Kenan Theatre Company opens doors to drama

As part of the dramatic art department, the company offers undergraduates a way to explore a career in theater.

Nine students in a rehearsal studio, practicing choreography.
(Photo Credit: Donn Young)

Carolina boasts an impressive line-up of student theater organizations, but the Kenan Theatre Company is the only one supported by the College of Arts and Sciences’ dramatic art department. The company is open to all majors and offers students the chance to explore acting, production, stage management, scenic design, wardrobe and more.

The company is also “the only undergraduate theater company at Carolina that gives students a chance to learn from professional directors,” said David Navalinsky, professor of dramatic art and director of undergraduate studies. Navalinsky came to Carolina to create and direct the company, which has produced over 40 plays and musicals since it was first founded in 2013.

Those directors are sometimes faculty members in the dramatic art department, including past company directors Aubrey Snowden, Gregory Kable and department chair Kathryn Hunter-Williams.

For one performance each year, though, Navalinsky invites a guest director to Carolina to work in residence as part of the organization’s cherished tradition: the Lillian Chason production.

2023 marks the 10th anniversary of this annual performance supported by the Lillian Chason Undergraduate Excellence Fund. Eric and Cate Chason created the fund to honor their daughter, a first-year drama student who passed away in 2009 after an illness, and to support “students in the dramatic arts program who embody her love for the theater and learning.”

Three woman sit on the floor of Kenan theatre rehearsal space practicing lines.

(Photo Credit: Donn Young)

“Men on Boats” was this year’s Lillian Chason production, and Claire Koenig was the 10th director. Koenig is an alumna of Kenan Theatre Company and earned a Master of Fine Arts in directing through Brown/Trinity Rep, a Tony Award-winning regional theater at Brown University.

Koenig hopes to foster confidence, autonomy, creativity and excitement about being involved in theater in multiple ways.

“That’s something that this program does really well — it encourages that kind of curiosity,” Koenig said.

The KTC community

For senior Carissa Wadsack-Stewart, the company did more than encourage her curiosity. It formed her core community at Carolina after 2020, that first tough remote year caused by the pandemic.

“That year was really hard,” she remembers. “After that first semester, I was like, ‘I need to get involved somehow.’”

The company’s virtual play readings were a lifeline in a “disconnected” year, she said.

“I knew that when I was eventually going to be on campus my second year, KTC was the company that I wanted to continue to be involved in,” she said.

Now in her last year at Carolina, Wadsack-Stewart has acted in and produced performances ranging from the play “Anna K” to the musical “Urinetown.” She has taken classes in acting, directing and set design and learned from directors.

Two women rehearse a scene in front of curtains. One is wearing a white shirt and the other is wearing a blue shirt and glasses.

(Photo Credit: Donn Young)

Faculty and peers took note of Wadsack-Stewart’s growth and dedication. Last year, they named her the 12th Lillian Chason Scholar, a scholarship given to a Tar Heel who exemplifies the mission and vision of the dramatic art department.

Wadsack-Stewart said she will always treasure the community she has made and the growth she has experienced.

A psychology and dramatic art double major with a minor in neuroscience, she hopes to use the creativity, empathy and community-building skills she learned through dramatic art when she becomes a therapist.

“I really do think that theater is one of the best ways to change the world because it just touches you in a place that nothing else can,” she said.

Read more about the Kenan Theatre Company.