SOPHIA HILLMAN says her earliest memories involve a fascination with New York City, where her cousin worked as a professional actress. As a present for her 10th birthday, her mom gave Hillman her first taste of the Big Apple.

“From the very last row, we saw Matilda the Musical on Broadway,” she said. “I couldn’t keep my eyes off it and was completely bit by the bug. I thought — there were kids my age doing this. I saw myself reflected on the stage. That was all the inspiration I needed.”

Sophia Hillman

Sophia Hillman

Hillman was inducted into the International Thespian Society as a member of Olathe North High School’s Thespian Troupe 3310 in 2017. The Kansan served as her troupe secretary and later president. Over the course of her high school career, she performed in 29 productions.

Hillman’s work paid off as the recipient of the 2020 Amy Bennett Musical Theatre Scholarship, awarded annually to a graduating senior entering a college program to major in musical theatre. The scholarship is funded by the Amy Bennett Foundation, a nonprofit established in 2014 in memory of a Thespian Troupe 7070 alum.

Outside of theatre, Hillman loves to dance, write poetry, play games with friends, and read. She’s also active in her community. “I volunteer at a food bank — the work used to be preparing and serving food; now I deliver it,” Hillman said. “With some friends, I also volunteer to clean up the grounds at my high school. They have an open lunch policy, so people can eat anywhere. And they’re not always good about cleaning up after themselves. This community service work reminds me I am in a privileged position in my life. I am lucky enough to have a school and family that support me.”

Earlier this fall, Hillman started the next phase of her musical theatre journey, as a student at Wichita State University pursuing a BFA. “Theatre is the perfect platform where anyone and everyone can be accepted, challenged, and loved,” Hillman said. “I intend to use my education and training to assist and empower young scholars who are underserved. Everyone has the potential to have an impact on the world; I aspire to do this through theatre and community connections.”

When did you realize musical theatre was your strong suit?
I have never been afraid to be loud in front of an audience. When I was 6, I was Little Miss Muffet in our school’s musical about Mother Goose. I didn’t have any training; it was just natural for me. And it was fun. In middle school, I always did plays and was in choir, but I didn’t combine the two — acting and singing — until high school.

My first success was my freshman year in my first musical ever, Oklahoma! I was cast as Ado Annie. I was thrown into this flamboyant role and had a great time. The experience was a whirlwind. I felt very proud of myself because, in my school, freshmen were never cast, and this was such an iconic show.

What experiences have you had in theatre besides performing in musicals?
In middle school, I was in plays, and I have also done props, costumes, run crew, stage management, and directing. Once I got to be a pyrotechnician. That was fun — I blew things up and lit things on fire.

Directing is my second favorite thing to do besides acting. When I was just 4, I would direct the TV shows I was watching, aware of the way people were speaking and moving.

So far, I have directed three shows. When I was in high school, I directed 30 Horrible Catastrophes of Middle School at my former Title I middle school. The kids had to be onstage the whole time, and I had to teach them how to stay in character and how to be different characters in different scenes. I knew these kids were from impoverished homes, and when they were onstage, I had to think about what they were bringing with them — did they have their supper, did they get their medicine, did they have a safe place to sleep.

My junior year, I directed The Sound of Music, which has a lot of history that must be done with delicacy. And the dancing is challenging too. But my senior year, I directed Elf the Musical, which turned out to be most challenging of all. It was new then, and this was its debut in my city. We had 60 high school students onstage and our first-ever sold-out house.

What has been your most challenging role?
My most challenging role came as a sophomore in The Little Mermaid. I was Flotsam, one of the twin eels. It was challenging because you’re with a partner the entire time, in a six-layer costume with LED lights in the sleeves. We had to turn the lights on and off to save batteries, while on Heelys. And the twin eels had to have the exact same motions.

When I was a junior, I was the female lead in Hands on a Hardbody. That was very challenging to be onstage the whole time with my hands on the truck, including during a scene where I had to do some crazy laughing.

For Bring It On — the Musical, I was in the ensemble. It was a different kind of challenge because the story, about an impoverished community, hit close to home. Every role is a challenge in its own way.

My favorite role was Norma in Hands on a Hardbody. It was hilarious with a big, belty, soulful song at the end. I went through every emotion an actor can go through. I don’t take things if they don’t challenge me, and I want to grow in every role I take.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from musical theatre?
One of the most valuable things I’ve learned is to trust myself. As Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, the choreography called for me to be flipped, and it was frightening. I had to trust myself so I could trust others. You have to make choices with everything — where you walk, how you speak. And I had to trust I was making the right choices for myself.

What advice would you give other Thespians interested in musical theatre?
My director for Bring It On said something that stays with me that I’d like to pass on. He said, “Concern yourself more with who you want to be rather than what you want to be, such as an actor or singer, and the rest will fall into place.” I find this happening for me. I am focused on being a good person and a stronger human being.

Sophia Hillman on the stage of Nebraska's Lied Center for the Performing Arts. Photo courtesy of Sophia Hillman.
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