When Kai Judd first arrived at Viterbo University from Sacramento, Calif., it took him a little while to adapt to how nice everyone seemed to be.
“When I first toured here, I thought that everybody was being super fake because nobody says ‘hi, how are you?’ on the sidewalk where I’m from,” Judd said, laughing. “So, I was really suspicious for a long time. I was like, 'wow, everybody seems so nice, but it can't be genuine.'"
It turned out that when it came to being Midwestern nice, his fellow students, faculty and university employees, even the actors like Judd, weren’t kidding.
Judd, now a senior, is preparing to embark on an exciting future, having recently joined the Actors' Equity Association, a union that represents theatre actors. He’s come a long way from the student who arrived from sunny California, a little unprepared for what was to come. For one thing, he’s gotten used to the winters.
“I wasn’t prepared for the winters in La Crosse, I remember my freshman roommate laughing at my version of a winter coat,” Judd recalled. “I’m used to it now, but there’s definitely a bit of a learning curve.”
Judd, who is a music theatre major, auditioned for several schools, but where others seemed to only give him a few minutes, Viterbo’s professors took the time to get to know him, after the audition.
“When you go to those auditions, it's like you have a five-minute slot and they keep you there for maybe two minutes, tops,” he said. “But when I went to my Viterbo audition, they sat me down after I sang, and asked questions, and it felt less transactional than every other interview or audition that I had gone through.”
The deal was sealed, and Judd dove into a Viterbo career that has seen him perform in productions of Merrily We Roll Along, Avenue Q, James and the Giant Peach, 9 to 5: The Musical, CATS, and Into the Woods.
Each of those roles has challenged Judd in different ways, and he describes a classroom atmosphere at Viterbo where students grow together. On average, Judd’s classes include about 12 students, and most of the work is done one-on-one with a professor.
“I definitely think there’s a unique, familial energy in the classroom,” he said. “We are allowed to make mistakes and we're given space to grow into whatever we’re supposed to be. It is a very nurturing environment.”
One of Judd’s most memorable roles was in James and the Giant Peach in 2018. The production had a guest director, Elizabeth Margolius, who works professionally in Chicago and all over the country.
“It was my first time leading a show and it was my first time playing a male role,” said Judd. “That was a big thing for me. I think I grew the most doing that.”
Just two years later, Judd finds himself with a gig lined up during his last semester of school, having booked the male lead at a professional theatre. He began rehearsals earlier this year for a play in Minneapolis called Interstate playing the role of a transgender spoken word performer. The role set up a hectic period for Judd, who commuted back and forth to Minneapolis, but he said the music theatre department has helped him juggle his studies while launching his professional acting career.
“I've had professional gigs in the past, but this is my first professional leading role,” he said. “Right now, I think of it as a launchpad in a way. It's just so crazy that it's my first professional opportunity, and it's such a specific thing.”
Judd auditioned for the show on a whim after emailing the writers, and was thrilled when he was chosen to be a part of the production's Minneapolis premiere.
Despite the upwards trajectory of his career, his professors have kept Judd’s feet firmly on the ground, including giving him a firm grounding in the business side of theatre. They’ve also been there for him throughout his journey.
“I think if I had gone to another school, I probably wouldn't be anywhere close to what I’m doing now, and I’m happy with what I’m doing now,” he said.
The generous financial aid package he received was part of the reason he came to Viterbo, he added it made the cost of his education more affordable compared to schools in his home state.
Next up for Judd? He’s planning to move to New York after graduation, to continue his acting career. Echoing in his ears will be the advice he received from Erin Jerozal, one of his professors at Viterbo, who told Judd to find the roles he loves, not just the ones he’s expected to play.