Attending the Region III Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival is a long-standing January tradition in the Theatre Department at Hope College. The department participates in the festival’s initiatives throughout the year, faculty members regularly serve as respondents to productions within our five-state region, two of our faculty members have previously served as the region’s chair, and Michelle Bombe, chair of the Hope Theatre Department, is currently serving as the national chair of the entire organization. 

In January, Region III is always the first of eight regions to hold its festival, often in the midst of a snow storm. Though there was no snow storm, this year’s festival, scheduled to occur at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, shifted to a virtual one due to the pandemic.

All previous regional festivals have meant a “road trip” for students, staff, and faculty members to the five-day event. The festival offers a host of activities, including five to eight invited productions from the region’s colleges and universities, exhibitions and awards in the various specialty areas of theatre (acting, arts management, design, directing, dramaturgy, playwriting, stage management, theatre criticism), workshops, and guest speakers. 

“It has been an incredibly difficult time for everyone and this is also true for theatre makers,” said Bombe. “As the national chair for KCACTF, I have been involved in the planning for the festival year. We had to make the difficult decision last summer that all eight regional festivals would not be in person but held virtually. We knew that creativity would still find a way to exist, and we wanted to make sure to offer a platform to celebrate that work. 

“So, we asked the question, in this time of pause, could we offer programming that would allow our industry to return stronger and more equitable?  Thanks to generous dedication and funding from the Kennedy Center, we were able to offer national programming to all eight regions and it was so delightful to see it launch at Region 3, which initiates an 8-week cycle of festivals across the country.”

Assistant professor Richard Perez described the impact of this adjustment to a virtual festival, held January 5-9, 2021:

“For many of us, the yearly KCACTF Region III Festival signals an opportunity to kick off the new year by reconnecting with peers, hearing great speakers, seeing exciting theatrical works and being inspired by the young talent in our region. While some of those components were missing this year because of the move to an online platform, there was a different kind of excitement present — the excitement of an art form that can continue to inspire even in the face of a world pandemic. Because we participate in a craft that is contingent upon our abilities to adapt, the courageous women and men who lead Region III did just that.” 

For Hope’s Theatre Department, this meant an invitation to present its November 2020 production of The Thanksgiving Play at the festival.  Despite the fact that all invited productions had to be shared via pre-recorded performances, Perez, the director of The Thanksgiving Play, found the experience rewarding:  

“Especially during this time of heightened awareness around racial (in)equity, it was an honor to bring a play that encourages us to be better allies to those who need it most.” 

Grant McKenzie, left, and Adam Chamness, right, in The Thanksgiving Play

Cast member Grant McKenzie ’24 echoed these sentiments:

“The response to The Thanksgiving Play, as well as the opportunity to have it screened on such a level, was such an extreme honor, and a reminder to me of the reason why we keep creating even in difficult times and under strange new circumstances. As cliche as it is, KCACTF made me feel more invigorated and inspired as an artist, and I’m excited to hopefully attend in person someday.” 

Assistant professor Eric Van Tassell was the production’s scenic and lighting designer.  He too was enthusiastic about the video presentation of the play:

“The highlight of this year’s festival for me was getting to revisit our production of The Thanksgiving Play and sharing it with the wider community of our region. The respondents from the festival who provide reflections and feedback to all participating productions had some lofty praise for our work. They were particularly impressed with not only our ability to navigate new technological challenges and safety limitations brought on by doing theatre in the midst of a pandemic, but also by how our actors and director didn’t let any of those new obstacles stand in the way of a quality performance that was entertaining and heartfelt. Hope College has a lot to be proud of regarding this production and how we represent ourselves within our region.” 

Indeed, the production received the Golden Keyboard Award (shared with the University of Toledo), recognizing the technical and digital proficiency of the production as well as its creative adherence to safe COVID protocols.  (This was a new award, temporarily replacing the usual Golden Handtruck award, which recognizes the safe and efficient load-in and load-out of invited productions at their respective venues during in-person festivals.)

Department chair Bombe summarized:

“I deeply appreciate celebrating student achievements at the festival.  For me personally, however, the regional festival is always a time to be inspired by talented artists and recharge my batteries and return to my campus with renewed enthusiasm to work with the students.  And though it was disappointing not to gather in person, I still felt that the festival captured a way to celebrate our student artists and gave me so much hope for our industry as we move to come back stronger and more equitable.   I am thrilled that we were able to share our work on The Thanksgiving Play, which I think echoes the mantra I like to describe about our work at Hope: Theatre that makes a difference!”

Madison Meeron ’21 is pictured giving her online, solo performance of “When I Look at You” from the “Scarlet “Pimpernel.”

The Theatre Department was honored by individual student accomplishments at the festival as well.  Nominated for her performance in the department’s February 2020 production of Doubt, Hope graduate Katie Joachim ’20 advanced to the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship semi-final round, and a number of other nominated Hope students participated in this event. Madison Meeron ’21 was a finalist in the Musical Theatre Intensive, which culminated in pre-recorded Zoom performances by all thirteen finalists at the January 9 closing of the festival. 

Madison shared these thoughts:

“It was a riveting experience to be selected as a Musical Theatre finalist. I had a blast getting to workshop my song with guest artists Farah Alvin and James Gray. They were delightful individuals and really pushed me to look at my song’s text in ways I hadn’t before. I’m eager to use the skills learned through the MT Intensive in my future auditions/endeavors, and I would like to encourage future students to audition for this program. You won’t regret it!”

Valerie Dien’22 recently served as the stage manager for the Theatre Department’s outdoor production of Twelfth Night in October.  Her festival attendance included building upon her interest in stage management:

“I enjoyed the festival immensely and wish I had attended in years before. With well-known names in every area of theatre, I was able to learn and make connections with some of the best talent in the theatre/performance world. A highlight for me was attending a stage management workshop led by Cody Renard Richard, who has stage managed for Broadway, Cirque du Soleil, and recently, for the 2020 VMAs (virtual music awards). This workshop was fantastic because it allowed me to personally ask Cody a few questions and discuss stage management techniques with other rising stage managers. It also made me note that my stage management instruction at Hope is incredibly well-rounded, which made me feel capable of holding my own in discussion and the way I thought about stage management as compared to what was discussed in the workshop.”

(As a side note, it is fun to know that Cody Richard spent two seasons with the Hope Summer Repertory Theatre, first as a stage management intern and then as the assistant production stage manager, in 2007 and 2008.  We theatre folk always say it is a small world!)

Of particular significance is KCACTF’s growing commitment to confronting issues of access, racism, and inclusivity.  Several regional and national initiatives are working to increase the voices of under-represented populations within the organization and discipline. 

The Region III Festival had a clear focus on these timely matters, as articulated by Bombe:

“Personally, I was inspired by the national keynote addresses and workshops in Anti-Racist Theatre Training with Nicole Brewer, the Theatrical Intimacy Education, and the We See You White American Theatre Panel and follow-up discussion.  Our department has dedicated thoughtful time and energy to the demands of the manifesto that has been shared nationally and is titled, ‘We See You White American Theatre,’ so the conversations and resources shared were highly relevant to the work we are doing on our campus.”

The 2022 Region III KCACTF festival is again scheduled to occur at Ball State next January.  The Theatre Department at Hope looks forward to re-joining its regional colleagues and friends in-person to celebrate the creative achievements of our students.

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