Part of the dramatic art department, Kenan Theatre Company offers a space for undergraduate students of all majors to learn essential elements of theater — including acting, production and technical skills — from professional directors and one another.
For the undergraduate actors in “Men on Boats,” evening rehearsal begins with an energetic vocal warm-up. It is a necessity, says director Claire Koenig.
“I want to be sure all the screaming we’re going to be doing is safe,” she says to the actors as they gather in a circle for humming, singing and tongue twisters.
When warm-ups end, the actors grab their props — paddles, backpacks, ropes, scooters, plungers and a wooden goose — and spread out around the classroom in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art. They are just a few days from moving to the stage in Kenan Theatre for tech week. This rehearsal is a chance to block, or map out the actors’ movements, in the play scene by scene in preparation.
Koenig, a UNC alumna, joins her stage manager, junior Kathryn Robinson, at the director’s table at the front of the room. Behind them, a mosaic of show notes and character inspirations decorate the wall.
“All right,” says Koenig. It’s time to take it from the top.
Setting the scene
“Men on Boats” by Jaclyn Backhaus is the first production of the 2023-2024 season at Kenan Theatre Company (KTC) and runs Oct. 12-16. The company has produced over 40 plays and musicals since it was first founded in 2013.
David Navalinsky, professor of dramatic art and director of undergraduate studies, came to Carolina to create and direct the company. The opportunity to build the company from the ground up and create a space that prepared undergraduate students for the professional theater industry was a perfect fit, he said.
UNC boasts an impressive line-up of student theater organizations, but Kenan Theatre Company is unique in that it is supported by the dramatic art department. The company is open to all majors and offers students the chance to explore roles from acting to production to stage management, scenic design, wardrobe crew and more.
KTC is also “the only undergraduate theater company at Carolina that gives students a chance to learn from professional directors,” said Navalinsky.
Those directors are sometimes faculty members in the dramatic art department, including past company directors Aubrey Snowden, Gregory Kable and department chair Kathryn Hunter-Williams.
During one performance each year, however, Navalinsky invites a guest director to Carolina to work in residence at Kenan Theatre Company as part of the organization’s cherished tradition: The Lillian Chason production.
Continuing a legacy
2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the Lillian Chason production, a performance supported by the Lillian Chason Undergraduate Excellence Fund that honors the first-year drama student who passed away following an illness in December 2009. The fund was created by her parents, Eric and Cate Chason, to support “students in the dramatic arts program who embody her love for the theater and learning.”
“Men on Boats” is this year’s Lillian Chason production, and Koenig is the 10th director. She is also an alumna of Kenan Theatre Company and learned from past Chason directors as an undergraduate student.
“As a student, to be able to collaborate with someone who has more experience or different experience than you do, it’s really exciting,” said Koenig of working with Chason directors Snowden and Talya Klein.
Both were also graduates of the M.F.A. in Directing program through Brown/Trinity Rep, a Tony Award-winning regional theater at Brown University.
“KTC really put Brown’s graduate program on the map for me,” said Koenig who, after graduating from Carolina in 2016, earned her M.F.A. from Brown/Trinity Rep, too. The “shared sense of values and pedagogy” between Kenan Theatre Company and Brown/Trinity Rep were a draw for her.
Those values include collaboration and exploration, something Koenig has made integral to her directing choices during “Men on Boats.” From encouraging actors to explore character choices to sitting with her cast as they perfect choreography to asking big questions about the story itself, Koenig hopes to foster confidence, autonomy and creativity through her process.
“Claire has a lot of fun ideas, but also prioritizes hearing from the students as well,” said Robinson of working with Koenig as a stage manager. “She really listens to what the actors and the production team have to say.”
“I think a lot of the students at KTC are multi-hyphenate artists and are excited about getting involved in theater in lots of different ways,” Koenig said. “That’s something that this program does really well — it encourages that kind of curiosity.”
The KTC community
For senior Carissa Wadsack-Stewart, Kenan Theatre Company did more than just encourage her curiosity as an artist. It formed her core community at Carolina.
“I’ve been in a lot of theater classes where I felt like it was the only place I could truly be myself,” said Wadsack-Stewart. She was in rehearsal for Green Hope High School’s production of “Wizard of Oz” in Cary when she got her acceptance letter to UNC, a moment of pure joy celebrated with her fellow castmates.
Wadsack-Stewart started at Carolina in 2020 and attended classes remotely due to the pandemic.
“That year was really hard,” she remembers. “After that first semester, I was like, ‘I need to get involved somehow.’”
She reached out to Navalinsky to ask about the theater community at Carolina, and he introduced her to the company’s virtual play readings. It was a lifeline in a “disconnected” year.
“I knew that when I was eventually going to be on campus my second year, KTC was the company that I wanted to continue to be involved in,” she said.
Now in her last year at Carolina, Wadsack-Stewart has acted in and produced KTC performances ranging from the play “Anna K” to the musical “Urinetown.” She has taken classes spanning acting, directing and set design. And, she said, she is grateful to have learned from directors like Koenig.
“Claire is really great at both guiding and also letting you flourish [on your own],” said the senior, who is a producer for “Men on Boats.” That space to explore has led to personal and professional growth.
Faculty and peers took note of Wadsack-Stewart’s growth and dedication, too. Last year, she was named the 12th Lillian Chason Scholar, a separate student scholarship given to a Tar Heel that exemplifies the mission and vision of the dramatic art department. Wadsack-Stewart learned the great news from Navalinsky.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It was a really exciting and emotional moment.”
A “life-changing” experience
UNC alumna Ashley Owen experienced her own transformational moment thanks to Carolina’s dramatic art major. As an undergraduate — after deciding she no longer wanted to attend medical school post-graduation — she took an introduction to theatre course with Hunter-Williams and attended plays at PlayMakers Repertory Company, including “Cabaret.”
“It sounds cliché, but it changed my life,” said Owen of seeing that performance in 2013. She called her roommate as she walked back home from the play.
“‘I want to work in theater,’” she remembers saying on the phone. “‘I want to do something that makes at least one person feel the way that show just made me feel.’”
That passion eventually led her to Navalinsky’s office where the two had an in-depth conversation about pursuing theater as Owen’s major, even though she was a junior. She credits that conversation with the start of her career.
“I still talk to Dave [Navalinsky] all the time,” said Owen, now the marketing director for the Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville. “He’s one of my mentors –– and is now a colleague.”
Owen met her best friends in college through theater. She also echoed Koenig’s observations about the exploration and collaboration that Kenan Theatre Company bolsters in young artists.
“KTC taught such translatable skills, which I’m so thankful for,” said Owen. “I was never boxed into a category. I got to discover who I am as an artist and as a professional.”
The show goes on
After “Men on Boats” premieres on Oct. 12, the Kenan Theatre Company season will continue with three more shows, including “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” by Lauren Gunderson, “The Seagull” by Anton Chekov and the musical “Something Rotten!,” produced in collaboration with the music department.
The company also offers a play reading series, open to all Carolina students, and produces the annual “Me Too Monologues,” a collaboration with the theater department at North Carolina Central University since 2018.
Reflecting on her time with Kenan Theatre Company and the dramatic art department, Wadsack-Stewart said she will always treasure the community she has made and growth she has experienced.
A psychology and dramatic art double major with a minor in neuroscience, she is prepared to take what she has learned into her future career as a therapist. She hopes the creativity, empathy and community dramatic art can teach will be a tool in her toolbox as she begins her professional path.
“I really do think that theater is one of the best ways to change the world because it just touches you in a place that nothing else can,” she said.
By Jess Abel