Rhonda Karson ended up in Hollywood because she thought she wanted to work in film. But she always had a calling for the stage, and that’s where she has found her muse.
Born and raised in Tucson, Karson, the 27-year-old daughter of Cathy and Mitch Karson, got her first taste for performing in beauty pageants. “My parents were very supportive, until they realized I was only in it for the talent portion,” Karson recalls. So they ended that expensive endeavor. She grew her performance talents under Cantor Janece Cohen of Congregation Or Chadash, who also directs the Tucson Jewish Youth Choir. “I sang in services and in her choirs. She gave me a foundation for performance,” says Karson.
When her parents won a silent auction for a walk-on part in a Gaslight Theatre performance, “I took to it like a fish to water,” Karson remembers. For several years, she had one of the few children’s parts in the Gaslight’s annual Christmas shows.
Karson was active in the drama department at Catalina Foothills High School. She says the department was “ridiculously well-funded and full of talent. It was a big deal for me.” Attending the University of Arizona for a couple of years, she participated in musical theater. “I realized that if I was really serious, I needed to get out of Tucson.”
Off to Los Angeles, she completed her bachelor of fine arts degree in performing arts and acting at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy College and Conservatory of Performing Arts. The faculty are all working professionals. This gave her numerous academic performance opportunities for musical theater. Her favorite was “Cabaret,” directed by faculty member and Ovation Award winner Nicholas DeGruccio. “It was great to work with him.”
Another benefit to AMDA is the connection among alumni, which Karson says contributed to her immediately starting to work after graduation in 2013. “Talent is so cheap” in L.A., Karson says, “it’s 100 percent the people you know.” She did several performances at the Cupcake Theater in North Hollywood, including “Avenue Q” and “The Vagina Monologues.” She is a frequent performer in “Little Shop of Horrors” and will reprise the female lead role of Audrey there later this year.
Karson starred in the Roanoke Historical Association’s “The Lost Colony,” the first and longest running outdoor drama in America, which earned a Tony Honors award in 2013. She has completed several independent short film projects.
She made her directorial and production debut in 2017 with “BASH,” a spooky, avant-garde monologue drama staged around Halloween. “I was so lucky the project was a huge success,” says Karson. She earned the Best Director of a Stage Play-Drama from the North Hollywood Fringe Festival, which encourages small artists to self-produce. “What little success I’ve had, someone is always more successful than you. I just want to make good art,” she says.
An Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign underwrote the project. Friends and family helped raise a portion of the money and the rest came through ticket sales.
“This is the only industry that has been dying since it began,” she explains about the difficulties in funding and getting people to attend productions. “It’s a struggle getting young people to come into theater. Artists struggle between what they want to produce and what will sell.” Having her mother and grandmother in the audience made Karson proud, “and I know they were proud, too. That made me feel great.”
“Lots of people get tunnel vision and focus on success. They become a waiter, get an agent, they are stressed out and too competitive. That’s not the lifestyle for me,” she says, noting that between projects she conserves and aims toward the next production.
“I would never enjoy being a starving artist,” she says, describing some who are so dedicated they become homeless and live out of their cars. “Art is important and it drives my life, but you have to make priorities.”
Karson thinks about leaving L.A. for a place that is easier and cheaper to live, like Portland. “I think about Tucson a lot, like, all the time,” she says But, her life and friends are in LA. “The sheer amount of talent and turnover in L.A. makes so many replaceable. You literally can throw a stone and find 10 people willing to do my projects. The huge community of artists help each other. Ideally, I want to be producing one show a year, that’s my goal.”