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Orange City native Cora Vander Broek takes the winding road to a Tony nomination

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What’s the route to a Tony Award?

If you’re Cora Vander Broek, one of this year’s nominees for Best Featured Actress in a Play, it starts in Orange City, Iowa, includes stops in Chicago and Los Angeles, and winds up in New York, after more than a dozen years as a working actress.

“Anyone who says it’s not validating would be lying,” Vander Broek says of the nomination for “Linda Vista.” “Awards are complicated. They can be political. They’re not always fair ... but this is so nice. I want to hold that to my heart.”

The Orange City native learned the news last week after she had done a yoga class in her Los Angeles home (“because it’s the pandemic,” she says). While getting dressed to see her therapist, she picked up her phone and noticed she had a number of texts. “My managers were like, ‘Why haven’t you called us yet?’ And then I saw another one that said, ‘Tony nominee,’ and I thought, ‘Oh my god.’”

Like others on Broadway, Vander Broek wasn’t sure the Tony Awards were going to happen this year. Because shows closed in March due to coronavirus fears, there wasn’t a “full” season. Producers talked about waiting another year, then decided it would be best to keep the business alive by holding a virtual event before theaters reopen.

Linda Vista

From left, Jim True-Frost, Cora Vander Broek, Ian Barford and Sally Murphy in "Linda Vista."

'A no-brainer'

Before moving to California, the 2000 Northwestern College graduate spent years in Chicago working in the theater. She hadn’t thought of going to New York but realized she needed to explore film and television just to see what they might bring. “I wanted to understand all the major hubs,” she says.

Her husband, actor Matthew Brumlow, was also interested in trying something new. “We don’t have children, which makes us more mobile. So we decided to throw caution to the wind five years ago and we moved out west.”

Brumlow went to an accelerated graduate school program at the University of Idaho; Vander Broek headed to Los Angeles.

Just as she was starting to learn the ropes in L.A., she got cast in “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976,” a play back in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts came to see the show and asked Vander Broek to audition for “Linda Vista,” his show at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

“It was a no-brainer,” Vander Broek says. “I can’t say no to Steppenwolf. I’ve been in the business long enough to accept that it’s a curvy road. You go where the exciting work is.” Never mind the Los Angeles home address.

Vander Broek was cast as Jules, a life coach with a master’s degree in “happiness” who happens to date a middle-aged man with a lot of baggage.

The show opened in Chicago “and we didn’t know what the future held,” Vander Broek says. A year later, “Linda Vista” opened in Los Angeles and, again, she was a part of it. “My managers thought they could pitch me in a different way if (casting directors) could see me. Even though the show took me away from why I’d moved here, it was actually a benefit.”

Later that same year, “Linda Vista” moved to New York, got great reviews and gave Vander Broek her first Broadway credit.

“It’s a very beautiful play, but very complicated. It tackles a lot of pretty intense topics and it can be really triggering for people. Tracy wrote it before the ‘Me Too’ movement hit and it explores a white man in his 50s, recently divorced, living on his own for the very first time.”

Because it had a limited run, “Linda Vista” wasn’t affected by the coronavirus shutdown. Vander Broek, in fact, was able to do a few projects before returning to California. Among them: “Law & Order: SVU.” Broadway actors brag that they’ve been a part of the “Law & Order” franchise and, now, she says with a laugh, “I can put that notch in my belt.”

Linda Vista

Cora Vander Broek, Ian Barford and Chantal Thuy in "Linda Vista." Both Vander Broek and Barford are nominated for 2020 Tony Awards. 

Orange City roots

The chaotic world of entertainment probably wouldn’t be a factor in her life if Vander Broek hadn’t been the child of missionaries. Although she was born in Orange City, she spent many of her early years in Honduras, learning from “amazing teachers” who introduced her to theater in their one-room schoolhouse.

“It was enough for me to get a taste for it. When I got back to the States at 14, I had to figure out where I fit in.”

At MOC-Floyd Valley, she warmed to speech and debate. “I really found my home there – that saved me in many ways. When I was close to graduating, I wasn’t keen on going somewhere else for college. I felt I needed to stay rooted.”

Vander Broek enrolled at Northwestern College and encountered Karen and Jeff Barker, theater professors who fueled her passion. “They made me feel like I could do it professionally.”

They also told her Chicago might be a good place to start. “Chicago felt doable. I went with a good friend ... and it was still scary.”

There, she discovered many storefront theaters and workshops – including ones at Steppenwolf. “I’m proud to say I didn’t go to grad school. My grad school was Chicago, working my way up through storefront theaters.”

Mom's approval

Flash forward 15 years and she has film, TV and New York theater credits.

“It’s a constant battle to not get cynical or jaded in this business,” the 42-year-old says. “It’s deeply hard and heartbreaking. But a successful actor, a friend of mine, got on the phone after I was nominated and said, ‘You get to be happy about this. This gets to be a big deal for you. It may not be the biggest deal of your life, but it’s big. Enjoy it.’”

Now, of course, she’s basking in the Tony glow. Family back home – including her mother, Diane Daniels of Storm Lake – are thrilled with the attention (“my mother started screaming when she heard”).

Even during those early years, family and friends have been supportive – “100 percent supportive.”

Cora Vander Broek

Actress Cora Vander Broek hails from Orange City, Iowa.

“When I was in college majoring in theater, Karen Barker and my mom went on a trip to Chicago and Karen took her to some storefront theaters. She showed her some theater that wasn’t big and glamorous” and she understood.

“When my mom came back to Orange City, she picked me up for dinner and started crying in the car: ‘It was scary for me to see the city and imagine you there. I realized it’s not going to be easy but, in the same breath, it’s what you have to do. I’m scared for you. But I’m excited for you.’”

Barker says that trip was a turning point for Daniels: "She was inspired by what we had seen."

Today, mom is easily Vander Broek's biggest fan, having seen “Linda Vista” in Chicago, Los Angeles AND New York.

Although film and television are now on the Tony nominee's radar, she says she won’t give up on Broadway.

“It’s definitely a trek to get to New York. But I’m going to make it a priority.

“There’s nothing good about this pandemic and theater is gone for now. But while we’re on a pause, the theater will never be something I feel far from. Even though it’s just a nomination, it truly feels like I’ve won.”

42 photos of the Orpheum Theatre through the years

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