Kelsey Thorgalsen has been a vital part of The 5th Avenue Theatre’s artistic lifeblood for nearly seven years. It started with a 10-week internship and she’s been a passionate member of the artistic department ever since, bringing a keen mind for project management, a steady, grounded voice in lofty artistic conversations, and a commitment to making sure The 5th Avenue Theatre is the best that it can be. This summer, she was promoted to the position of Associate Artistic Director. We sat down with her to learn more about her role—past, present, and future—at The 5th.
What has your journey been at The 5th Avenue Theatre up to this point?
So when I was in college, I was an intern here. I did my ten-week internship. And then I left. And I got a job for one day. I worked at Specialtys for one day. And then I called Frank Lott, who was the Associate Producer at the time, and I said “I want to come back, I miss you guys. Can you find me a job doing something else and I’ll continue my internship.” So I worked the merch booth in the lobby and continued my internship for another six months.
And then, at that point, Kirsten DeLohr Helland was the casting associate. She left to do a show, and Bill hired me on part-time as the casting assistant. So I would come down here after class and do that. And then I started doing some shows around town, supplementing that work with other work. And then I got hired as the production admin assistant, which was my first-time full-time job. Casting got looped into that. So then I was the casting associate and artistic assistant. And then the new works associate and the casting associate. And then the casting director and artistic associate.
I feel like I’ve had a lot of titles!
So you really just keep picking up more and more pieces.
Yeah, so as some casting people left, there was more work to be done. And then the new works coordinator left, so that’s how new works came under me, and I worked a lot with Ian Eisendrath on that. So I just keep absorbing more and more.
So what was the conversation with Producing Artistic Director Bill Berry like when he offered you this position?
I had no idea at all. We were having a meeting and he was reviewing a letter that I had put together, and he said: “Oh, don’t put your title on there because your title is going to change.” And so he just kind of dropped that in. And then at the end of the meeting, I was like “My title is going to change?” And he was like “Well, I think we’re going to make you the associate artistic director, but we’ll talk more about that later.” And I was like “… Ok!” So he just kind of casually dropped it to me! And then he and Bernie and I sat down like a week later and had a long conversation about it.
What are the duties and responsibilities of your role?
It’s a lot of organization of projects. So I still schedule appointments for auditions. I set up all of our casting calls. I organize the First Draft Story Summit and manage all the logistics of that project. I have also taken more of the producing work, which is the “more” that comes with the promotion. A lot to do with director conversations regarding shows… Working on Annie because of the kids’ involvement and all the logistics of that. And just kind of… the way we do things because I feel like a lot of that is transforming in a way. So that has been a big part of these last few months. You know… there are Bill and our company manager Brie Yost and… you know, it’s a new team – sort of – and how do we want to do it?
I feel like all of those things before, I very much reported to Bill. And now, for instance with First Draft, specifically, he knows what’s happening, but it’s my responsibility to take care of it and make sure that things go well and that we take care of the writers and the selection committee and everyone coming into town. And he will come to the events that he needs to come to, but for me, it’s about curating those events and being fully responsible for how they turn out.
So I feel like I get a lot more ownership over projects like this, and a lot more opportunity to take risks and shape the outcomes. And with Bill, I feel like I’m in the habit of asking him a lot of questions, and I feel like he’s trying to pass them back to me and be like “You get to make this decision. Figure out. I’m here to support you.”
There is a dearth of women in artistic leadership, and further a lack of representation for lesbians in artistic leadership at the major regional theater level. How do you feel your identity as a lesbian woman affects or influences the work that you do at The 5th?
Well, one of the things I didn’t mention when I was talking about my new responsibilities is that I’ll be directing The 5th’s Adventure Musical Theatre Touring Company productions and I’ll be directing Rising Star Project. And I feel like it’s unique for students to have leadership that that is female or gay. And I feel like high school students are increasingly comfortable talking about their identities—more so than a lot of adults today. To be able to look to someone who is very comfortable with their identity and have those conversations openly I feel like is something unique that I can bring, especially to our education programs.
It’s definitely important to me that we have queer voices heard in First Draft and that we’re representing all types of queer voices. Same goes for casting. It’s important that we have every type of voice in the room. And we’re seeing that more and more.
What do you see as the vision of The 5th moving forward?
It’s good for us as a community and it’s good for the creation of a relevant and thriving art form to ensure that we are welcoming all people in our audience and that we are welcoming all people in our rehearsal spaces and that we are welcoming all people as creators. And we want to do that in a way that doesn’t exclude the people who have been a part of our DNA on all those fronts for so long, but rather, that we make room for people who have not been invited to participate before. In everything we do.
I think Bill has a very progressive outlook on where we’re headed. He’s very inclusive of our community in a very positive way. For instance, this season, half of the directors of our show are women. At this moment in our country, only 34% of shows directed at the major regional level are directed by women. So Bill actively sought to address that problem. And he deliberately sought out women whose vision and perspectives were new to us and relevant for Seattle and who we want to be.
He’s very open to introducing new people into our community. And I feel like that’s going to be very positive for The 5th Avenue Theatre—having new talent while still representing the talent that has been working on our stage for a long time already.