When the leadership of an artistic organization changes, it’s always interesting to try to find out what may or may not be in store for the future, and what new ideas might come to the table.
For the University of Louisville’s Department of Theatre Arts, the departure of Chair Nefertiti Burton may signal something of a sea change as Acting Chair Kevin Gawley — formerly the assistant professor and resident scenic, lighting and projection designer — charts a new path for the historic department, which traces its history all the way back to the University Dramatic Club founded in 1923.
Insider spoke with Gawley to get to know him better and get a sense of where the department is headed under his guidance.
Gawley grew up in outside of Los Angeles and began working in the theater during school.
“Like many people who do creative art fields, I was definitely encouraged by my parents to take up the arts,” he says.
After at getting a bachelor’s of fine arts in theater with a focus on lighting design at the University of Illinois, he moved to Chicago to work as a freelance designer for seven years. While designing at night, he worked at a law firm during the day and also earned a master’s in business administration at DePaul University.
“In 2003, I decided that I’d had enough of dueling careers, so I went back to get my master’s in theater,” says Gawley.
He then spent nine years teaching at the University of Wisconsin before moving to Louisville to work at UofL in 2015.
Gawley’s plans for the department include continuing one of its focuses in recent years — reaching out to the rest of Louisville.
“The students do great work, both in the acting with the MFA program, as well as the technical side … and I think there’s an opportunity to highlight the work they’ve been doing and bring new eyes to the program,” he explains.
Reaching out has included a variety of collaborations.
“Last year we partnered with Commonwealth Theatre of Kentucky, and that was a great collaboration,” he says. “We also partnered with Andrew Harris of StageOne — he directed our production of ‘Antigone.’”
UofL’s African-American Theatre program worked in the community and serviced part of its core mission by staging a production at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, thereby crossing the infamous Ninth Street divide, as well as working with Bridge Kids International, a youth-focused nonprofit based in Smoketown, the oldest African-American neighborhood in Louisville.
Although the acting students spend more time in the literal spotlight, the industry is just as reliant on the skillful technicians who help run that spotlight — and build the scenery, costumes, props and a host of other things.
UofL actually has a very strong technical theater side, and Gawley hopes to help grow that part of the department, with a focus on expanded opportunities and relationships for the students in the community.
“We have guest designers who are coming — we have Karl Anderson, who designs a lot with StageOne; we have Daniel Perez, he’s doing the lighting design for ‘Eurydice’; and Marcus Stevens, who designs for Notre Dame Shakespeare and University of Notre Dame, is coming to do scenic design,” says Gawley.
Like any profession, the theater world often relies on a network of unofficial contacts and friendships, so getting to know professionals outside the department may translate into employment for students down the road.
Burton’s departure signals something of a crescendo to a new guard coming in to the Theatre Arts Department.
“In the last five years, we have seven new faculty members. It mostly had to do with retirees, because they had been here so long,” explains Gawley. “There’s a huge history with this program, so moving forward, it’s kind of exciting to have all these fresh faces and directors. We have a new movement teacher, we have a new voice teacher, we have great talent, and so we’re looking to highlight that. There is a sense that it’s almost a hidden secret how good this program is.”
As far as Gawley’s hopes for himself for the future, he’s been pursuing an interest in theatrical projection, using projectors and screens on stage, which is a fairly new piece of the technical puzzle.
“I’m getting more involved in projection design and trying to develop that as part of the program here,” he says. “I’m sure you’ve seen production where that was used, and I’m continuing to develop that.”
Keep an eye on UofL’s Theatre Arts Department, and check out their upcoming shows, including “Eurydice,” which runs Jan. 26-Feb. 4.