On Her Toes

Ann Kessler

Professor of Theatre and Chair, Department of Theatre

Each opening night, a whirl of activity unfolds behind the curtain of the University Theatre. Actors change quickly out of one costume and into the next, assisted by students on the wardrobe crew. Other students apply and refresh makeup, while still more are perfecting actors’ hairstyles or helping them put on wigs. Then the scene changes, and actors march back on stage, ready with their next lines.

Professor Ann Kessler, M.F.A., is at the center of the hustle. While the audience doesn’t see Professor Kessler’s face, she shapes much of what is seen on stage. She designs costumes, trains the students who construct them, and supervises the wardrobe, hair, and makeup crews on the night of each performance.

“From the audience’s perspective, the performances look effortless,” she says. “That result is very much a team effort between performers and technicians.”

At Valpo, the line between performer and technician is not a permanent one, Professor Kessler says. This is intentional: theatre majors are required to complete practica in three of four different areas of theatre; stage management, scenery/lighting, costume/makeup, and performance. Students who work on costume crew for one show may be stage managing, acting, or running lights for the next play.

Professor Kessler has made a similar transition within her own career. Trained as a classical ballet dancer, she had always paid close attention to her costumes — the way they moved with her, the way they represented her character. Her dance education spanned nearly 20 years, including apprenticeships with several companies. When injuries made her reconsider her professional plans, she refocused her career path to costume design, receiving her M.F.A. from the University of Michigan.

Professor Kessler came to Valpo in 1996 to teach costume design and technology. Through a series of chance encounters after arriving on campus, she was asked by students to be the faculty advisor of the student-run dance organization. Under her guidance, this group of student dancers has evolved into the Valparaiso University Dance Ensemble. It has grown from 10 to 45 members and has become part of the regular season for the theatre department.

These elements add up to a full schedule, but Professor Kessler says it’s exactly what she wants to be doing. The most rewarding moments come at the final rehearsals before opening night, when garments have been built and altered, performers have had their hair and makeup done, and the full costume is worn for the first time.

“There’s a moment when the performer looks into the mirror and the person looking back is not them, but their character. You can see it in their eyes — they see that they have transformed,” she says. “It means the world to know that all of the technical work helps them take their performance to the next level.”

Though the audience can’t see Professor Kessler, they do feel her impact.