Carla Stickler: A career that defies expectations
Alumna Carla Stickler’s Interlochen experience led her to Broadway and beyond–and back again.
For a few days in January, alumna Carla Stickler (IAC 97-00, IAA 00-01) found herself in an unusual place–back in the spotlight–when she put down her laptop, picked up a broom, and stepped into the lead role in Wicked on Broadway. She had played the role of Elphaba many times as the understudy on the national tour and on Broadway, but not in nearly seven years. With COVID cutting through Broadway ensembles, the producers of Wicked had to look beyond the current cast to ensure the show would go on, and Stickler’s name came up. Now a software engineer living in Chicago, Stickler received the phone call that every understudy anticipates. She hopped on a plane, settled into a hotel in midtown Manhattan, brushed up on her lines, and waited. On New Year’s Day she was called up to apply the green makeup and fly.
It was a feel good headline that was picked up by news outlets across the country: CNN, NPR, Vulture, People, and more. For most people, the surprise was that a woman who spends her days writing computer code could be plucked out of her routine and dropped onto a Broadway stage in a matter of days. For Stickler, the surprise was that it was a story at all.
“As an understudy, I’ve never gotten this kind of attention,” she explained. “Your job is to make sure the show goes on and there isn’t a big fuss about it.” Although she enjoyed the accolades, she’s happy with her new career and the creative connection she finds through her work in technology.
At Interlochen Arts Camp and Interlochen Arts Academy, Stickler bounced between theater and voice. She enjoyed acting but was more confident as a vocalist and thought she might follow in the footsteps of her grandmother, who had sung at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. She graduated from the Academy as a voice major, but a cyst on her vocal cords led her back to majoring in theater at NYU and eventually to a musical theater career on Broadway. She worked consistently and found her niche as an understudy in shows like Mamma Mia and then Wicked.
After five years understudying Elphaba, she was burned out. “There is this pressure. You have this little Elphaba on your shoulder, and you never know when you’re going to have to perform one of the hardest roles on Broadway,” she said. It affected her friendships and social life. When she wasn’t called on to play Elphaba, she rotated through other roles in Wicked. Dancing eight shows a week was hard on her body, and she saw her physical therapist more than her friends. She was exhausted.
She left Broadway to attend graduate school for theater education and vocal pedagogy and then split her time between teaching and performing. She returned to Wicked a couple of weeks a year to understudy or participate in press events and even performed on cruise ships. But she describes herself as an “all-in” person and soon discovered that part-time teacher and part-time performer wasn’t going to work for her.
Her next move was surprising, even to her: on the advice of a friend, she attended a computer coding bootcamp. She discovered that software engineering gave her both a creative outlet and provided the stability that she had been missing.
“When I was stressed out at Interlochen and was having vocal issues, I would go to the pottery studio and calm down,” she said. “Coding felt the same. I could focus, and at the end of the day I had created something. I had no idea that this field was as creative as it was. I’m sorry it took me so long to find.”
Stickler credits her Interlochen experiences with giving her the confidence and resilience to step away from theater and discover other means to express her creativity. “Had I not spent time at Interlochen exploring other artistic expressions, I wouldn’t have been as open to doing it as an adult,” she said. She also credits Interlochen and the arts with cultivating the work ethic that she still carries with her. “Interlochen gave me the drive and determination to work really hard and be good at something. The muscle of hard work that you build at Interlochen definitely translates into other endeavors.”
Back home in Chicago, Stickler has had a chance to reflect on her moments in the spotlight last month. She wants to stay connected to the arts in a way that brings her joy, but she’s not quite sure what that might look like.
Of her time at Interlochen, the memory Stickler cherishes most is just being surrounded by people who were passionate about what they were doing. She acknowledged that some alumni struggle with feelings of failure if they aren’t pursuing the arts with the same passion that they did at Interlochen. “You go to Interlochen to become a more interesting human. It’s okay to focus on something as a child and then move on. I want to try other things. It’s important to my growth,” she said, adding, “As I get older, there might be something else that I’m good at.” For now, she’s open to whatever happens next–which is exactly what she thinks Interlochen is about.