Davis bred a passion for performance in Jill Winternitz, 25, that became too spectacular for the town to contain.
So spectacular, in fact, that it prompted a 6,000-mile journey overseas to London. Her dream led to a prominent acting and dancing gig in the role of Baby for the United Kingdom’s national tour of the musical “Dirty Dancing.”
It was the many influences locally, however, that inspired that dream. Winternitz points to Julie Curry’s tap-dancing classes and recitals at the Davis Art Center as her first intoxicating taste of performance.
“Circa 9 and 10 years old you would often find me practicing routines in our garage, or more controversially, tapping under my desk at school,” Winternitz said. “My passion for dance was soon eclipsed by my love for acting when I played Clara in Ann Smalley’s ‘Davis Children’s Nutcracker.’ … It was after this magical experience that I declared to my parents, friends and anyone who would listen that I would be an actress.”
Winternitz was persuaded as a 14-year-old actress to pursue more sophisticated roles by Dave Burmester of the Acme Theatre Company. She auditioned and performed in Acme’s production of “Taming of the Shrew,” a Shakespeare play presented on the outdoor stage at the Pence Gallery.
Another drama mentor, Gwyneth Bruch, introduced the aspiring young thespian to musical theater and restoration comedy during her time at Davis High School. It was the last of a series of experiences that were essential in the next step of Winternitz’s path to an acting career — leaving her hometown.
Michigan (where she graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy in 2004), Los Angeles and even Russia became places of temporary residence while she trained an actress. Winternitz was accepted into London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the age of 19, so she decided to relocate and complete her studies.
“While it was really hard to see her go, in our hearts we knew it was the best for her,” said her father, Bill Winternitz. “Basically, she has been focused on this since she was little more than 2 years old. Nothing has changed her mind from excellence. It’s amazing, and I’ve never seen another kid like her. She really has been focused from day one.”
That lifelong dedication paid off during an audition for a Broadway-esque tour of “Dirty Dancing,” a show based on the 1987 American romance film starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Winternitz now dons a curly wig nightly for the role of Baby, played in the film by Grey.
The main characters do not sing, because all of the music comes from an onstage band. Winternitz said it is a rarity in musical theater to find a role based so strongly around acting and dancing. She expressed how much fun the show has been thus far, and how thankful she is to be a part of it.
“One of my favorite things about this job is hearing the great audience reactions to the iconic scenes and lines,” Winternitz said. “I’ve never seen such a vocal and enthusiastic crowd, and it’s very infectious. No matter what mood I may be in when I come to the theater each day, it’s impossible not to have a brilliant time doing the show. It all peaks in ‘Time of My Life’ at the finale with the audience often up and dancing along with us.”
The difference between American and English audiences mirrors a vast difference in environment, something Winternitz has adapted to over the six years she has spent working and auditioning in the United Kingdom.
“It was a real adjustment at first, especially with the lack of sunshine, but the cultural delights, and the indescribable buzz of living in such a vibrant world capital was distraction enough,” Winternitz said. “I’d like to think I still have my native Californian accent, albeit with a few English inflections perhaps.”
The tour runs through May 2013 and will visit more than 10 cities in England. Winternitz prizes the enviable opportunity to sight-see and experience foreign lands, but she still holds hope for a future back in California — eventually.
“The English always ask me why I chose to leave such a paradise as California, and the truth is, it was never about leaving,” Winternitz said. “It has actually been about expanding horizons, pursuing crazy dreams, and being open to the often surprising journey that life can take you on.
“And until my inevitable return home, rest assured that I’m waving the flag for Davis, even from these distant shores.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected]