Kathryn Bourell Culliton ’04 was the first to earn a musical theatre degree from Southwestern
She was asked to come back and reflect on her Southwestern experience at the 2014 King Creativity Symposium. Here is the text of her speech:
Thank you Dr. Gaffney and Southwestern University for inviting me to be a part of today’s event and, of course, thank you Joey King for making all of this possible to begin with.
Music has always been an active part of my life. Since I could speak, I was likely singing instead of talking. And given the appropriateness of my surroundings dancing instead of walking… accompanying music not required. From pre-school to high school I took dance lessons and sang in choirs, performed in school shows and even managed to become a member of Austin Musical Theater’s Jr. Company.
Even though I came to Southwestern as a music major, I knew Southwestern theatre before I knew Southwestern University in any other facet. I was cast in and began rehearsals for my first production at Southwestern before I attended my first class here. I was one of two freshman women who received that honor and quickly realized that the caliber of theatrical art I was immersed in was special. I felt humbled to be there and completely validated in my performance ambitions.
Two years into my education at Southwestern, I realized that although vocal performance was a joy for me, my passion was musical theatre. Unfortunately, at the time, there was no such thing as a BA in Musical Theatre at Southwestern University. Devastated that I might be stuck in a major I didn’t belong in or the prospect of leaving Southwestern for something more “suitable,” I knocked on the office door of Rick Roemer hopeful for a solution. A few meetings later, we had a proposal for an interdisciplinary major in Musical Theatre. It still needed approval, but in time that is what it received, along with a title change to Theatre Music. I suppose the fine arts faculty couldn’t come to terms with a degree called musical theatre when none of the courses in the degree plan were actually about musical theatre. Those classes didn’t exist at that time. Nonetheless I had a degree plan I was happy about and I got to stay at Southwestern. Crisis averted.
With my wonderful array of music classes from the Music Department and theatre classes from the Theatre Department, I was left with the task of bridging the two art forms together.
For those of you who aren’t the biggest fans of unexplained breaking out into song and dance or a first glance timed perfectly with a chime, allow me to explain musical theatre. It’s fantasy, extension of disbelief and often storytelling at its corniest or most moving, generally highly unrealistic (unless you were raised by my mother who can rattle off any number of songs at the mere mention of a single word.) It has the power to overwhelm your senses and often keep you whistling a tune long after the curtain goes down. It’s the everything art: vocal music, instrumental music, dance, acting, visual art, electrical, spectacle, storytelling. It’s the place where so many creators can create one culminating piece of art.
When it comes down to it, putting on a production with live musicians, costumes, make-up, sets, masking, lighting and sound isn’t cheap. Now don’t get me wrong, amazing theatre can happen on the smallest of budgets. One of my parents’ favorite musical performances was a production of Jesus Christ Superstar performed on the steps of a cathedral in Rome. I, however, was the first in the SU class of musical theatre majors. I wanted to do something full. Something rich in art, something with manpower; that utilized what I realized now was a serendipitous group of my peers. I needed a culminating musical theatre capstone to round out my degree. The King Creativity Fund made that a possibility.
“Tell Me On A Sunday” is a one-woman show. It is the first act of a two-act show by Andrew Lloyd Webber called “Song and Dance” (appropriately titled because the first act of the show is told entirely in song and the second, entirely in dance.)
I solicited the help of my friends and before I knew it, I was dividing out a budget! A REAL budget! Let me reiterate fact that I was an undergraduate with $3000 to spend on a production. These things don’t just happen!
Yes, the grant was awarded to my project, but the creativity flowed from an entire team. A team that has gone on to absolutely amazing careers in the performing arts.
Andrew Richey, the director, who has since earned his master’s from USC in production of television and cinematic arts. He’s created a film that has been purchased by HBO, produced a documentary that is slated to open in 40 cities across the country. And that’s just one.
Blair Walsleben-Crane, the stage manager, who is now the Development Assistant at Dallas Theater Center and previously spent six years as an equity stage manager in Philadelphia.
Brett Moore designed the sound. He has been the Sound Engineer at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., for the last six years and worked on World Premier of Disney’s “Newsies,” which has just hit 2 years playing on Broadway.
Rob Crane, the lighting and set designer, who is now the Technical Director at Dallas City Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District.
Justin Smith, the technical director, has since earned his Master of Fine Arts in Technical Direction from the University of VA and recently rejoined the Southwestern Theater faculty as Resident Technical Director.
To say the least, I was in good hands.
Complete with a five- piece band including the bass guitar stylings of my father, “Tell Me On A Sunday” ran for three performances in the pre-renovated stage of Alma Thomas Theater. Music and theatre together.
I’m sure any alumni of Southwestern University can boast of their training and how the school prepared them for their subsequent careers. I am no different. The King Creativity Grant was a piece of a larger puzzle that molded me into the performer I became.
And I performed. I am still grateful for the consistent work I received as a performer. Fueled by the energy of New York City, I auditioned and auditioned. Somewhere along my travels, though, I realized I was tired of constantly moving. I had been hired in so many fantastic productions: from the Narrator in “Joseph” to Ruby in “Dames at Sea,” from “Patsy Cline” to “Big River,” from “Hello Dolly” to rubbing elbows with Elmo and Big Bird on “Sesame Street.” But I was ready for a change. I knew I would have to go back to school to keep myself grounded. Paying for classes meant attending classes and attending classes meant no time for auditions. After some deliberation, I chose to earn a Master’s in Education.
Whenever anyone peered at me in confusion and asked me why I made that choice - the so-called glamorous work as a performer to the humbling career as a teacher - I always answered the same way. It’s basically the same thing. I’m still on stage. I still have an audience to engage and inspire. In fact, when my most current principal asked me what I felt was my greatest asset as a teacher, I told him without skipping a beat, “My acting background.” Being bored in my class, for me, equates to being bored in my show. It may happen, but I certainly do everything in my power to prevent it.
Creating is the richest form of educational output. I experienced that at Southwestern University through the King Creativity Grant and I thrive to instill that today into my students.
Thank you for that amazing gift.
Culliton is now a math and science teacher at St. Gabriel’s Catholic School in Austin.