by Kaye Bennett
Kristen Chesak ’94 was pushing even the liberal arts envelope when she changed her major from biology to theatre. It’s quite a leap from would-be genetic engineer to managing director of Kalamazoo’s Civic Theatre, and her landing from that leap has been quite a benefit for Michigan’s arts community!
Chesak was raised in Tukwila, Washington, outside Seattle, the daughter of a high school drama and English teacher mom and Boeing engineer dad. As a youngster, Chesak assumed the science genes would dominate.
Looking around for a small liberal arts college, Chesak learned about Kalamazoo College from her high school speech and debate coach, who was also the boys’ tennis coach and thus familiar with the Boys 18 and 16 National Tennis Championships held annually at Kalamazoo College’s Stowe Stadium. When she moved to Kalamazoo, Chesak says, she felt like it was “a little piece of Seattle in the mid-West.”
The first quarter of her freshman year, Chesak’s work study program took her to the biology lab, where she spent her time “cleaning fruit flies out of Petri dishes.” One quarter of that was enough, and by the second quarter, she was doing work study in an office in College’s theatre department.
She was also spending more and more time in that department. . . so much time, in fact, that by her sophomore year she was attempting to double major in theatre and biology.
By her junior year, Walter Ogsten, Chesak’s genetics professor, called her in for a heart to heart. “He told me, ‘You’re up every night till 2 or 3 a.m. It’s OK to be a theatre major. You should do what you really love.’”
After switching her major to theatre arts alone, Chesak says that she was one of the few theatre majors who didn’t have to worry about fulfilling her science requirements.
When she told her family about her new major, Chesak says that ironically it was her mother, who has a master’s degree in theatre, who balked. “She told me that it’s a hard life and I was never going to find consistent work,” laughs Chesak, now in her 17th year at the Civic and a source of great pride for her mother.
Though Chesak had performed in a few plays as a teen, what really fascinated her was backstage. In the theatre’s technical side, she says, “there’s a lot of engineering and math, but you can apply it in a creative way.” She especially liked lighting design. “Once the lights are off, the magic is gone. It’s the same with theatre.”
She says that few people are aware of the research that goes into set and costume design. For each play, designers need to study the time period, the architecture, and the dress of the era. She says it’s a sort of “anthropological exploration into the past.”
After graduation, Chesak decided to stay in Kalamazoo to do a scenic design internship and then a lighting design internship at the Civic. When the internships ended two years later, her U-Haul was packed, her cat was in the front seat of the car, and Chesak was ready to head back to Seattle for a job managing a high school theatre. Then the phone rang and she was offered a job doing carpentry at the Civic, so she unpacked and stayed put.
Through the years, Chesak says, “I tried to move again and again.” But the Civic kept coming up with jobs for her. She matriculated from carpentry to lighting and design to production manager and eventually to the job she has held since 2005, managing director.
“I’ve had a lot of jobs through the years,” she says, “They’ve just all been in the same place.” This is unusual in the theatre world, where
"At 'K' you've been instilled with the idea of being inquisitive and wanting to find out more."people tend to move around a lot. The average length of employment at Kalamazoo’s Civic Theatre is 10 years, a figure that Chesak has nearly doubled. She says she recently was congratulated by Duwaine Hunt, who preceded her as Managing Director, for having held the position longer than anyone whose name wasn’t Carver. (Norm Carver, Sr., was one of the founders of the Civic, 81 years ago, and worked there from 1929 till 1974; his son, Jim Carver, was there from 1958 till 1997.)
Chesak believes that live theatre fulfills some very basic human needs, including our need to be around other people, the need we have to express ourselves, and the need to connect not only with each other, but with our past. In addition, she says, it meets our more obvious needs to escape from reality and to be entertained.
“At the core,” she believes, “is the social connection. We pretend it’s not important and pretend it can be minimized by the social media, but it can’t. You can’t have the same connection with people if you’re not sitting in the same room with them.” For most of us, she says, our earliest memories involve collectively sharing an experience.
Chesak says she still finds science fascinating and a recently acquired avocation has been food chemistry. “There’s still a little science geek left in me,” she says.
Chesak appreciates the unique opportunities Kalamazoo College offered her. “Regardless of what degree you end up with at ‘K,’” she says, “you have been instilled with the idea of being inquisitive and wanting to find out more.”
The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre includes three venues, the Civic Auditorium, the Parish Theatre and the Carver Studio, which field a total of 14 productions each season. The Civic has 29 staff members, about 1,300 volunteers, and an operating budget of $1.7 million.