A Conversation With Chicago Actress Michelle Lauto
Actress Michelle Lauto speaks with an easy and noticeable kind of stage presence. Her animated voice emanates all the self-assurance, character and poise of someone accustomed to performance art, all characteristics that naturally complement the grit, grind and artistic persistence of Chicago’s theater scene.
Since moving to Chicago at the age of 21 to pursue acting, she already has several noteworthy roles under her belt—including playing the iconic Liza Minnelli in a 2016 production of “The Boy from Oz,” and the restless Vanessa in Porchlight Music Theatre’s 2016 production of “In the Heights.” Now 26, Lauto starred last year as Sheila Franklin in the generation-defining rock musical “Hair,” and as more than 10 different female roles in the hilarious parody, “Spamilton.”
But Lauto also doesn’t hide vulnerability behind her credentials. “Especially with the times that we’re in, sometimes I think, ‘Is what I’m doing dumb compared to what’s happening? Is this worth it? Is this not just totally useless in a time like this?’” Lauto recently gathered a truck full of supplies to ship to Puerto Rico in the wake of a devastating hurricane, and during her role in “Hair” this past summer, she and her cast mates organized fundraisers at every show, with the funds going to a different non-profit or social-justice organization each week. “We don’t get to just dress up and play pretend—not during the Trump administration, at least,” says Lauto. Still, her resolve to highlight the political times hasn’t always been well received. Once an audience member walked out of theater and yelled at her to “Grow up!” as he stormed out of the room.
Lauto remembers seeing the rock musical “Rent” on Broadway for the first time, and recounts how her 14-year-old self was utterly enthralled by the production: how the actors wove intensely powerful stories together with carefully placed lyrics and ballads that left her in awe. By the time the actors bowed and the curtains closed, teenage Lauto was sobbing in her chair.
Looking back now, Lauto makes sense of that pivotal moment. “If you reach someone with theater, it’s electric. If you show that vulnerability, it allows other people to feel safe to expose their vulnerability, too,” she explains. It has been a release for Lauto, whose struggle with depression and anxiety has persisted ever since she was a teenager. Many of the same grounding techniques for her stage work, like reminding herself to slow down, stay steady and just breathe, have carried over into this area of her personal life.
“To me, there’s a responsibility to play someone like a human—not like a caricature or a stereotype,” she says. “Acting is empathy. I’m putting myself in someone’s shoes and imagining what that would be like—that’s all it is. Just be a human and empathize with whoever you’re trying to be.”
Though her chosen industry has been frustrating and incredibly trying at times, Chicago’s theater scene has exposed Michelle to a wide network of other actors, screenwriters, directors and friends, many of whom share her commitment to quality storytelling and brave artistic work. “Chicago makes some of the best theater in the country, I would argue, if not the best,” she assures, with pride in her voice. “It’s bold, aggressive work, and I love that.”
“Like any art, I believe a lot of theater actors are conduits for change, and for displaying what could be and what should be. I want to go see theater that makes me think,” she comments thoughtfully without skipping a beat. “I want to go see theater that maybe makes me deeply question certain things about my own set of beliefs. That’s what we have to move into—and that’s what theater is born and bred out of, anyway.” Currently represented by Stewart Talent, the young—and now award-winning—actor is leaning into the opportunities coming her way. From audition to audition and from stage to stage, Lauto’s passion remains constant, with a keen, ever-steady eye on the goals, beliefs and aspirations that define her voice, her stage presence and her thriving career.
Cover photo by Layne Dixon Photography. All other photos by Brett Beiner Photography.