Today I had the honor of interviewing Jeremy Kisling, the Associate Artistic Director in charge of Education at Lexington Children’s Theater and learning about his career and getting advice in working in our field.
Katie: I saw that you have a MFA in Drama and Theatre for Youth. How has it been beneficial to your career?
Jeremy: Well, I grew up in Iowa and went to the University of Northern Iowa. I didn’t go to graduate school immediately, and I do believe that was a beneficial experience. I did a lot of freelancing, and I worked at a store for a while, which taught me a lot about managing people and business skills, which have served me as well. I landed at a Child Abuse Prevention Agency and was using drama in the classroom to help kids keep themselves safe against child abuse. Also, along with that, in that job I had a group of high school students who did devised work on child abuse, substance abuse, and community violence. So they would devise work and perform two to three times a month and they were called 47 Seconds, because one child in the group was being abused every 47 seconds. Then, in 1998 I was asked to take that group to Poland to do an exchange and we went there for two weeks and performed and worked with some Polish teenagers. And from there, I moved around and I didn’t have places to go to learn. I hit my ceiling of what my community and my mentors could offer me. So at that point I was very much interested in going to grad school. What I got out of grad school was the connection to the field, a complete understanding of the history of the field, and how it has developed and grown. I feel that grad school was a really important step for some things, and for other things I think on the job experience works just as well too.
Katie-Did you start your work as an actor?
Jeremy: I started when I was 12 and at that point I was an actor, and I had done 35 shows by the time I hit college. So I spent most of my undergraduate degree focusing on technical aspects. I was primarily a stage manager in undergrad, and then did lighting design as well. In my own arc of education there were things I wanted to know. I really wanted to learn about the craft of making theatre.
Katie: Was theatre something that you always knew you wanted as a career?
Jeremy: Coming out of high school I got accepted to North Carolina School of the Arts, and I went and it was a BFA program. I was in the stage management track. It wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a more rounded education than what a BFA was going to offer me, so that’s partly why I went to the University of Northern Iowa. Every advisor throughout my life has said that if you can do something other than theatre and love it, you should do that. Which is good advice. So I went to UNI as a child psychology major, and took course work for that for about two years, but the theatre gradually pulled me back in. So I tried to get away, but wasn’t successful.
Katie: What is something that you wish you had known when you were first starting out?
Jeremy: I don’t think we’re as good as we need to be about teaching the business of theatre. In our undergrads and grad programs, I think we need to really think about how we’re serving our patron and what our patron wants from us. I have spent 10, 12 years here listening and adjusting the programming to what the needs of the theater are, the needs of education, and the needs of the patron. All three of those things play a factor into what determines your programming. And I feel like sometimes we just don’t talk enough about how this is still a business. As loving and as nurturing as we want to be, we have to remember that there is a business side to our art form. And of course, we can’t undersell what we do. We have to make a living too. We have a mindset in our society that arts should be free for everyone and I agree to that, but also the artists still have to make a living. So we have to make sure we, as a society, have an understanding of the value of what we do as well.
Katie: What do you look for when hiring the educational staff?
Jeremy: Someone who is intelligent; someone who has a wide skill set; someone who is comfortable as a teaching artist; someone who is very creative and imaginative, so in an interview, I will often ask directing questions, because I believe that teaching artists are directors, maybe not in the formal definition of directing, but I think they have to shape a story and perform a story. I look also for people who are going to get along, we do a lot of co-teaching here, so I make sure they’re going to share ideas. And then people who are kind.
Katie-What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Jeremy: Laughter. Watching four-year-olds light up. Watching kids get a concept, watching them grow into the people they’re going to become. Some of us who has longevity in our position get to watch kids go off to college and blossom and become their own artists, or go on to do great things. Being a part of that is really what makes it all worth it.
Katie: How has TYA/USA membership helped your career?
The field of TYA is one of passionate, nurturing individuals and is through organizations like TYA/USA that we connect to our leaders and colleagues. It through connections like these that we learn and grow. We commiserate and collaborate and move the field forward.
Jeremy Kisling cherishes the opportunity to create and use his imagination to make art everyday. He is celebrating his 10th year at Lexington Children’s Theatre. He works as the Associate Artistic Director in charge of Education. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Northern Iowa and his M.F.A. in Drama and Theatre for a Youth from the University of Texas at Austin.