Big city theater enthusiast rediscovers passion in Iowa City

Lisa Kelly, MFA, Ph.D, has been involved in theaters in Chicago, Richmond and New Jersey. She currently works with graduate students at the University of Iowa and is the Associate Artistic Director of Theatre Cedar Rapids. To her surprise, she found her place among other like-minded arts enthusiasts in the Iowa City community.

Olivia Augustine, Arts Reporter

For Lisa Kelly, the theater is home.

For the last eight years, Kelly has worked with graduate students at the University of Iowa, helping them learn presentation and networking skills and prepare for job interviews. For five years, Kelly has worked with Theatre Cedar Rapids, recently moving into the Associate Artistic Director position.

One of Kelly’s greatest strengths, she said, is learning, and that’s evident when looking at her education: for her undergraduate degree, she attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she double majored in theater and education. She then went on to get an MFA in directing and theatre pedagogy from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Ph.D in theater history from Northwestern University.

But even with her extensive repertoire in everything theater-related, most of her nest learning was done outside the classroom, she said. 

“My journey as a director came a little bit from taking courses, but I’d say like 80 percent of it came from watching the directors work and learning what to do – and sometimes watching not great directors, and learning what not to do,” Kelly said.

Even with Kelly’s passion for theater, she was not blind to the opinions many people have that it isn’t a reliable career. Her parents, though, were always supportive and encouraged her to pursue theater and keep a double major, she said. 

That’s why Kelly also majored in education, which helped grow her passions for theater, history, and learning. She liked the idea of having her options open, so she had a variety of careers to choose from.

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“I’m a person that likes to feel like I know what’s in front of me,” Kelly said. “I got an education degree so I could teach, and I always — even when I went to grad school — I did it for the parts of theater that are more employable.”

Kelly’s education background is also what brought her to Iowa City to work with grad students – a job she didn’t even know existed. In fact, Kelly didn’t know much about Iowa at all. 

Having spent so much time in places like Chicago, Richmond, and New Jersey, Kelly said she was at a point in her life where she thought professional theater might be behind her. When she took a job in Iowa City, she worried she may be moving to a “cornfield.”

But she said she was pleasantly surprised by Iowa’s Greatest Small City for the Arts. While aware of UI’s artistic capabilities, she fell in love with Iowa City’s localities, including theaters, art galleries and museums. 

While in Iowa City, and through her involvement with Theatre Cedar Rapids, Kelly rediscovered her home in the theater. Whether directing a TCR production, doing improv exercises with graduate students, or simply encouraging students in the arts to get involved outside of the university, Kelly said she feels like she belongs in theater.

“For the first time really as an adult, I feel like because of this theater that I have a good community,” Kelly said.