitely going to be Def Leppard song in there. I have a very special surprise guest who I’m very excited about. I’m definitely having Sean [Grandillo], Bonnie [Alex Boniello], and Lauren [Pritchard], then a very secret special surprise. My best friend is flying in for it. I’m really excited. It’s going to be a fun night.

There is such a lovely fellowship between the Spring Awakening family.

Oh yeah, it’s ridiculous. I just actually did Broadway Sings Gaga with Lilli Cooper the other night. She’s so good, it’s so ridiculous. I had this realization that I got so lucky. My Broadway debut was a show of a bunch of young people. Doing Spring Awakening was like being in a sorority. These young hormonal people in a theater six days a week together doing a show about sex. That is a bond for life no matter what. It’s fun and exciting. I think that’s why all the Spring Awakening casts really have this very unique shared experience.

I do want to ask more about this book, because I did not know that was a thing. What can you say about it?

 I wrote this article for Cosmo that started as a Tumblr rant. I got an email from a book agent. She was like ‘This might sound crazy, but I want you to write a book.’ The post was about body image. I’m in the very early stages, but I know how much it’s meant to me growing up reading memoirs, which is a title I don’t really deserve because I’m 23. I don’t know if 23-year-olds are allowed to write memoirs.

Women are taught so frequently to kind of not talk about things and there’s so much that’s sort of taboo and forbidden about literally just natural things our body does. There are so many rules about how we should look and what we should do and what we should shave and what we should not. What we can talk about, what we can’t talk about. I think that it’s really powerful when women do talk about it. I had an eating disorder, I got bullied out of middle school, body issues up the wazoo. I’m not saying I’m nailing it right now with confidence, but I’m certainly doing better. I’m healthy and I’ve come a long way. I don’t know if I have any wisdom to offer. I was moved at the way the Cosmo article connected with people. The things that make us feel so alone are often the things that connect us the most. If more people talk about them, the more stories that people tell about times they felt alone, I think the less alone we’ll all feel. And so my book is a collection of essays about times I felt alone, funny stories, sad stories . . . just kind of growing up and figuring it out.

Growing up is really scary and all these things start to happen to you and you don’t necessarily understand why or what it is. Your feelings just start changing and your brain starts changing and falling in love for the first time and getting hurt for the first time. Learning that it’s a choice to love yourself was a really big discovery for me. I didn’t know I had that option. I thought that someone loves you and you’re validated or you grow up thinking you’re great and it’s validated. No one ever told me I could just choose that I was cool. I think the more stories out there of people feeling alone, the more connected we are.

You use your voice so beautifully through what you’ve done on stage and as a performer and as a person to speak up about important issues. Can you speak about that influence and having that connection with people?

I just don’t think I have the willpower to not. I’m being honest. I have no filter. I say things all the time that I shouldn’t. But, in terms of social issues, things on my brain, body issues . . . I posted this photo of me in sweatpants and a hair towel the other day and it was this weird defiant moment. I’ll be honest, it was a clear choice to post this photo and I looked at my Instagram and I was like ‘these are all such bullshit.’ Not in the way that none of them were honest, it’s not like I’m tuning my stomach thinner, so not in that sort of dishonest way, but in a way where I was just like ‘this isn’t what I act like.’ I usually make a stupid face or dumb joke or talk about my dog and his bowels. I looked at my Instagram and it looked very serious and it freaked me out. So I was like ‘what if people think I’m like this?’

I posted this photo of me standing right there and my friend was over. I had just gotten out of the shower and I was putting my shirt back on and making a dumb face and it’s this really honest moment. I liked something about it because I think I looked genuinely happy which is a thing that I didn’t really see on my Instagram very often. So I posted it and I got this crazy response. I got called brave, which is not always the word you want to hear when you’re half naked, but we’re working with it. While I think it’s important to keep some things to yourself, – I certainly do – I also think that being outspoken about politics or or social issues or body image or just a weird photo of me in a hair towel . . . I think that sort of transparency of just being yourself is as much freeing for me as it is for someone else.

I think it’s really important especially right now in the world for people to use their voices, especially young people, to talk about the things that matter to them. This is such a critical time, politically and socially. Not being outspoken and not being involved and not being aware of what’s happening in our country feels wrong. I’ve always been into politics and I’ve always kept up-to-date, but more than ever right now, I think it wouldn’t feel right to me to be on social media and not be talking about it. That doesn’t mean that every tweet has to be like ‘Fuck you, Donald Trump,’ though it could be. But it does mean having an awareness about what’s going on in our world right now, though sometimes being in New York or LA is a bit of a bubble because you don’t see evidence of change in this really scary time. Every single day, it’s happening and it’s real and we have to stay alive in this resistance and alive in our awareness of it.

Has there ever been either professionally or personally someone who has said something that has stuck with you?

I was having a really tough day, I must have been like 20 years old, and friends of mine had been lame. It was not that dire, but I met my friend Whitney Cummings, who is a comedian. We met and she was like ‘So, what’s up,’ and I was like ‘Honestly, I don’t know. I’m having a shit day, this guy said this thing and made me feel sad.’ She goes ‘You know what, that’s like junk mail. it wasn’t meant for you. They sent it, but you just gotta put it in another folder. Wrong email address, not meant for my inbox, that has nothing to do with you.’ You know hurtful things have nothing to do with you, but the idea that you can be like ‘Hey you know what, I know you said that to me, and it actually wasn’t for me.’ . . . the idea of actively taking it out of your inbox. The idea that when people are kind of hurtful, it’s just like ‘I don’t actually need this. This actually doesn’t need to exist in my life.’ There’s this book that was really valuable to me – it’s kind of this idea that you can actively change the way you react to things. It talks a lot about actively sending love to the things that hurt you. Even when someone is sending you shit, you can actively change your emotional response to it just in your own brain. It doesn’t have to hurt you. It can, and you’re allowed to feel that sadness. But you can decide that it doesn’t and it’s all in your power. That blew my mind. I’m not great at it, but it blew my mind that it’s an option.

So this time last year you guys were getting ready to perform for the Tonys. Looking back to last year, what’s that experience like for you?

Wild. It’s crazy. I gotta say as a person, it’s crazy because I’m a lot happier than I was last year. This time last year was a really sad time for me just generally. The Tonys were an amazing week of my life. It was this weird blip. I barely remember them. We weren’t even doing the show anymore, so getting everyone back together was really emotional. This year what’s on my mind is that one of my oldest friends in the world is nominated for Best Actor and that’s the coolest thing in the world. Honestly, I’m really excited for him. The Tonys this year for me – just this whole season when you’re not really a part of it really puts everything in perspective. We’re so lucky to have this community and this culture that thrives on storytelling and art at its true, purest form. Theatre is not something anyone gets into for money. This is not something anyone does for the glamour of it. It’s a bunch of hardworking people that do it because they love to. I think that awards season now when you’re not a part of it is kind of magical. I’m really excited to root for my friends. I’m trying to see everything before the Tonys happen. I’ve got my fingers crossed for Ben and Beanie [Feldstein]. I just feel lucky to be a part of this community. It’s just a reminder of that. How did we get so lucky?

What’s it like for you to be such a close friend of Ben’s and to see his performance in Dear Evan Hansen?

He had been working on this show for years now. I remember hearing the demo of ‘Waving Through a Window.’ But I was at his first preview with his family and our other friend Molly. I saw him at Second Stage. From the moment I saw it at Second Stage when he opened his mouth to sing ‘Waving Through a Window’ I broke out in tears, and then the same thing happened when I saw it on Broadway. It’s so exciting to see. Knowing him, I’m excited for him obviously that he gets to do this. But he’s so transformed in the show in his character. It’s almost like I’m totally transported with him. Watching him take his first bow on Broadway was pretty much the most magical moment I’ve ever seen. You grow up with somebody and you know what they’re capable of, it’s really exciting to see the world kind of recognize it too. I feel really lucky to be in a group of friends that is so supportive.

I can’t wait to see Beanie in Hello, Dolly! It’s just so exciting. I can’t explain how cool it is. I feel the same way about my Spring Awakening family. Getting to see Krysta [Rodriguez] do her show, and seeing Andy [Mientus] in Wicked. . . It’s rare to have such a supportive community and such a supportive group of friends and I feel really really lucky that I’m surrounded by such talented, hardworking and open-hearted people. That’s rare. It’s not just theatre. My friends in LA too . . . I have the best friends in the world. My best friend is flying in to see my show. I’m really lucky. I think the people I surround myself with are all sort of creative, driven people with their own hopes and dreams and they’re all chasing them and the fact that everybody supports each other – that’s the way it should be. It’s just exciting. I love everyone in my life right now. I’m lucky.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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