January 3, 2018
Alison Kerr' 17, at center in black shirt, performs in Ta'zieh in April 2017

When she was a child, Alison Kerr ’17’s parents wanted her to do sport. Fortunately, she was able to convince them dance was just as much a team-centered activity as soccer. Kerr now has a dance background that includes Modern, Jazz, Ballet, and Irish step. As a freshman in high school, she auditioned for her first musical and was cast as a featured dancer. Her background in dance also allowed her to contribute choreography to the musical production she was in while in high school. She has been hooked on theater since. 

Kerr almost chose to go to Ithaca College over UMass Amherst, until, taking a look through the Fine Arts Center, she came upon the “Shed the Shag” fundraiser for the Rand Theater. The welcoming environment and the sense of family that the Theater program displayed swayed Kerr's final decision on where to attend. 

She chose theater as a major over dance because it presented the challenge of creating characters, and she knew she had much to learn in the world of theater outside of acting. Stretching beyond just the UMass campus, Kerr participated in the Navigating the Edinburgh Fringe Theater Festival course and traveled to England to attend the British American Drama Academy. Kerr helped choreograph The Other Shore, which was a part of Spring 2015’s Collaborapalooza at UMass Theater. Along with her close friend Kylee Denesha, Kerr co-directed and performed in The Body Project (Fall 2016) and The Body Project 2.0 (Spring 2017). Kerr graduated this past spring with the class of 2017 with two Bachelor of Arts Degrees, one in Theater, the other in French. 

Curious to learn more about how all these threads connect, I interviewed Kerr this fall as she returned to campus to work on Runaways’ choreography.

Navigating the Fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the world’s oldest and largest arts festival, and takes place during the month of August in Scotland. During two weeks of the festival, UMass offers a course that allows students to attend and experience the broad variety of theater the festival has to offer.

Beyond conversation with her peers in high school, the first time Kerr heard about the Fringe Festival was after she came to UMass. She attended an informational meeting, and later recalled her first impressions of the festival.

“I was blown away by how crazy and culturally rich and vibrant this festival seemed to be," she said. "Here were people on stilts walking around, and shows that looked like they were going to be so psychologically mind-blowing. I saw shows that looked like they would have like a real impact on me as a theater artist. I kind of marked it, I didn’t think it would be possible to go because, I was just like, ‘I never do things like that’.”

Kerr took the chance applying and was accepted; she even got a scholarship. During her two weeks there, a friend on the trip discovered opportunities to volunteer at venues. By the end of Kerr’s time in Edinburgh, she knew she someday wanted to return to the Fringe Festival, whether as an audience member or volunteer.

B.A.D.A.: British American Drama Academy

During Kerr’s time on the costume crew of The Merchant of Venice, she met UMass alumnus and BADA scholar Stephen Driscoll `73. He told her about the Midsummer in Oxford program, as well as a new scholarship for the program he was offering, and he remained supportive throughout the audition preparation. 

Kerr traveled to Tufts for her auditions. She had prepared by spending time with Shakespeare’s sonnets, and in workshopping her audition pieces with Professor Gina Kaufmann.

“Somebody told me this once, that when you walk into an audition room, that you should take in the room as you are walking in, because if it’s in a theater that you’ve never been to, you might just find yourself distracted by the room that’s in front of you while you are trying to perform," she said. "I walked into the theater at Tufts and it is a theater in the round, but you walked in at the top of the theater and you had to walk down, so it felt like you were going into the gladiator arena ... I remember walking in and I was like ‘the room is round, the room is round’, like ‘the chair is there, the chair is there’, like I was just kind of taking that in, ... I found that’s been helpful for me.”

Kerr was pleased to learn not only that she’d been accepted, but that she was chosen by the panel at the auditions as the recipient of Driscoll’s scholarship. The scholarship was the final factor that allowed her to take on this experience.

“Stephen is a really generous man for doing what he does for this department and its students, by giving us this scholarship every year. He doesn’t have to do it but he does. I wouldn’t have been able to do the program if not for him,” she said.

BADA was an intense, month-long experience in collaborative theater where she found much in common with the diverse students, all hungry to hone their skills. Kerr appreciated that the curriculum offered both spaces for group learning but also individualized attention.

“I thought that was really an awesome environment to work in because you got swept up in it and as much as everyone else was working you wanted to be right there with them," she said. "So, you kind of motivate yourself intrinsically but you also motivate each other to do the best you can. It is a lot of growth to do in one month, but I think it has been really beneficial for me as an actor to have that training” 

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: The Sequel and Threequel

Kerr had her second chance to attend the Fringe after her time at Oxford, and reconnected with a friend working at one of the venues. This allowed Kerr a clear look into what it was like to be part of the festival staff, and she decided to return a third time by applying to work at the Fringe.

The Pleasance Theatre hired her for its street team, which was tasked to go out into the city every day to talk up shows and convince people to come see them. Kerr learned quickly when the tactic of saying ‘I think I may have a show you might be really interested in’ might work. It was a real challenge with around thousands of shows going on and competing venues trying to get people in as audience members.

“What was really cool about working in that group in particular was I got to meet the actors and producers for a lot of different shows that were coming through," she said. "One of our tactics was to try to get to know the show as well as you could before flyering for it. We’d see the show as a team before we started promoting it and we’d talk to companies and find out more about the people involved in the process. I got to meet a lot of really cool theater people that way.”

The Body Project

Kerr worked on two iterations of The Body Project while a student at UMass. These dance theater pieces were built from her and Denesha’s backgrounds in dance and from works that inspired them. The original production of The Body Project was largely influenced by Kerr’s first time at the Fringe, where a production of Institute by Gecko Theater showed her that she could be both an actor in a show and the artistic director. Following the first production, Kerr, with Denesha, spent a year researching and building The Body Project 2.0 as her senior thesis. This time, it showcased a mixture of naturalism and full-fledged choreography that was influenced by 201 Dance Company’s production of Smother. Professor Gina Kaufmann saw the commitment put forth for this thesis and knew Kerr would be a great choreographer for a future show within the department.

Moving Forward

Kerr recently returned to UMass as the choreographer for Runaways, the Theater Department’s opening show for the 2017-2018 season. Driscoll, with whom Kerr had stayed in touch, funded her work, and the two had a warm reunion at the show. 

Though Kerr will be off to new places soon, she is not going too far. She is headed back to her old high school in Westboro to help choreograph its winter musical production. From there, Kerr is considering Boston, New York City, or Harford Stage as her next step. Even France is on the table, thanks to her double major.

Kerr hopes to move forward in her work with Denesha on The Body Project 3.0. They would love to have a chance to mount the show at the Fringe, albeit with a new cast to breathe life into the piece.

Another goal of Kerr’s is with another familiar face from the Class of 2017, Evan Newton, who is an actor and lighting designer. Along with her fellow Class of 2017 graduate, actor and lighting designer Evan Newton, Kerr is also currently in the beginning stages of creating a new theater company. This company will provide space to grow their own works, as well as a space that is open to the public. They are looking to share what they have learned with others through classes or youth programs.

“We have really talented group of friends who are around us in this area and, so we have a rough outline for a theater company," she said. "We are going to call it Into the Light Theater.”

theater | drama | performance | performing arts | student achievement | choreography | umass theater