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Spring 2010 Features

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U of M student benefits from director who 'Let the Sunshine In'
Katie Zisson on campus before leaving for her theatre internship.
Katie Zisson on campus before leaving for her theatre internship.
In early April, an elated Katie Zisson, a junior theatre performance major, found out she was a finalist for a summer theatre internship in New York. If successful in her phone interview, she would become second assistant to Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theatre and the New York Shakespeare Festival. When she learned the interview was to be in person in New York on the day she had to be in a final dress rehearsal for the U of M production Dark of the Moon, she was devastated.  

Enter Dr. Robert Hetherington, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance. After he heard Katie could not afford to fly to the interview, he told her to book the ticket and he would pay for it; she made the arrangements.

In New York, Zisson’s 15-minute interview turned into a 45-minute meeting. She flew to New York at 6 a.m. on April 14, was interviewed in the early afternoon, and flew back to Memphis in time to make a 7:30 p.m. call for her final dress rehearsal.

“It worked out perfectly,” says Zisson. “It was kind of a fairy tale day.”

One week later, The Public Theatre offered her the position. She accepted, and began her 13-week internship in early June.

Hetherington was able to provide airfare for Zisson’s New York interview because of the Keith Kennedy Theatre and Dance Student Enrichment Fund, which was endowed in Kennedy’s memory following his death in December 2008.

“Keith Kennedy was all about putting students first and I have heard countless stories which attest to this fact,” Hetherington says. “I’m certain that he would have agreed with me that Katie could not pass on the opportunity to interview at The Public Theatre. Most theatre people I know would do anything to get a foot in the door at The Public Theatre and there was no way she could not go — dress rehearsal for one of our productions or not. How amazingly ironic that The Public was the theatre which premiered Hair, the production Keith was most famous for directing here 40 years ago. It is amazing how things come full circle. It struck me as the perfect use of the Keith Kennedy Student Enrichment Fund and precisely the kind of use we hope to make of it to assist future students. I envy Katie this experience.”

This summer, Shakespeare in the Park produced The Merchant of Venice (with Al Pacino as Shylock) and The Winter’s Tale. As second assistant, Zisson is mainly handling office communications.

“The Public Theatre is an incredible venue to be working for, with world-class, top-notch artists,” she says. “To experience how they produce a show behind the scenes is so valuable. I’ve had the opportunity to meet administrators in different offices, which has been helpful in understanding how a large-scale nonprofit theatre works.”

In addition to Dark of the Moon, Zisson also appeared in the U of M production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. She isn’t sure yet if her career will be on the stage or behind the curtain, but the internship might help answer that.

Katie Zisson, at right, and Lauren Scott in the U of M�s 2010 production of Hay Fever.
Katie Zisson, at right, and Lauren Scott in the U of M’s 2010 production of Hay Fever.
“I’ll find where my place is in the theatre. I’m getting hands-on knowledge, working with heavy-hitters in the theatre city of the world,” Zisson says. “I’ve also had the chance to speak with coworkers about independent projects they’re producing or directing. It’s very interesting to learn how a group of people come together to make theatre on a smaller scale happen, and strictly because they love doing it.”

Kennedy was the first director of theatre at the University. His staging of Hair was the initial non-commercial production, the first production in the South and the first college staging of the controversial anti-war musical sanctioned by the play’s writers. Hair drew record audiences in the campus theatre.

Among Kennedy’s many other productions were Man of La Mancha, Indians and Oresteia, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off and a fully-mounted Tommy, The Who’s rock opera. They helped U of M theatre attain national recognition and become a major cultural asset.

After 20 years at the University, Kennedy retired in 1986, though he continued to direct plays in local community theatre. He was one of three University employees to receive the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Achievement Award in 1992, and he was presented the Eugart Yerian Award for lifetime theatre service in 1996. Kennedy regularly found creative ways to expand his students’ horizons and set high artistic standards.

A memorial event in January 2009 drew more than 100 of Kennedy’s former students, colleagues, friends and family. Held in “Big Red,” the U of M’s Main Stage Theatre, the evening included instrumental and vocal performances and tributes by cast and crew members of Hair. Aiming to reach theatre and dance alumni and friends across the country as well as in Memphis, the fund is intended to perpetuate Kennedy’s spirit through a range of special opportunities for deserving and gifted students, including travel to collegiate theatre competitions, awards for outstanding achievement, advanced training and artists’ residencies.

“Keith’s legacy is one of daring and brilliance,” says Dr. Richard Ranta, dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts. “He took University of Memphis theatre to the national stage and brought national artists here to work with our students and opened doors for them. The beauty of the endowed fund is that it can be used in a variety of ways to help the students in theatre and dance. If a student needs assistance to travel for a competition or internship interview, the fund can help. If we need to bring experts to the department to give special attention to students in some area, the fund can help do that. It is set up to aid students in any way that will improve their education.”

To date, more than 100 alumni and friends have contributed to the Keith Kennedy Theatre and Dance Student Enrichment Fund. For information on making a contribution, contact Patty Bladon, director of development for the College of Communication and Fine Arts, at 901/678-4372 or pbladon@memphis.edu.

­— by Gabrielle Maxey

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