Hundreds of students at the University of Kentucky pass the Fine Arts Guignol building day after day, but a small percent enter. Many of those who do are styling colorful hair, elaborate makeup and expressive outfits, like walking artwork.
There the “right brained” are: visual, colorful, and imaginative, even in appearance. A confident click of black-heeled boots strut up the sidewalk, paired with gingham pants and winged eyeliner to complete the look of student Baelynn Lindfors. Sitting on the stairs outside is classmate and friend Julia Koenig, whose bright and bold blue hair demands attention.
In the arts building, these students are greeted, not just by their friends and classmates, but by their teachers and faculty directors as well. They are bantering with their teachers and calling them by their first name. Many are lounging on the couches in the hallway, well after their school day has ended, out of pure enjoyment to be there.
This is the community of theatre students. Most theatre students’ post-graduation plans are not becoming movie stars, nor are they hell-bent on starring in the production. It is as if the play is their puzzle and each student has carved out their piece.
There are so many complexities in ensuring a play runs fluidly, with many important jobs in each show. A community could not run with a mayor alone in the same way a production could not run with only leading actors. A show is made up of musicians, directors, producers, costume designers, makeup artists and lighting technicians. If one role is missing, the show could not go on. Each role brings different characteristics to the table. Stage managers are organized and time-oriented, while set designers are more visual and creative. Directors may be more prone to parts and detail, while producers can see the big picture. There is a role for almost every personality type, which makes the theatre department an umbrella for many people to fall under.
The weight that each role carries is heavier due to most plays in UK’s theatre department being completely student- run. Students are writing the script, creating the backdrops, timing each lighting change and microphone adjustment, deciding each role and coordinating schedules to find time to rehearse.
The teachers act more as mentors. Due to there being a small number of theatre students in the department in comparison to other colleges, it gives the faculty an opportunity to truly invest in their students.
Senior theatre major Julia Koenig describes this dynamic: “The teachers really get the chance to know every single person in the department, what their personalities are like, their strengths and weaknesses, and what they want as a career. They are really good at guiding specific people into their place.”
For Koenig, her professor Heather Brown was the guiding light in finding a place at UK. Koenig began as a business marketing major and quickly found out that was not for her. She then switched to Media Arts and Studies, which was fine but not necessarily the perfect fit. Going on a whim, Koenig took an elective lighting design course in the theatre department. Koenig thought high school was the end of her theatre classes; Brown thought differently.
She saw potential in Koenig’s lighting design capabilities and asked her to come on board with her as the assistant lighting designer for the upcoming play. While this was a daunting task and something outside what Koenig thought was considered theatre, she agreed to the role.
Brown explained and demonstrated how to do all the lighting, and then sat back and watched Koenig create; a prime example of the experiential learning the theatre program offers.
Brown elaborates on mentoring Koenig: “One of the most challenging aspects to working in theatre is not the ability to make pretty art, a large portion of our job is collaboration with other designers to effectively tell stories. Julia is a hard-working and dedicated artist. She brings a unique perspective and collaborative spirit to all her work, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to work with her in many different artistic aspects. She has worked in lights, set, props, etc… and working in many areas really expanded her ability to make meaningful, effective and artistic designs on the productions she is involved with.”
Koenig learned by doing. In doing so, she found the creative freedom she had been longing for and her home within the theatre community, all thanks to the attention Brown gave her.
This bond between teacher and student not only assists in getting creatives in the doors of the program but also prepares the students for the unnerving world of professional theatre. Koenig describes another faculty member, Yoon Bae as “an incredible person, but she is really good at tough love. She knows all my weaknesses and she is not afraid to call me out, but she also knows my strengths and knows what I am capable of.” Koenig now has a mental toughness that is required in the world of professional theatre.
The reality of auditioning for any professional role, whether that be backstage or onstage, is that the applicants will receive a lot of “no” answers. A lot of experience is often required to land the part, which makes it difficult to gain experience at all. Teachers like Bae push students out of their comfort zones and unleash their full potential. Koenig mentioned how Bae called her during the summer to get her thinking about assistantships and leading roles she could step into in the fall. Koenig is now the Assistant Scenic Designer and Props Master for The Thanksgiving Play and Scenic Designer for The Laramie Project, both produced by the Department of Theatre and Dance and opening Fall 2021. Thanks to Bae’s direction, Koenig now has professional experience.
Bae speaks on this: “I want to prepare students to face the competitive and professional world. I support and mentor them in whatever way I can, and is appropriate to their needs. I believe early-career mentorship is immensely important, and Julia has shown talent and the ambition to take the next step.”
This mentorship means so much to Koenig that she says, “After seeing people mentor me, I also want to mentor people into theatre because not many people know that other parts of it [like design] exist. So, I want to spread awareness to people who may be interested in it, because you don’t know that you love it until you do it.”
Unlike Koenig, senior Lily Meekin has always known she loves theatre. At just nine years old, she participated in the UK Opera Theatre’s production of A Grand Night of Singing. Her first broadway audition was at 10 years old for Annie on Broadway. Theatre took her across the country as she performed in places from Atlanta to New York City, but that all came to a halt when she outgrew the 4’10’’ height requirement and aged out of children’s theatre at 13.
Meekin notes that at this point she “definitely knew she wanted to stay involved in theatre, but it was not necessarily her career goal.” She declared herself as a Neuroscience major on the Pre-Med track, but her heart longed to participate in the shows. In order to cater her passion for singing, she is now a Musical Performance Minor in the UK opera theatre.
Neuroscience classes require a lot of analytics and critical thinking, while theatre classes are more creative and expressive. Meekin explains why she chooses to balance such different courses: “I think everyone should do something like theatre. It has a ton of transferable skills. One, you audition a lot, so you are used to a lot of rejection. That definitely helps you in a professional setting and being able to interview well. As you know, ‘the show must go on!’ You have to be someone who could be standing in front of hundreds of people watching you and have a huge mistake happen and keep going and not get emotional about it.”
Meekin has now sung in UK Opera Theatre’s production of A Grand Night of Singing three times and the past two years she has gotten to do featured solos. While this summer’s performance crew was cut in half due to COVID-19 precautions, each member had more work on their hands. Fortunately for Meekin, this gave her the ability to have more solo pieces and be dance captain.
“I love to sing and anyone who lives with me will know that. It gives me a break from all my hard sciences, but the skills that you learn definitely do carry over to a future outside of it,” she said. “[A show] takes a ton of moving parts. There has to be respect for every member of the team. There is a saying ‘actors without the tech crew is just a person standing in the dark screaming.’ The more you know everyone on the team, the better everything works. The teamwork definitely carries over to Pre-Med.”
Senior theatre-major Baelynn Lindfors is well-aware of the importance of teamwork to make a production run smoothly, as she has been the stage manager for six shows through the UK Department of Theatre and Dance. Two of the shows debut in the spring of 2022, titled Bright Star and the Dance Concert.
She explains her role as stage manager: “It is probably one of the most complex and work-heavy positions. You help keep things organized and flowing at auditions. Once you have a cast, you have to get all of their conflicts and put them all on a calendar. Then, you go through the script and see what characters are in which scene and create a rehearsal calendar (because not every member is required at every rehearsal).” Lindfors is also responsible for ensuring every cast member, on and off the stage, is aware of lighting changes, props and sets being taken on and off stage, sound changes, and delegating who is doing each task. She oversees that every role is working together.
This value of teamwork creates a community among the theatre program. Lindfors says that if you are in class with someone, more than likely you have worked on a show with them. Each show is a collaboration of many different ideas. These students give each other constructive criticism and respect what every member brings to the table.
“Everyone has their own reason for enjoying theatre, but the root of all productions are the same: a cast grows to an audience and then grows into a community,” Lindfors said.