Lakeridge student steps up to adult stage in 'Fifth of July'
Lakeridge student Lea Zawada (right) arguably steals the show in

"Shirley" first appears onstage as a ghost.

The audience's initial glimpse of the precocious 'tween-ager in Lanford Wilson's "Fifth of July" is a flash running past the cast.

The Profile Theatre production of what is widely considered Wilson's greatest work begins very well without Shirley. But, it is when she finally enters into the action that the play comes to life.

With utter believability, Shirley says: "I'm going to be the greatest artist Missouri has ever produced."

While the character of Shirley is often deliberately campy, those lines are able to grab hold of the audience because the words are delivered by Lea Zawada, a 16-year-old sophomore at Lakeridge High who is very much like her character.

"I'm able to connect with that character in a very real way," Zawada says. "I'm very ambitious, just like her. I have a lot of hopes that may or may not come true. But it's nice to dream. I have the drive to go after (dreams) like she does."

Zawada began her acting career when she was 10 years old. Coming up through the children's theater, she had several lead roles, most notably the title role in the Northwest Children's Theater production of "Pinocchio," which earned Zawada a 2010 Drammy for "Outstanding Youth Performer."

From her first production, Zawada loved the way a group of people can create an ephemeral work of art.

"It takes so many people to put on a play," Zawada says. "Everyone has their own forte of talents. When it all comes together, it creates this art. I like seeing it all come together, piece by piece."

In 2011, Zawada stepped onto the silver screen, guest-starring as a kidnap victim in the fourth season of "Leverage."

When Zawada first got the part, she imagined it being a much smaller role than what it turned out to be. Zawada was at first intimidated, but with the guidance of director Frank Oz, she was able to embody the character.

"I was really nervous because it was bigger than I expected and bigger than I thought I was ready for," Zawada says. "But the director was really great working with me and helping me."

Zawada has found many differences between acting with adults and children.

"I've learned just as much from kids as I do from adults," she says. "But kids are more fun. The adults are very serious about their work -- understandable, of course. With kids, you show up and it's more of a hobby. With adults, it's a job."

Acting has made having a high school social life difficult for Zawada. But she has made friends on the set.

"I still have friends and all, but I wish I could go to more hangout sessions and stuff like that with them," Zawada says. "You do make friends in acting, though."

As much as Zawada loves acting, she questions whether making a career of it is the road on which she wants to travel.

"I've been thinking about that a lot lately with college coming up," she says. "I don't know. Right now, my thinking is that I'm going to keep it in my life, but more as a side thing. Just imagining it's my job and my next meal is depending on getting the part, it might be too stressful, and it would take the fun out of it."

In this indecision about where she wants her life to go, Zawada is also much like her "Fifth of July" character.

Says Shirley about what she wants her future career to be: "A painter. Or a sculptor. Or a dancer! A writer! A conductor! A composer! An actress! One of the arts!"

"Fifth of July" goes until June 10.

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