Exit, Stage Left: Michael Kennedy Concludes His 40-Year St. Ambrose Tenure with "Sweeney Todd" Print
Theatre - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 14 April 2009 06:00

Michael KennedySt. Ambrose University instructor Michael Kennedy, who has directed more than 75 collegiate theatre productions over the past 40 years, remembers the first - and, to his recollection, only - public complaint lodged against one of his shows, which appeared in the Diocese of Davenport's weekly newspaper The Catholic Messenger.

"It was 1972," he says, "and somebody called for my being fired because I had a young kid of about 10 or 12 say 'S.O.B.' on stage. It was Mame, and I used the full 'sons of bitches' line, because it just isn't as funny if you don't, you know? I thought that that was justifiable language - the movie has been out and all that - but that person was like, 'Get rid of him as quick as you can.'"

Thirty-seven years later, the offended party is finally getting his wish.

St. Ambrose's forthcoming production of Sweeney Todd - composer Stephen Sondheim's famed musical thriller about "the demon barber of Fleet Street," running April 17 through 19 - marks Kennedy's last directorial effort at the university before his retirement, having served not only as a director, but an assistant professor of theatre, speech, and mass communication since 1969.

Although he will teach St. Ambrose adjunct courses in film and playwriting this fall, Kennedy will step down from full-time teaching at the end of the spring term, and the Galvin Fine Arts Center's Marketing Director Eileen Eitrheim says that the impact Kennedy has had at St. Ambrose can't be overstated. "We're going to miss him so much," she says. "I'm glad he's teaching the adjunct courses, because we're really going to have to wean ourselves off of him."

"I could have retired a long time ago, but I've just very much enjoyed what I've been doing," says Kennedy, making particular mention of the freedom that teaching and directing allow in "being able to say what you want to say when you want to say it.

"Ambrose has always been tremendously open, and very liberal," he continues. "Especially when you look at it as a diocese and a Catholic college. A lot of people might say, 'It's religion-oriented' or 'It's religiously controlled,' and that's not true at all from the standpoint of being open to new ideas.

"I mean, come on," laughs Kennedy. "We're putting Sweeney Todd up on Easter week."

 

Michael Kennedy, with Barbara Fayth Humphrey, in Circa '21's On Golden PondTo Ambrose and Back

A Rock Island native, Kennedy's affiliation with St. Ambrose actually began years before he started teaching there, as he enrolled in the university after graduating from Alleman High School in 1956.

Yet while he had been actively involved with theatre as a high-schooler, and had participated in several productions for Genesius Guild founder Don Wooten - "I was in the first plays that Genesius Guild ever did," says Kennedy - such opportunities weren't easily found at St. Ambrose.

"I came to Ambrose," says Kennedy, "and I believe we had a year-and-a-half with almost no theatre whatsoever. There was a priest and another fellow in the department at the time, and they would do radio shows, and then a play every now and then, but there was nothing being done that was useful to somebody who wanted to do theatre."

That changed, however, during his sophomore year. "A gentleman by the name of Wayne Loui walked in to class," says Kennedy. "Wayne came from television, and he said, 'Hi, my name's Wayne Loui, and I'm gonna try to get a theatre group up.'"

And Loui's arrival, says Kennedy, couldn't have come at a better time. "That morning, as a matter of fact, a bunch of us were just sitting around the table, talking about going to some other school because there was no theatre here."

Consequently, Loui's plan was met with immediate enthusiasm amongst Kennedy and fellow students interested in the art, and the template for St. Ambrose's current theatre-department schedule - with four mainstage productions performed per year - was created. "The first show we did was 12 Angry Men," Kennedy says, "and I think that nine of those 12 went on to either do theatre professionally, or get degrees and go on to teach theatre." (Kennedy, with stage appearances including numerous roles for the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, has done both.)

After receiving his BA in speech and theatre in 1960, Kennedy went on to pursue a master's of theatre arts from Pennsylvania's Villanova University, working his way through school by bartending and, he says with a laugh, "a bit of pool-playing and a bit of card-playing." He earned his degree from Villanova, and with a job already lined up at Rock Island's WHBF-TV, found an immediate use for it upon his return to the Quad Cities.

"A friend asked me if I wanted to teach at Black Hawk," says Kennedy, "because nobody was doing theatre there. He was, but no one with a degree. So I started teaching theatre at the same time I was working over at WHBF." (Says Kennedy of teaching in the days and working production positions in the evenings: "I've always had about two jobs since I've been about 11.")

Seeking further opportunities in television, however, Kennedy departed the area after a three-year stay. "The fellow who ran WHBF got me an interview at CBS in California," he says, "so I left WHFB and Black Hawk in '63 or '64." The move, though, didn't quite work out according to plan.

"When I got there," recalls Kennedy, "I was supposed to talk to this gentleman who was a vice president there, and be put in to either Danny Kaye's or Red Skelton's show, to work backstage. And I walked in after driving out there and asked for the man, and the receptionist broke into tears - he had passed away two days before that, while I was on the road."

Kennedy then made arrangements to meet with an interim vice president recently flown in from New York, "but when I went in and met that guy," he says, "it turned out that was the first day of the first strike in the history of television."

"So," he says with a laugh, "that kind of left me hanging."

Opting to stay in California, Kennedy landed a job at an acquaintance's poker club, and began teaching classical-acting classes in a theatre owned by actor James Best (best known, later, as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on television's The Dukes of Hazzard). Yet after "a year, a year-and-a-half," says Kennedy, "I just didn't hook on to anything at all. And I only had one contact, you know? I imagine it's the same now as it was back in those days - it's always difficult to break in if you, quote unquote, 'don't know anyone.'"

He returned to the Quad Cities, and to a directing position at WHBF, and then, in 1969, received a call from St. Ambrose University's president, Father Sebastian G. Menke. "He asked if I wanted to come back to Ambrose," he says. "And I thought, 'Oh, that might be a lot of fun.'"

 

Ryan Westwood and Sarah Ulloa in St. Ambrose University's Sweeney ToddCultural Change

Forty years later, Kennedy says that working in St. Ambrose's theatre department has provided no end of fun, and that he's relishing the chance to work on Sweeney Todd, a production that had been under consideration during many previous seasons.

"A few years ago, Ghostlight [Theatre] did a real, real good job with it," says Kennedy, "and so I just held off from doing it. I'd been kicking around wanting to do it for some time, but when somebody does a really fine job with a show ... . It's not jealousy or anything, but it's smart to just back away and do it later on."

Kennedy says that the decision to stage Sweeney Todd as his final production before retiring was based partly on casting necessities. "With this one, what we waited for was voices as much as anything," he says, "because it's so darn tough. Sondheim is really rough on singers." (The show will feature suitably gifted performers in, among others, Ryan Westwood as Sweeney, Sarah Ulloa as Mrs. Lovett, Dan Hernandez as Judge Turpin, Emily Kurash as the Beggar Woman, and Seth Kaltwasser as Tobias.)

Yet Sweeney Todd's director says he was also fascinated with the modern relevance in this Victorian-set piece, especially as it related to the musical's "Greek chorus" of affectless Londoners.

"The concept that we have for 'the vermin,' the people of the city, has a bit to do with how we are in this day and age," says Kennedy. "What I wanted to do with the ensemble is have them resemble those people who we don't want to look at when we're in Chicago or some large city. You walk around them and you don't really see them, and they don't look at you. ...

"Whether it's burglary or the financial crisis we've got now," he continues, "a lot of people just say, 'Don't bother me with it,' you know? 'I've got my own life here.' So we wanted to play with the idea of people that are always around, and know everything that's going on, and don't care."

Kennedy especially enjoys directing Sweeney Todd's dramatic challenges because, as he says, "I'm not very musically inclined at all," despite helming St. Ambrose's 2005 production of Urinetown, and even starring in Circa '21's 1998 production of 42nd Street.

"I learned early on that that is a flaw of mine," he says. "If I had it to do over again, like all the way from grade school, I'd try to read music, because it's really beneficial if you can. What I direct is really from the standpoint of character, and the drive of a song. But theatre's a collaborative art, so with a lot of my directing of musicals, if I can find musicians and choreographers and let them do their job, then we kind of co-direct. And that way it's not so bad."

(With a laugh, he says of his collaboration with choreographer Shelly Frazee, "She calls what she's doing 'stage movement' instead of 'choreography,' which is good for me, because she's done about 80 percent of my work. I look at something she's staged and say things like, 'Oh, that worked nice ... !")

As for the decision to stage a musical involving murder and cannibalism - and during Easter week, no less - Kennedy says that, as has been the case for the past 40 years, St. Ambrose has been nothing but supportive. "They've never stopped me from doing any show," he says. "I was careful not to push the envelope very much, but you know, times change, and Ambrose has had the ability to accept cultural change. I think that stands in good stead for them."

With university retirement on the horizon, though, Kennedy has no immediate plans to retire from artistic pursuits. "After this number of years," he says, "you say to yourself, 'Gee, maybe I'd like to try something else.' So I'd like to do a little bit of writing maybe, and I'll teach part-time, and then I'd also like to see if I can break into some voice-over work in Chicago, which is pie in the sky, because it's so difficult to get in."

He'll also be seen on the stage again, appearing in September's production of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross for Curtainbox Theatre Company members - and former St. Ambrose students - Kimberly Furness and David Bonde. "They didn't take a chance on my memorizing big parts," he says with a laugh, "so they gave me the Alec Baldwin part. You know, he comes in and destroys everybody in about 19 paragraphs and then leaves."

Yet Kennedy is leaving St. Ambrose with almost no regrets regarding projects he would have enjoyed tackling. "I always thought about maybe doing Hamlet," he says. "I've done a bunch of Shakespeare but did not do Hamlet. And I didn't do Lear. But really, I've gotten to do most everything I've wanted to do.

"It's that thing about, you know, big fish in a small pond," Kennedy continues. "You get to do what you want. And for my temperament and personality, Ambrose has worked out really well for me, because I'm not ... ."

He laughs, perhaps as a good-natured warning to his future Curtainbox collaborators. "You know, I'm not real crazy about taking orders."

 

Director Michael Kennedy's production of Sweeney Todd will be staged at St. Ambrose University's Galvin Fine Arts Center on April 17 and 18 at 7:30 p.m., and on April 19 at 3 p.m. For tickets and more information, call (563)333-6251 or visit http://web.sau.edu/theatre.