The Building Block of SAU Theatre: Michael Kennedy


by Tyler Hughes '21

At 7:40 a.m. on Sept. 28, I sat in the Galvin lobby, waiting nervously. I'm not much of a reporter, and I'd never done a face-to-face interview before. Plus, the subject of my interview was a well-known, well-respected and somewhat intimidating presence: Michael Kennedy.  

Michael Kennedy '60 is highly regarded in the Quad Cities, not only for being a great actor and director, but also a great teacher. I received his named and coveted "Kennedy Scholarship" last year, so I owe a lot to this larger-than-life figure for helping me get here financially. We all owe him something for his contributions to this department. I was worried that I wouldn't manage to do that justice.

Kennedy arrived 10 minutes early, as he later said one should always be. The interview lasted more half an hour before I had to run off to class. I probably could've talked to him for a couple hours with the fascinating history and anecdotes he had about the department. I won't be able to include the entire interview here, but Kennedy shared with me some wonderful history and wisdom from his time at St. Ambrose.

When you started here, there wasn't much of a theatre department. What was here?
"I came in after high school in ‘56, and it was called the Speech Department. There weren't any plays put on. They then hired a gentleman who went to Ambrose and got out in '52. So, starting in 1956, there was a "working number of students" as a speech and drama department. We built a laboratory into a theatre, and it was barebones from ‘56 to about the late ‘60s. When they came up with the fine arts building, they got a large grant.

Jim Willaert was in my class (‘56 to ‘60), and he and I ended up going to Villanova University to get master's degrees. We came back, and Jim took up the department. I went into radio and television. Several years later, he decided he was going to leave. So, I came into the theatre. From then on, we started building up the department. When I came in, Jim already was doing a series of plays throughout the year and had departmental classes and that kind of thing, but he was alone. When he left, I was brought in to do mass communications. Eventually, what happened was I had one foot in theatre and one foot in mass communications."

At this point, Lance Sadlek, director of the Galvin Fine Arts Center, came by the interview and spoke briefly with Kennedy. Kennedy commented that they had worked together during his initial period in the department. It was clear they knew each other well, as they threw friendly jabs at each other and then agreed to talk soon. Kennedy then turned his focus back to me and jumped back into the interview.

"Anyway, I had one foot in theatre and one in mass communications. Little by little that went away. We turned around and decided to do speech, theatre, and mass communications, which is what we did until about the late ‘80s. Cory [Dr. Corinne Johnson] came in about that time, and Kris Eitrheim came in a couple years after her. Really that was the modern department. Once Cory got here, she hit the ground running on things like improvisational theatre and really was a driving force. Then we got Eitrheim, who is really a great creative source on all physical things. I can't remember one day in all the years we were working together where we got into a big, long fight. Everything was to build up the department. Eventually, Dan Rairdin-Hale came in, and he was a graduate. It's always been a real family kind of thing."

Dan was a graduate from you guys, right? So, he's kind of a second generation here.
"Yeah, and he's a modern adaption of us. He does things we did not do, and so, as a result, the department is growing and adapting all the time."

As we spoke of him, Rairdin-Hale entered the lobby, two coffees in hand. It was clear there was a respect between them from the teacher-student relationship, as well as that of two colleagues. They talked briefly, and Rairdin-Hale said he had to get to a meeting with Aaron Hook, Technical Director for the Galvin Fine Arts Center. At this point, it dawned on me that both Rairdin-Hale and Hook were second-generation theatre staff at SAU. Both had the influences of Kennedy, Johnson and Eitrheim.

The Force of Michael Kennedy '60

Images from "Death of a Salesman"

Among his many roles, Kennedy starred as Willy Lohman in SAU's production of "Death of Salesman" (2004). "When acting is really working, it's an altered state, or an act of self-hypnosis," Kennedy said in an article from 2004. "You can't fool other people until you fool yourself."

Read the 2004 article, "Class Acting"

I spoke to Kennedy about a great deal more, including:

• The great influx of students involved in KCACTF activities and Kennedy's involvement
• The department's growth in his time and more specifics on what each professor brought to the theatre
• The wonderful film made by Rairdin-Hale: A Cadaver Christmas and Kennedy's involvement
• Neil Simon and the longevity and impact of his work and Kennedy's own direction of Rumors

We talked about my role as Ken in this year's production of Rumors and when the role was played by Rairdin-Hale (whom Kennedy called a "small Dick Van Dyke" in the role).

We also discussed the many difficulties and requirements that came with doing a farce, or an "open and slamming doors show."

Near the end of our conversation, I told him about my second major of History, and he immediately began pitching an idea for a play based around historical fiction. I don't want to give away the concept of his play, but it was clear that Kennedy lived – and still lives – by his own words of wisdom. It seems the SAU Theatre Department is a testament to his wisdom and dedication to theatre.

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