Where the heart is: Home is a first language for English Bernhardt

As Éponine in NC Theatre’s Les Misérables last year

As Éponine in NC Theatre’s Les Misérables last year

by Jessie Ammons

Home, to English Bernhardt, conjures a few specific places. Namely, afternoons at Jubala Coffee, where the Ravenscroft grad often spent afternoons studying; and North Carolina Theatre, where she spent countless hours over many years. “I love the people there so much,” says the 19-year-old NC Theatre Conservatory alumna. She remembers rehearsing for her roles as Éponine in Les Misérables and Annie in Annie, soaking in the wisdom of her seasoned Broadway castmates. “I’d be the Raleigh girl and all of these people would come in from New York,” she recalls. “It’s kind of crazy that now I’m considered one of the out-of-towners.”

That’s because Bernhardt has been living in New York City since early this spring (where, for the record, she has yet to find a coffee shop she prefers over Jubala). After graduating a year ago, she spent a semester as a musical theater major at Elon University before New York came knocking: She was offered a role in a production’s workshop, which is akin to a TV show’s pilot episodes. “People always say New York will always be there,” Bernhardt says. “Well, so will school.” She left Elon, at least for now, to pursue her dream in the big city. She’ll continue to take online classes so that if she decides to return to her degree, she won’t be too far behind. “I have always loved theater and I’ve known that’s what I’ve wanted to do for as long as I remember. You kind of have to take it and run with it.”

It’s a leap of faith, but one she feels well-prepared for. “Through NC Theatre bringing in so many wonderful people from New York over the years to do shows, I feel like I already have a pretty good network” there, Bernhardt says. And while the plan is to plug in to the New York scene as much as she can for the foreseeable future, it was a no-brainer for the actress and singer to audition for NC Theatre’s latest production, Next to Normal. The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical portrays a mother struggling with bi-polar disorder and the effect that her illness has on her family. “This show and this role is one I’ve wanted to do for a long time – and I get a little slice of home for a few weeks.”

Bernhardt has been home since late April, but show rehearsals began much earlier. To prepare, she and castmate Lauren Kennedy (who plays mother to Bernhardt’s daughter), would sometimes practice lines on the phone. Kennedy, another Raleigh native and seasoned actress, takes regular trips to New York, so the two often met for a quick cup of coffee and to talk Next to Normal shop. “That’s the thing, the theater world is such a small world,” Bernhardt says. “Especially in New York, the best people in the world are there … but at the same time, it’s still a fairly small community. It’s nice to have familiar faces.”

She’s glad to be surrounded by a few of those faces for a monthlong homecoming. “I’ve grown up with NC Theatre,” she says. “I love coming back and I love working here. I’m just so excited.”

See English Bernhardt in North Carolina Theatre’s production of Next to Normal. The show runs May 1 – 10 in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater of the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. Learn more and buy tickets at nctheatre.com.