From Neighborhood Skits to Rising Star: Isabella Varno’s Journey in Community Theatre

SCHENECTADY – Isabella Varno is homegrown talent, cutting her teeth on the local stages in Schenectady and Niskayuna starting in elementary school. I know because I witnessed it.

Varno, or “Izzy” as my children and I affectionally call her, lived across the street from us with her folks and their giant black lab Henry. She played with my children, cuddling dogs and dancing out skits on our neighborhood street.

Now a local phenomenon who performs regularly in film and community theatre (she just finished a string of performances in “Boeing Boeing” with Sand Lake Theatre for the Arts), Varno sat down with me to reminisce a bit down Story Avenue’s memory lane and share her journey into theatre.

“I went away for a bit to the University of Arkansas, and I realized quickly that college wasn’t a good fit for me,” she shared, “So I came back to New York and moved right back to Schenectady!”

Varno shared this writer’s enthusiasm for Schenectady and was proud to report she has been working in volunteer theatre for the last two years throughout the Electric City and beyond. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had, honestly! I get to play pretend with my friends and bring these stories to life,” Varno cooed.

Varno is referring to her recent stint as Gloria in “Boeing Boeing” at the Sand Lake Theatre, a community theatre favorite that she previously performed in at the Classic Theatre Guild of Schenectady. “I was doing it for the second time in two years, and could see the skills I’ve learned so I could approach the role differently,” Varno explained.

“I love Gloria! She’s a real firecracker, and while the play takes place in the 1960s, I could relate a lot to Gloria as she was a woman ahead of her time,” Varno went on. She gushed over the costume design in the recent production, noting that the costume “encapsulated exactly who Gloria was – and helped me to be her!”

Critics have loved this production, noting that Varno’s performance is both fresh and appropriately pouty. Reviews spotlight her energy and zest for the old show, breathing new life into a familiar script.

Varno is a 26-year-old actor, and her noting that she has a lot in common with the character of Gloria made me smile. Like Gloria, Varno has traveled quite a bit since I last saw her, and seemed unafraid to explore the world — as well as her own emotions.

“I love acting,” she admitted. “I’m also doing improv parties dressed up as different princesses for my friend’s company Fantasy First. And it’s so much fun because you never know what a kid will say or ask of the character!”

Varno was almost breathless with excitement talking about her enjoyment of role-playing, and shared her favorite role is a fictitious pirate named Meg. “She’s feisty, and that’s surprisingly fun,” she shared. “The role-playing reminds me of a high school production I was involved with – Into the Woods – and now I can return full circle when I put on the costume and make-up for Snow White.” The pictures of her as Snow White are ideal: the dark hair, the beautiful skin, and those big olive eyes.

But her favorite? “Frost Princess is probably my all-time favorite because I love the focus on sisterhood and friendship in that story,” she explained, referencing the Disney-trademarked story “Frozen.”

“I came back to Schenectady because I wanted to be here. This community is so unique in how many theatres we offer. I’ve been performing for two years and have already been in 5 different companies!” Varno remarked. “I also was able to stage manage “The Cake” at Schenectady Civic Theatre, and am really proud of the work there.”

However, her heart has a soft spot for Homemade Theatre in Saratoga. “We did a production of “They’re Playing Our Song” by Neil Simon, and I truly cannot thank that production team enough for connecting me with that cast and crew. They’ve become my best friends.”

Varno started in ballet and performed the Nutcracker annually from age 5-14 at Proctor’s Theatre before her family relocated across the country. She continued dancing throughout her high school years regardless of where they lived, but has always felt like Schenectady was home.

“My acting is all volunteer. Right now, I work as a contractor during the day, and I teach people to throw axes at night at Generation Axe,” Varno noted. She even invited me to come throw an axe with my son.

More likely my speed, Shaker and Vine, Harveys and Center Street pubs are other local hot spots you can find Varno when she’s not on stage or working.

I remembered her as shy, and asked her where all this courage came from to start auditions. “Oh, it is scary, yeah, but you get better by going to more and more auditions, and showcasing your skills reading with people. The scripts and the people are unknowns, and that’s good for you!” Varno recommended.

Varno also auditioned for and won roles in some local films as well, and that has been a new area of expansion for her. But at the end of the day, Varno’s heart is in theatre.

Her favorite parts of community theatre? “Meeting the people! And all the outlets to explore creativity and play.”

“I tell kids to just go for it. If you feel nervous, that’s okay. Everyone is nervous! Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. It is a chance to grow,” Varno advised.

And grow she has. Keep an eye on this rising community theatre star, coming to a film or theatre near you soon.

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