Loyola University Chicago

Department of Fine and Performing Arts


An in-depth interview with Director of Theatre Lee Keenan

An in-depth interview with Director of Theatre Lee Keenan

How would you describe the current 2022-23 season? What unites it thematically?

The 2022-23 season has a lot of themes of duality. Orlando might be an obvious example, where there's a gender binary being presented and then really explored in the extreme- a principal character switching genders halfway through the play. It shows an examination of a binary on both sides.

Then, there's the choice presented in The Old Man and the Old Moon, between tradition and routine, and breaking out of that and adventuring and questioning the other side of that.

With Pride and Prejudice, there's a duality right there in the title. But also, things about boundaries between classes and choices that one makes in life about your values create a decision like that, you have to weigh two sides of.

Somewhere really explored before and after things. Characters were wrestling with hanging on to life and their identity from a moment of before. Can we admit that the before might be over, and that we’re living in a very different world? It showed that duality also with above and below ground. This scary, unknowable thing is under the surface of the ground. Do we confront that, or do we stay above ground where it is also hostile but also different? Or one side of an immigration line, or one side of a timeline of a global catastrophe.

What are some of the broader goals of the theatre program in this season? What kind of artistic goals or social justice goals have we been working towards?

In the program, we're working making sure that we can practice our craft in a way that is forward- looking and blazing a trail for doing this in a way that takes care of each other. As we try to do a risky thing, which is to get out on the stage and communicate something to an audience, we’re working behind the scenes.

We’re working on a lot of policy documents and procedures around intimacy and the teaching of that. Your generation has led a very different conversation around consent. That has led to the arts industries, theatre, television, and film, talking about consent and intimacy in a really new way than what was in the landscape five to six years ago. And so, we’re bringing a lot of that into our practices and trying to lead the way as far as bringing some of those cutting-edge industry practices into classroom practices.

The faculty has been working a lot on that axis of internal justice. When we're healthier, taking care of each other and doing harm reduction practices in art making, then hopefully we can do riskier, bold theatre on stage to inspire the audience to go out and do more social justice in the world. To take care of ourselves first and to go out and inspire.

On the note of the classroom, there have been a few unique course offerings this year. What should students get excited about learning?

Looking ahead to next year, we're in the works on who it will be, but it will be the theatre program’s turn for the Artist-in-Residency. We're working on who that artist might be. We’re really hoping to bring in a playwright, as that’s a really important value that we put forward for the program- all of our students finding their voices as artists and sculpting their own work as they write. Or if writing might not be the way you practice theatre, understanding the mechanisms of that deeply, the foundation of that. We start with the work. We're a text analysis based program, and to me, the whole craft is text analysis- based.

We focus on that with the second stage with all students writing their own work. And so, we’re hoping to bring a resident artist as we did the last time. Three years ago, Sandra Delgado joined us in residence. We’re hoping to return to that model again of having a playwright on campus and developing a new piece alongside the students, as well as being an expert in teaching writing.

What is the value to a text-based, literary and dramaturgical focus in a theatre education?

I think it connects us to the liberal arts values that, hopefully, we all came here to study. We want to really deeply understand the context of everything about the work that we’re producing. It benefits us, if we’re an actor in a play, to understand all the historical, political, and cultural context that are at play and circulating in that.

Our major is so focused on our history and our literature courses. It’s five courses of your overall major. It’s a lot of that. We really believe that having a strong rooting in how plays function and where they sit in a historical context. Understanding what has come before us so that we can riff on it, turn it upside down, and turn it into something new from a place of knowledge and not naivete.

This allows us to make more sophisticated work and to come out of undergraduate at running speed, to a field of theatre makes and audience of theatre viewers that are already running. We try to get at the speed that the art form is running so that you can run with them when you enter.

I always find it to be a marvel that I can go to work at sixty different regional theatres across the country and we all share the same collaborative design making process. What we expect from each other at certain meetings. To say, “let’s bring a white model at the next meeting,” it’s two words- a white model- and I know exactly what that means. Thousands of artists in the country are all making tens of thousands of works, all using that same shorthand. And so, we’re hoping to impart that craft and process and do it in a way that has some real intellectual roots.

One of those ways that the department allows students to hit the ground running is the Underground Theatre, which has been having some changes in philosophy and approach. In what direction is the Underground heading, and what possibilities does this give to the students?

As our black box space, the Underground was a little dormant during the pandemic. It’s a space that our current student population might not have known as well, but we are hoping to increasingly populate it densely with both student-led work and faculty-led work.

We will be returning next year to open our Main Stage season in the Underground Theatre, which provides us with an opportunity for a different style of theatre. Choosing a kind of play that works really well with the audience right on top of the action. It's so funny that Intimate Apparel is the title, but it is an intimate space telling an intimate story with the word even in the title. It is a small, beautiful jewel box of a story. A sad and tender and poignant story centered around one character- Esther.

It’s a story that Jonathan [Wilson, director], is really in love with and one he really wanted to do in a small space. He wanted a small show to craft meticulously in a space where the audience is right there and can see every little crafted facet of the diamond that gets sculpted. So, we'll be excited to fully activate the Underground’s potential to start off the year, and then to go into a season of student-led projects thereafter.

The shift that we're returning to from years past is our applications were under for underground projects being on an annual cycle rather than a semiannual cycle. And hopefully that will just allow students to plan their whole year, for us to balance student workload and speak about our season- the faculty-led and the student-led parts of our season all in one breath.

Another part of the department that has been shifting and ever changing is the musical slot moving towards incorporating a student orchestra with Into the Woods last year. What was that experience like, and is that the norm going forward?

We are really excited for that to, yes, be the norm going forward. It’s something we wanted to do and talked about for years. Thanks to Rick Lowe’s [Director of Music] leadership, Mark Lococo’s [Chairperson, Department of Fine and Performing Arts] leadership, and Michael McBride’s [Music Director for Theatre] everlasting flexibility, we are finally able to take the leap and do something we've wanted to do for years.

We’re very excited to have that as a regularly shaped class where the pit band auditions for Rick, and Rick teaches them in a Saturday class across the semester and trains them on the musical in a class context. And then, there’s a handoff leading into tech to our music director, Michael McBride, who takes over as bandleader for the run of the show.

That worked in our pilot. Into the Woods was a rousing success and Into the Woods is some of the hardest music you’re going to encounter in a pit band in college. So, we tried it on hard mode, and it was a great success.

Then, The Old Man and the Old Moon is tricky in a different way because it has a folk Americana instrumentation, which is a little bit different than our jazz focused music program. But it’s also an instrumentation that might have interest even outside of the music department in the whole campus, and we’re excited to see where that goes.

Looking forward to next season, what went into the selection of our slate of shows?

We focus on a few goals. We have representation goals that we want to hit. We were looking for 50% or more BIPOC playwrights, 50% or more femme or non-binary playwrights. We have those kinds of representational goals we look at.

Where there are certain styles of theatre learning outcome interests that we want to hit. Annually, that is an interest in doing a musical. And now that we have this shape of pairing it with the pit band class this spring, the second slot of this spring is where that falls into shape.

And we were on a cycle for a number of years of doing a Shakespeare every other year. We got a little off-cycle last year, it’ll be three years since. There was a bubbling up of desire among surveyed students to do a Shakespeare play. Most vocal amongst those, unsurprisingly, were our Shakespeare Studies minors who are very passionate about that work and its potential to be a work that attracts student participants and audiences from outside of the department in English and in Classic studies. There’s a lot of love of those texts, so we're committed to putting a Shakespeare into the season.

We also look at the taste, research interests, and style interests of our directors. Once we've chosen directors for the season, we are also considering and sculpting our reading lists and suggestions to those directors based on their interests.

For example, going into the season, we knew that Jonathan Wilson was interested in returning to something he hadn't done on Loyola’s stages for a while, which is a play about the Black American experience. It’s where his personal research interest is, past research interest is, and it had been a while since he’d done a play on the Black American experience at Loyola.

And as we meet Dr. DeRon Williams, we’re very excited for this to be his directorial debut at Loyola next season. We also talked to DeRon and found out what he was interested in working on, which are plays by black femme playwrights was where DeRon’s interests were for this season. The way we make plays is with an artistic leader at the helm. We’ve learned over the years that the productions are fun and successful when the director has a great passion for the project that they’re leading.

That shapes and filters our reading lists to where we can align learning outcome interests, student interests, and faculty interests. The student reps on our Main Stage Selection Committee did a lovely job this last spring and summer of serving students, hosting a summer reading group. From that came great discussions and lists of plays where there was interest and excitement around, and that all fed into the season selection process.

How do the program’s overall goals feed into the shows that we’ve selected for next season?

One very wordy and broad goal that we have in season selection is choosing shows that meet our values. If you think on a really high level of our program's goals, it is to be a theater program within a social justice forward, Jesuit organization. That means like finding plays that we can really believe in the message of them, and that we think there is a social good from audiences experiencing this play, and technicians and designers and actors working on making this play for that audience and bringing that back.

Bringing conversation topics, be they challenging or fulfilling and heartwarming, that refill your cup or warms the soul in some way. We see a value that meets our values in the plays that we produce. That does filter our choices quite a bit, so we’re looking for that alignment of our interests and whatever you think that would be beneficial for student learning and that meets our social justice values.