In the middle of a wardrobe storage closet at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York City, Claire Kwon is crouched on the floor. Her brows are furrowed as she fidgets, trying to get her phone upright for our Zoom call. “It’s our dinner break and a friend is decompressing in my dressing room,” she tells me. Her brows soften and reveal a beaming smile worthy of greeting an old friend. Most actors on Broadway spend their breaks from rehearsal at the Glass House Tavern bistro sipping a mid-afternoon drink, bumping into tourists or taking brisk walks around the Theater District recovering from its pandemic woes. And then there's Kwon, dressed in a light blue turtleneck and white button-down shirt, showing me around the closet of the famous theater.
“I get to perform on Broadway, can you believe it?” Kwon said.
A newly-minted School of Communication graduate, Kwon has achieved what actors and actresses in the height of their careers covet – a role on Broadway. The actress hit the big time and landed a role, or five, as a swing understudying five characters in the Broadway adaptation of Almost Famous, which opened on Nov. 3. Kwon, 22, has been performing for applauding crowds ever since her first job at age six, starring in a cabaret with her mother at local bars in New Jersey. She has since won over the hearts of the Northwestern and Evanston community alike with her 2019 portrayal of young Allison in the Wirtz production of Fun Home.
Kwon grew up in Wyckoff, N.J. under the guidance of her mother, a piano teacher, and her father, a banker, as well as her older brother Joseph Kwon. Her brother described Kwon in her younger years as a very dramatic, spirited child.
“We have old tapes where Claire is singing her little heart off,” Joseph Kwon said. “Even as a child, you could tell that she was very self-assured and strong.”
Kwon’s mother encouraged her daughter to channel this energy into theater and accompanied her to her first audition, where she landed a role in the local YMCA’s production of The Wizard of Oz. And with that role, a star was born.
Kwon's teen years were a blur of auditions for musicals in New York City, studying for the SATs and frequently changing her major as she applied for university.
“My parents didn’t want me to be a starving artist, which is the only portrayal of artists they had seen,” Kwon said. “As Korean immigrants, they just wanted me to be successful, and studying theater in college sometimes seemed antithetical to that.”
In high school and through college, she tried to convince herself that she could study something other than the arts and still be happy. Kwon pursued majors in International Studies and Theatre during her tenure at Northwestern and often had to defend her gumption for pursuing a career in the arts to her supportive – albeit skeptical – parents.
“Performing is my one true love and my passion, '' Kwon said. “I have to give it my all or I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.”
As the newest member of an original Broadway cast, Kwon reflects on the moments that led her to the Jacobs Theatre stage. “I had a truly marvelous experience with Northwestern theatre and I’ve been really lucky,” Kwon said.
In the Northwestern theatre scene, Kwon captured the attention and hearts of audience members who were in raptures with her artistry, underclassmen who wanted to walk in her footsteps and professors who felt privileged to have her as a student.
"Claire has a rare talent, even among her peers, to transport you to a world you didn’t know you could go to,” said David Catlin, a professor in the School of Communication and a founding member of the Lookingglass Theatre Company.“I would love to find something that she can’t do, but I think I’d struggle with that because she is so endlessly talented.”
Kwon has amassed an extensive oeuvre. She starred as Elinor Dashwood in a campus production of Sense and Sensibility, as Xiu Qie in The Ballad of Mu Lan and more recently as an understudy for Hannah and the Furies in the Goodman Theatre’s Life After.
“She is one of the most skilled, talented and honest performers I’ve ever witnessed both as an audience member and as a director,” said Karina Patel, director of NU's Sense and Sensibility. “She has a unique ability to take on a story as a whole, comment on it and add her flair to it either through music, choreography or assisting other cast members.”
Kwon said acting has changed her perspective on life, allowing her to experience the breadth of human emotion. She also describes herself as a hustler and believes that her hard work, determination and sheer luck brought her to Broadway.
“To be in this industry, you have to be comfortable with rejection and that rejection can cause you to doubt yourself and your abilities,” Kwon said. “When I was cast in [Almost Famous] I thought, ‘Oh I can actually do this. I’m kind of qualified.'”
Almost Famous initially premiered as a film written and directed by Cameron Crowe in 2000, the same year that Kwon was born.
“To be honest, I hadn’t watched the film until right before my call back audition,” the actress admitted. “This movie has affected so many people’s lives and being able to tell that story to a new generation is incredible."
Learning from directors and artists young and old has been the most fulfilling part of the process, according to Kwon. It has also led her to cross paths with industry legends whose work she hopes to emulate one day.
“I met Lin-Manuel Miranda today,” she whispers to me as if sharing a secret. “Please pinch me, this can’t be happening.”
But it is all happening...for Claire Kwon.