Director of Theater Kirsten McKinney taps into a deep background in acting, teaching and choreography — as well as students’ sense of play.
BY KRISTIN DUISBERG
New Director of Theater Kirsten McKinney performed as Cassie, the lead character in “A Chorus Line,” more than 100 times, earned two Tommy Tune awards for her work as a director and choreographer, and taught dance, theater and musical theater at the secondary school and college level for three decades before bringing her talents to St. Paul’s School this summer. But she almost didn’t go into theater at all.
“I first went to college to study marine biology — I love dolphins!” she says with a laugh. After high school, she had enrolled in a university in her hometown of Pittsburgh that had a strong marine biology program but not the level of arts offerings she had hoped would allow her to continue to pursue a passion for dance she’d followed since childhood. “Fortunately, my parents saw how miserable I was and suggested I take a year off to rethink my trajectory,” she adds. “And then I got into the Boston Conservatory, and it changed my life completely.”
McKinney transferred to the conservatory with the intent to focus on choreography, and as a senior became the first student to choreograph a main stage show. Her considerable experience as a performer — her very first audition was for the show “Gigi,” and she was cast in the title role — came about out of a desire to understand what actors experience in order to provide them with better choreography. After graduation, faced with a choice between performing as “Chicago” bad girl lead Velma Kelly and work as an assistant choreographer for a “really good” summer stock theater and teaching acting, dance and choreography for the summer theater program at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Massachusetts, McKinney took the latter route — and ended up spending 23 years at Walnut Hill.
“It was a hard choice, definitely,” she says. “But my junior year in high school, someone had asked me what my dream job was, and I’d said, ‘I want to teach at a performing arts high school and I want to choreograph.’ And so as difficult as it was to turn down that one opportunity, it was a chance to follow my dream, and I was incredibly lucky that that path was open to me so quickly.”
Following her tenure at Walnut Hill and stops at schools in Texas and Virginia where she taught theater, dance, acting and choreography, that path brought her to SPS in July. Halfway into the Fall Term, she’s already implemented a number of new initiatives in the Theater Department, including a tiered casting system aimed at making the theater program more broadly accessible to the student body.
Tiered casting will allow students who have other afternoon commitments to still take part in theater, either in smaller roles that only require a few evening rehearsals per week, or through additional technical opportunities”