Miss Hibiscus stars in Theatre Guild – what’s next?

Kaitlin and Tracy Ruby

The deadline is looming for Kaitlin Ruby to make one of the most important decisions of her life. Somehow, she has to set aside her newly-won Miss Hibiscus crown, get over turning 18, put down the scripts for the two plays she’s in, get beyond her upcoming high school graduation and decide where she’s going to college.

Who knew, when she started applying, that her talent would earn her offers from some of the top theater programs in the state? One conservatory accepted her after seeing her in a state theater competition, not even knowing her grade point average – a 4.3, with enough college credits from dual enrollment to earn her A.A. degree this summer.

The stack of acceptances includes the University of Florida’s Miami-based New World Conservatory and Florida State University’s School of Theatre. She was also accepted with a major scholarship to Stetson University, originally her first choice. Its lesser known theater department could be supplemented by a stellar vocal studies program – and singing is Kaitlin’s second love.

Each of those schools required an audition to get into the theater program. The New World Conservatory, a highly selective program of only 15, waived the requirement for Kaitlin after its director saw Kaitlin perform for the second year in a row at the Florida State Thespian Festival in Tampa.

Indian River Charter High School, where Kaitlin studies as part of the Visual and Performing Arts Program, or VAPA, was one of only eight schools invited to participate in the competition’s Mainstage program at Tampa Theatre. Last year, she won the Mainstage Actor Award for her performance as Lizzie Borden in “Blood Relations”; this year, she performed a monologue from Neil Labute’s play, “Reasons to Be Pretty.”

While Kaitlin was auditioning in New York in January for Pace University and Ithaca College, she missed the audition for Florida State. Fortunately FSU let her reschedule. While she didn’t make it into either New York school, she was accepted at FSU, a major coup for an aspiring actor. The program is highly selective, as is New World, with only 15 students.

And no matter which college she chooses, she already has nearly enough credits to cover her freshman and sophomore years from taking dual-enrollment classes at Indian River State College, whose Vero campus adjoins Indian River Charter High School.

Last week, she had just wrapped up a college history final, before heading off to the Vero Beach Theatre Guild to rehearse for her role as Annie Sullivan in the upcoming “The Miracle Worker.”

Kaitlin has been acting since the age of 5, when she played a duck in kindergarten. “I was the best quacker,” she says, laughing.

That display of competitive confidence must have ended by elementary school. Though she continually challenges herself and still manages to get herself where she wants to be, she does so with disarming modesty. Her successes seem to matter most when they bring her new friends.

Asked the best part of being crowned Miss Hibiscus, a pageant that, had it required a bathing suit segment, she would have dismissed as “too degrading,” Kaitlin says it was getting to know her fellow competitors. “And now we’re all friends,” she says. “I wouldn’t have gotten to know them otherwise.”

Kaitlin’s mom Tracy Ruby calls herself a stage parent. With “The Miracle Worker,” it has gone beyond driving Kaitlin to rehearsals. For the first time, she is sharing the stage with her daughter, after Kaitlin persuaded her to audition. “She said it’s our last chance before she goes to college.”

“We do everything together,” says Kaitlin.

They both got parts – Kaitlin as Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, and Tracy as Helen’s mother, Kate.

Tracy Ruby works with her husband Chris at Group One Mortgage on Ocean Drive. Another daughter Alyssa is in middle school. Born in Gainesville, her University of Florida degree is in elementary education, but she never taught. She ended up in marketing and when she had children, she stayed home to raise them. She hasn’t acted since high school, but it was everything to her back then, just as it is to Kaitlin today.

Directing them is Vero native Ben Earman, now a teacher of drama in Port St Lucie. As an alum of Charter High, he was allowed to audition for the school’s Summer Stock production of “The Yellow Boat” last summer. He got the lead – with Kaitlin directing. It was the first time they’d met – they instantly hit it off – and the first time she’d directed.

“I loved it, but it was very hard,” says Kaitlin. “I’m usually on stage so seeing all the organization that goes into it really made me appreciate what it takes.”

“Her professionalism and attitude are above and beyond any high school student I’ve met,” says Earman, who teaches high school.

Time management was key last summer: in addition to directing the play, a fundraiser for the school, she was also working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. as head camp counselor at St. Edward’s School. Kaitlin, whose family lived on the south barrier island until a year ago, went to St. Ed’s for middle school, studying voice with former choral director Daniel Koh before transferring to Charter for its theater program.

The day after the Theatre Guild’s “Miracle Worker” opens, May 8, Kaitlin starts tech rehearsals at Charter for “The Great Gatsby.” Charter is the first school in the state to get the rights to stage the play. Kaitlin plays the female lead, Daisy.

“I’m bringing scripts from one play to rehearsals for the other,” she says, trying to memorize lines in every available free moment.

Both roles have required her to focus on the characters’ physicality. “Miracle Worker“ has six pages of blocking alone, she says. “The fight scene is the most challenging scene I’ve ever done. Usually I have bruises up and down my legs.”

And under the direction of Charter drama teacher Michael Naffziger, the role of Gatsby’s Daisy must be played with shifting levels of energy as her moods swing wildly from high to low.

“If you look at the way Fitzgerald intended her to be, I think she’s bi-polar,” says Kaitlin. “It’s not very dialogue heavy, but a lot of it is in the movement and scene transitions.”

Naffziger plans to project scenic effects in the black-box theater using video of floor tiles, waterfalls and a grand staircase.

“He’s combining film and theater,” Kaitlin says with excitement. “He’s shooting it all on camera and uploading it to a computer.” Commercial art students of Charter teacher Frank Colon are producing the effects as a class project.

Meanwhile, Tracy Ruby is hoping her memory holds remembering her lines as Kate at the Guild. “I’m taking my fish oil and doing Luminosity,” she says.

She is also worrying about the rest of her family not having supper on the table and clean clothes to wear. And with Kaitlin’s deadline looming over where to go to college, it is just beginning to dawn on Tracy that her stage mom days are ending. Kaitlin’s younger sister has zero interest in theater.

“She’s a boxer,” Tracy says. Chris Ruby, a former Marine, also boxes, but he didn’t have to persuade Alyssa to join him.

“It was the other way around,” says Tracy. “She got him into it.” Both train with Chris Gray at Sweet Science boxing gym.

Kaitlin, on the other hand, doesn’t even dance. “I slipped and went into a split on my first day at ballet. I never went back,” she says.

“The Miracle Worker” runs May 8-18 at the Vero Beach Theatre Guild. Call 772-562-8300.

“The Great Gatsby” runs May 23-25 at the Indian River Charter High School. Call 772-567-6600.

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