Taking flight

Calista Zajac • Actor

By Bob Abelman

Calista Zajac prances rather than walks, as if always on the verge of breaking into dance. Or taking flight. And she sings show tunes 24/7. These and other noticeable symptoms of someone born to perform musical theater have contributed to an impressive professional résumé, talent agency representation and placement at the top of the short list of most sought-after local actors.

And she’s a 14-year-old, all 4-foot-10 of her.

“While most kids her age are listening to Ariana Grande, Calista listens to Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz and Ben Platt,” says her mother, Jessica, who blames herself and her husband, Louie, for giving Calista the acting itch by exposing her to Broadway musicals when she was just 3 years old. Louie, having performed “legendary” spotlight work while at North Royalton High School, credits his daughter’s immense talent to heredity.  

Perhaps, but Calista’s remarkable drive, unyielding dedication and laser focus – as well as years of vocal training at Helen Todd Voice Studio in Cleveland Heights and dance lessons at Emjaez Dance Studio in Bay Village – haven’t hurt. She is particularly adept at losing herself in her characters while, at the same time, finding something of herself to inform their portrayals. And she finds joy in absolutely everything.

Her first high-profile professional acting experience – playing Little Cosette in the 2014 production of “Les Misérables” at Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland, alongside seasoned Equity actors – reinforced what everyone had been telling her about her abilities and, says Calista, “bolstered my confidence. I was also working with actors-in-training from Baldwin Wallace (University), so I got a sense of what would be required of me in the future if I wanted to do this for a living and make it in New York City.” Which she does.  

Other opportunities immediately followed, which have not gone unnoticed or underappreciated by local theater critics. “Zajac displays astounding acting chops,” notes one review regarding her recent performance in Dobama Theatre’s “The Nether,” Jennifer Haley’s cunning and creepy exploration of the dark side of the web. Calista played Iris, a winsome little girl who appears to be the consenting recipient of many men’s sexual desires but is actually an online avatar for a male adult.  

“Oh, we had a long family talk before Calista auditioned for and accepted this role,” her mother says.  

Calista Zajac as Winnie in “Tuck Everlasting” at French Creek Theatre. / Photo by Andy Dudik

Local audiences may remember Calista from Joel Paley and Marvin Laird’s outrageously campy comedy “Ruthless” at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood. She played a precocious 11-year-old song-and-dance sociopath named Tina Denmark, who knocks off a rival in her grade-school play in order to land the lead role. “Like her character’s inspiration – the similarly named Rhoda Penmark in the film ‘The Bad Seed,’” states one review, “young Zajac’s feigned syrupy sweetness seamlessly and convincingly transitions into the death stare of a natural born killer. If you ever wondered what ever happened to Baby Jane in the film about a deranged former child actress played by Bette Davis, well, here’s the backstory.”

In July, Calista, of Broadview Heights, starred in the French Creek Theatre musical “Tuck Everlasting,” which is based on a children’s novel by Natalie Babbitt. She played an 11-year-old living in the woods of New Hampshire who must make a decision with everlasting consequences. True to her now well-established approach to her art, she came to rehearsals astoundingly prepared and performed with uncanny realism. “With spunk, a sense of adventure and just a touch of rebellion,” one review observes, “Zajac perfectly embodies the character who I looked up to and longed to be when I was younger – and there’s sure to be little girls in the audience who are now doing the same.” 

And, if you looked closely, the young actor could be seen prancing. CV

On stage

Calista will play the role of “Sofia,” the youngest member of a multi-generational cast in Dobama Theater’s “Dance Nation,” Clare Barron’s Pulitzer-finalist play about the exhilaration and raw terror of being in a competitive middle-school dance troupe. The production will run March 6-29, 2020, at 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.

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