With her keen humor and love of storytelling, Karen Kessler could’ve been a professional comic.
Instead, she started discovering how to lead actors her junior year of college. Her voice softens and lowers, as it does when she talks about anything meaningful to her, as she says, “I directed my first thing, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ ”
Since then, from universities and theaters across the country to off-Broadway, she’s used her intelligence, lightness of spirit and passions to create safe areas for her actors to explore everything from comedies to musicals to sometimes-painful characters and scripts.
“I think she’s incredibly sophisticated in terms of figuring out what moves people and how people can learn by watching plays or musicals — something not only about the world they live in but also about themselves,” said Bill Jenkins, chairperson of the Department of Theatre and Dance.
“And she has a great connection with her actors. Her actors trust her implicitly. More than anything, she engenders an atmosphere of real collaboration.”
Her students thrive in that partnership.
“She never just outright says what she wants an actor to do, but she leads us in that direction. She helps us figure it out,” said senior acting major Ashley Greenwood of New Lenox, Illinois. “She knows how to get you to a place where you feel comfortable and good about your work. And I feel I’m able to ask her any questions that I need to.”
Those skills, and her clear dedication to students, brought the theater professor the university’s 2016 Creative Endeavor Award.
A challenging play
With Kessler as director, her cast and crew are in the final rehearsals for the department’s season opener, “The Great God Pan,” a confrontational play about child sexual abuse and memories — the remembering, not remembering and the holes — often associated with a traumatic incident. It’s presented in the intimate 100-seat Strother Theatre.
Savannah Cousins, of Warsaw, Indiana, appreciates Kessler’s ability “to create a safe, fun work environment and then deal with a serious topic.” The senior’s majoring in directing/stage management plus design and technology.
Kessler’s optimism helps.
“Even with something that’s a dark play, she doesn’t dwell on the darkness,” said Greenwood, who portrays a former baby sitter for the two male leads in “The Great God Pan.” “She is able to find the positivity in it and keeps pushing the actors to strive for positivity.”
Yet, Kessler doesn’t overlook the potential of students having to depict a reality they have lived. That possibility is very real for acting and musical theater majors, who can’t choose what they audition for: They’re required to try out for every production.
Students were told before auditions that if they didn’t think they could be in the show due to its subject, they could talk with Kessler or the head of their area. “Art is important and wonderful, but no art is worth damaging someone over.”
Once a play is cast, “I always say to the actor playing someone who’s victimized: ‘What do you need to have happen around you for you to feel safe in this moment? A space?’ And that’s open to everybody. My job is to make sure they’re protected.”
Repaying her mentors
For Kessler, teaching is about opening doors for students to walk through while assuring them it’s safe. That’s what her two undergraduate and three graduate school teachers did as she struggled to learn her craft. “Grad school was the first time in my life I had willingly been bad at something.”
And her beloved “holy trinity” from her master’s work gave her an enormous gift. “They said, ‘You don’t have to be like us. You have to be like you. You just need to be the best version of you.’ ”
She teaches that to her students, she said, as her voice softens again, “because that’s what they did for me, and I’m a better director because of it. And I’m lucky. I’m lucky. I landed in the exact right place. Teaching gets to become a conversation of who they are, what the work is and how I can help them discover more of who they are in the work. And it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful.”
“Even with something that’s a dark play, she doesn’t dwell on the darkness. She is able to find the positivity in it and keeps pushing the actors to strive for positivity.”
— Ashley Greenwood, senior
Her students love that approach, too.
“The way Karen runs the classes is, ‘Let’s talk about how to make the stage safe for actors,’ ” Cousins said. “We’ll share some things from our experiences, and she’ll comment on them. In Directing 2, we had really great conversations about how to translate what you need for the show to an actor or to a designer.”
And they speak of her warmth.
“She’s really an extremely compassionate person,” said Cousins. “You know that Karen will be there for you, to help you, talk if you need to talk or to help you through class stuff or whatever work you need to do.”
Eva Patton, an associate professor of theater who’s acting in “The Great God Pan,” admires Kessler’s devotion to students.
“What really sets her teaching apart is her immense care of the students. She has a very high standard and expects them to reach and to grow and to really continue challenging themselves. But she is very nurturing in terms of the individual attention they get from her.”
Being on the edge
For someone who’s so joyful, there are two surprising threads running through her work.
“I’m interested in what happens to people after they get broken. I think all people get broken at different times. They get their heart broken, they get their body broken, they get their career broken.”
And the other strand?
“What happens when we’re at that precipice, and we either jump or don’t jump? And not jumping is dangerous, and jumping is dangerous. In tragedies or dark stories, we jump and we get hurt — but we always learn from the jump. I’m really interested in the characters that take the jump. Kind of prebroken, then they get broken, and I’m always interested in who we are after the hardship.”
She came to a precipice a few years ago. After directing more than 100 shows, the job rarely scared her. So she walked to the edge of fear and leapt into:
- Writing short plays. Her current project, funded by a Ball State ADVANCE grant, involves creating a musical with her sister, Kelly Kessler, a bluegrass songwriter. It’s love story set against the struggle to unionize coal miners in the early 1930s and to make mines safer.
- Directing “The Nether,” a creepy play that touches on vile acts in virtual reality and how they might diminish our humanity, for A Red Orchid Theatre, a Chicago ensemble she’s part of. “I’m scared. I’m not sure how I’m going to do this. But I like that feeling.”
Those jumps over the edge have reawakened her understanding of the road her students travel.
“They’re scared as they’re doing their art all the time. And I remember being where they are and being on the journey and not feeling like I was good enough and not knowing what I was doing but wanting to do it well.
“The writing has been an amazing outlet for that in terms of saying, ‘Wow. I don’t know how to do this. I’m doing it anyway, and I’m scared every step, but I’m doin’ it.’ ”
The lessons of a stroke
In May 2015, Kessler had a stroke. She said she knew a few weeks after it that she’d be OK, then fought through speech therapy so she could come back to teach. She was confident of the support of her colleagues and Jenkins (“the best boss anybody could ever have, and underline that seven times”), but could she direct “Alias Grace” at the start of this year?
She gets very quiet. “It was the thing I was most scared of. It’s the thing I am. I teach, but I am a director. And I got through it, and I knew I could direct still. And it was amazing. And nothing has been as scary in my life since that happened. My house flooded August 28. I was upset, but it’s stuff. It’s stuff.” She and her beloved Louie, a 7-pound Yorkiepoo, were safe.
“What happens when we’re at that precipice, and we either jump or don’t jump? And not jumping is dangerous, and jumping is dangerous. In tragedies or dark stories, we jump and we get hurt — but we always learn from the jump.”
— Karen Kessler
“And the stroke taught me that being here with the people I love, with the people I want to work with, with the people I respect, here, in Chicago, anywhere where I’m working, doing the work I love is this amazing gift.”
The proof’s in the graduates
What affirms the work going on in the department is what happens after students graduate, she said.
“I just had lunch with a friend of mine, an actor/director in Chicago who was going up to start a job at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he said, ‘Ball State is getting such a great reputation. Your kids are amazing,’ ” Kessler said. “I can’t imagine anything I would love to hear more.
“Other people say the same thing: Your kids are professional; they know how to audition; they know how to work; they know how to be in a room with people. What more could you want than to be turning out kids who can do that? That people are going, ‘Yeah, I want to work with that kid. That kid knows what they’re about and knows how to learn and knows how to grow.’ What more could you want?
“I’m lucky to be part of this.”