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Tuesday, July 31, 2012 - Kathy Boersma: A Life Backstage

by Gillian Ellis

We had our largest audiences ever in the performance season of the academic year 2011 – 2012. Record numbers of patrons enjoyed the work of our students, faculty and guests. The audience members took their seats, listened and watched in appreciation, applauded, and on their car ride home probably discussed the many hours or years of rehearsal and practice that must have preceded the performance. Probably almost none of them gave any thought to the hours of hard labor that had happened backstage to make the performance possible and might still be going on, even once they were safely tucked up in bed!

Of course it’s always that way in the performing arts. The glory goes to the performers, as it should. But while visitors may not recognize the hard work or the importance of the contribution made by the people who work backstage, we most certainly do. And this month, while our performance spaces are mostly dark, we want to focus on the life of one of our heroically hardworking, behind-the-scenes staff, Production Coordinator Kathy Boersma.

If you have attended any performance in the Varner Recital Hall in the last few years, Kathy was almost certainly there, making sure everything was running as it should, but you probably didn’t notice her, which was just what she intended. But everyone who studies or works in Music, Theatre or Dance at OU understands that Kathy is the keystone in the metaphorical proscenium arch of our program. She is responsible for scheduling all the shows; she’s the technical director and production coordinator for everything that happens in the Recital Hall; and she’s the coordinator of house management for all three of our performance spaces.

During the academic year when there are multiple performances every week, all of them requiring rehearsals, load-in and strike, Kathy says she usually works a minimum of 60 hours a week. Those hours go up at especially busy periods. Asked for her longest work week last year, Kathy admits to at least one 98-hour week! “I also have a large student crew working to full capacity,” she says.

Kathy works a much saner schedule during the summer, but she uses the time for all the general maintenance that there is no time to do during the season. When we stopped by to interview her and her crew, they were cleaning and rehanging all the lights in the Recital Hall. Working alongside Kathy that day were Shannon Pelletier-Doyle, Jenna Fiorini and Tiffany Palmer. All three women had started on the tech crew with no previous knowledge of the work but are now able to take their new skills and use them to do freelance audio or lighting work. “They’re not just labor,” says Kathy. “They are here to learn.”

The student crew works not just with Kathy but also with Terry Herald who is in charge of engineering the audio. He is our Technical Coordinator. Kathy says, “Terry Herald rules!” Terry is always there to work what Jenna believes is the most difficult audio challenge, the jazz concerts, because they require so many microphones.

The crew also works with Associate Professor Kerro Knox, who designs the lighting for all the dance and most of the world music performances. Tiffany says Kerro is “awesome” and “very generous with his time.” Kathy says everyone learns to work the lighting board and how to hang and focus lighting instruments. And while she herself is experienced with the lighting, she acknowledges that Professor Knox is the master! “If I run into problems with the lights, I go to Kerro,” Kathy says.

Kathy loves her work but it is not what she originally intended to do with her life. She grew up locally and attended Imlay City High School before enrolling at OU. She majored in English and her original plan was to become a teacher, but she found speaking in public to be a challenge. She took her first acting classes thinking they might help with this problem and found that they didn’t, not really. But still she says, “I thought theatre was the hardest thing I had ever done. That’s what made it interesting.”

She continued to act and even to audition because she was required to, but she never gave a public performance. Once she was in the program she knew she belonged backstage, on the technical side of theatre. In 2006, she graduated with a BA in English with minors in both theatre and history, won the department’s prestigious MaTilDa award for Outstanding Student Service and accepted the job she currently holds.

The job is arduous in every sense, sometimes physically very demanding. While Kathy was 16 feet high in the air on the aerial work platform – the Genie – rehanging lights, Shannon, Tiffany and Jenna reported that the hardest day’s work was the one that preceded every dance rehearsal or performance, when five 125-pound rolls of special floor – the Marley – had be laid on the stage to provide an appropriate surface to protect the dancers from injury. And then, of course, it has to be removed!

By the time that happens, the dancers themselves are stretching and thinking about the next day’s class and the dance audience is safely home, having seen the serene surface of our program’s performance and been blissfully unaware of the frantic paddling underneath, or more exactly, behind the scenes. That is exactly how Kathy herself and her crew would want it. In the limelight is not where Kathy wants to stand. But everyone at OU knows how essential the behind the scenes work is, and now, we hope you do too!

Photo: Left to right: Shannon Pelletier-Doyle, Kathy Boesrma, Tiffany Palmer and Jenna Fiorini. Photo by Gillian Ellis.