Malinda Kathleen Reese in “Once” at the Olney Theater Center. (Stan Barouh)

We’ve all heard the stories about film and TV stars who return to their roots in live theater to brush up on their skills and reconnect with a live audience. Malinda Kathleen Reese offers a 21st-century twist on that tale: She’s a social-media luminary revisiting her stage background to co-star in Olney Theatre’s production of “Once” this month.

The 24-year-old Reese found fame not in Hollywood or on Broadway, but on YouTube. The minute-long video of her impromptu rendition of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in a Spanish church has attracted more than 23 million views. She has her own YouTube channel, “Translator Fails,” which has 830,000 subscribers and 117 million views. This success was built on the ability to stage a comedy sketch and deliver a showstopper song, skills she learned on the D.C. theater scene.

“Live theater keeps you honest,” Reese says. “Just filming all the time, where there are multiple takes and postproduction, you can get lazy. Onstage, there’s nowhere to hide. The actors have to be heard and understood at all times. The musicians have to mesh together from the start every time. It’s so different from recording tracks separately in a studio. I know I’ll take the experiences from this production back to making videos of my own songs.”

Reese grew up on the local theater scene. Her mother, Mary Hall Surface, is a director, playwright and teacher; her dad, Kevin Reese, acted in productions from Arena Stage to the Kennedy Center. Malinda spent her youth wandering backstage and playing in costume shops. She was soon performing herself, and by age 14 she was attending the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan and the Broadway Artists Alliance in New York City.

“I gave up acting multiple times,” she confesses. “I went to college to be a cognitive science major, but the people I enjoyed talking to and being around were all theater majors. That’s what keeps pulling me back into performing. The people are so fascinating.”

It was at Vassar, where she switched into the theater program, that she listened to a version of “Let It Go” from the Disney movie “Frozen” sung by 25 women in 25 languages. She noticed that the Spanish translation wasn’t quite literal, and she wondered how it would sound if she put it back into English using Google Translate. The results were funny, so she started doing it in other languages. She assembled all the mistranslations into a song that she could sing.

“In a lunch break during a school play I was in, I made a video,” she explains. “I originally just sent it to my friends, and they said, ‘This is great; you should make it public.’ I did and in a week it went viral. Soon I had thousands of subscribers asking for more.”

Today she makes most of her income from ads and contributions on YouTube. She posts a new video every week, and she has branched out from mistranslations to musical versions of unlikely text sources: horoscopes, cake recipes and original songs by her and her friends. “It’s a one-woman theater every week,” she says. “Today I’m the lighting designer and costumer; tomorrow I’m the actress and director.”

Nonetheless, she missed the artistic challenges and camaraderie of live theater. And “Once,” the 2011 hit musical based on the 2007 Irish movie of the same name, was the perfect vehicle for her reentry. It’s the story of two 20-somethings who play music for tips on Dublin’s Grafton Street as they try to find their way in the world as performers and would-be romantic partners.


Malinda Kathleen Reese in “Once” at the Olney Theater Center. (Stan Barouh)

The songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, stars of the original movie, are rooted in Celtic folk music and sung by characters who are musicians. Reese plays Irglova’s role, a Czech immigrant in Ireland who is fleeing a troubled marriage and seeking solace in music.

“It’s a different kind of show,” Reese says, “less a musical and more a play with music. The girl is everything I want to be: strong, outspoken, creative.”

The show draws on Reese’s experience as a teenage Irish folk musician who played flute at the jam sessions at McGinty’s pub in Silver Spring and the Royal Mile in Wheaton. “There is nothing more awesome than watching a bunch of people drop into the downbeat of a song together,” she says. “That communal connection is something you can’t really deny.” And there’s nothing more welcoming, she adds, than the support of fellow actors.

“The D.C. theater scene is a real community,” Reese says, “and that’s what’s kept me here. We all go out to see each other’s work; there’s an openness to experimentation. People move to D.C. to change the world, so the theater here tends to less insular and more about reaching out to the rest of the world.”

If you go
Once

Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. 301-924-3400 or olneytheatre.org

Dates: Through March 10.

Prices: $54-$89.