The story of 1860s Siam (now current day Thailand) comes to life this week, as The King & I takes place on stage at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

With the cast and crew is one actress with Oklahoma ties, Heather Botts, who serves as the "stand by" for Anna, played by Laura Michelle Kelly.

In that role, Botts is tasked with knowing everything about the character Anna - from the dialogue to the music, so during performances when Kelly is unavailable, she can become Anna - the lead female role in The King & I.

"It's an amazing learning experience," Botts said, because she not only learns her role, but also sees how it unfolds with the rest of the ensemble.

"It's a great responsibility," Botts said, "because you want to deliver a beautiful show."

More about the show

Set in 1890s Siam, the show is based upon the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and film of the same name.

The story comes from the semi-fictionalized biography, Anna and the King, written by Margaret Landon. 

The novel tells the story of Anna Leonowens, a widow with two young children, who becomes the teacher to King Mongkut's (Rama IV) children and wives.

Landon used Leonowens' first-person accounts of her time in Siam as the factual basis of her novel.

"It's a complicated, beautiful relationship," Botts said. "It's such an unconventional relationship, when you consider the cultural differences and barriers."

Botts said Anna and others learn how to respond to differences of opinions and culture, and find ways to communicate with others, for the "greater good."

"Anna really says what she means and says what she wants to say," Botts said. "She learned to fight for freedom and using your voice."

Botts said through the story, Anna and the King learn they both become more powerful when they learn to stand together.

"It's so forward thinking for that time [period]," Botts said.

Botts has been with the show since it launched in Providence, Rhode Island in November 2016. She made her debut as Anna on Dec. 8, 2016 at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco.

Botts said stepping out on stage, is "a rush of adrenaline."

"It always feels like the first time," Botts said, adding that in her 20-some appearances of Anna she's grown comfortable in the role.

More about Botts

Botts has a master's degree in lyrical theatre from the Oklahoma City University. She attended the school to study under Florence Birdwell.

She chose the school because Birdwell has worked with fellow performers Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O'Hara. 

"It was my dream come true, that she wanted to work with me," Botts said. 

The King & I is Botts' second big Broadway production and first tour. 

She describes life on the road as "an adventure."

"It's exciting, exhilarating and also exhausting," Botts said, adding that being in a new city each week has taught her to develop her stamina, as well as take care of her body. "This is an incredible opportunity."

Botts said she loves going into a new city and finding the local coffee shop, as well as other spots the city might be known for, including restaurants. 

One thing with Botts

One person who inspires you

My mom, Janis. She is fearless in her own way. She's always questioned authority and always encouraged me to go for all of the things I've wanted to do.

One book that's stuck with you

I'm reading three books on tour: American Gods by Neil Gaiman, The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

American Gods is for fun. I love fantastical kind of science fiction. In Quiet, I'm very much an introvert and work to regain my alone time. It's changed the way I think about it.

For Artist's Way, it's a book about finding your inner artist and what that means.

One thing that might surprise people

I'm really goofy. People always think I'm curious, and I am. But I also have a very goofy side.

One thing you can't live without

Coffee. My happy place is that I have every kind of coffee thing you can imagine. Everything.

One piece of advice that's stuck with you

Always say what you want to say. I think life is too short to edit or censor yourself. As I get older, I realize how precious life is, and how important it is to tell people you love them and to be honest.

If You Go

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I continues at the Walton Arts Center now through Sunday, Oct. 3.

Single tickets, on sale now, start at $36 and may be purchased in-person at the Walton Arts Center Box Office, by calling 479.443.5600 or by visiting waltonartscenter.org.