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Connor Nowalk Makes Directorial Debut

Observer Scene | Friday, February 8, 2008

A job description for the position of director of “Kiss Me Kate” might read something like this: Must have an eye for talent, flexible creativity and the vision to put it all together.

As the man running the show behind the scenes, Connor Nowalk has all that and more.

“Casting is an interesting thing, because for any given role there are several people who could play it well,” Nowalk said. Given the sheer amount of talent on display during the auditions, he said that the casting process amounted to matching various talents to roles.

“Joe [Jurasko] excelled in all three areas of performance: singing, dancing and acting,” he said. “We knew we wanted to utilize his talents, but we weren’t quite sure how.”

Nowalk also found himself playing matchmaker in order to pair off actors to ensure that they had onscreen chemistry. Carolyn Sullivan’s smooth jazz voice and commanding stage presence made her a perfect fit for the part of Lois.

“When we put the two of them together in a scene during callbacks, the chemistry was there, and we knew we had our pair,” he said.

Nowalk also paired Kyle Carter and Kelly Rice as the characters Fred and Lilli. “Kelly showed us power, control and sweetness in her voice, which works perfectly for the incredible vocal demands of the role,” he said. “Kyle showed us the charisma and magnetism required of Fred, with the voice to match. As if those qualities weren’t enough, the two looked great and acted well together.”

For the uninitiated, “Kiss Me, Kate” features a play within a play, as the characters within the show put on a show of their own, a Broadway musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

“A really interesting aspect of ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ is the way the two plays are intertwined,” he said. “The characters offstage are all very similar to the characters they portray in “the Shrew.” Add to that a couple of mistaken identities, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings, and characters start jumping in and out of character, blurring the line between what is ‘supposed to be happening’ and what is just happening and encouraging the audience to get lost in the mayhem. We made some decisions, both in terms of set and otherwise, to develop that ambiguity.”

As such, the action moves around quite a bit. Keeping everything in perspective required some innovation and creativity from the crew.

“What is neat about the set for this show is that it all occurs in one building,” Nowalk said. “During the scenes from ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ the action takes place on the stage itself. All the other action occurs behind the scenes in the backstage corridor or dressing rooms. At least conceptually speaking, instead of moving the set, we wanted to ‘move the audience.'”

To accomplish this, the production has a mobile set which takes the audience backstage with the rest of the characters within the show. As such, set pieces are “set” in name only – the production has a lot of moving parts to create the backstage corridors and dressing rooms of the mock production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” Nowalk said.

“By taking the audience on this trip to see exactly where they are going, we hope that people will know exactly where they are in the theater.”

After holding auditions in mid-October, Nowalk and co. got into the swing of things with rehearsals starting after Fall Break. Excluding breaks and finals, the production has had about 10 weeks of rehearsals.

In a production featuring so many parts, Nowalk said he hasn’t further muddled things up by trying to put his own take on the material in the show.

“Kiss Me, Kate is not really the kind of show that lends itself to ‘directorial interpretation,'” he said. “Sure, you can taste a little bit of ‘Connor Nowalk’ in it, especially in the humor, but for the most part, I wanted to let the show speak for itself.”

Nowalk, who did his first musical in fifth grade, has been unable to keep himself out of theater ever since.

“Singing was what got me interested in the first place, but the more shows I was in, the more I started to love all aspects of theater,” he said.

Starting primarily as a performer, Nowalk made his directorial debut as a freshman at the Cleveland Institute of Music. After transferring here to Notre Dame, Nowalk knew that he wanted to direct a show here before graduating.

“I am glad that my first opportunity was with a group I love,” he said. “Though I will never direct a PEMCo show again, I am sure that this will not be the last show I direct.”

Contact Tae Andrews at tandrew1@nd.edu