When Kitty Getlik first started at Kelsey Theatre as stage manager in 1978, there were only two or three Mercer County Community College student shows performed at Kelsey each year. The rest of the shows offered were performed by companies that the college hired to provide entertainment for the community.
But then the budget was cut.
At the time, during the summer evenings, Getlik had also been working as a stage manager at Washington Crossing Open Air Theatre in Titusville. There, she worked with about six local theater companies and witnessed how the theater and each company performed the box office split, which occurs when revenue from ticket sales is shared evenly between the venue and the theater company. This made the theater companies more invested in their shows’ quality, and the job of publicity did not just fall on the venue.
Getlik brought the idea of the box office split—and the theater companies she had met and networked with—back to Kelsey, saving the college money while at the same time providing a venue for a variety of local theater companies.
“It really was my idea to create this kind of space,” says Getlik of the new system she ushered into Kelsey when she became artistic director in 1995. Before that, Getlik explains: “The theater was wasted; it was just sitting there. It was an opportunity to keep bringing people in and keep them involved. My idea is to bring as many people as possible on this campus.”
It is through Getlik’s efforts and her spirited team that Kelsey has become a theater brimming with performances.
Kelsey’s schedule is packed. The theater plays host to a dozen semi-professional theater companies as well as MCCC’s student company, modern dance ensemble, and symphonic band. For the 2017-2018 season, the theater has at least two dozen performances scheduled.
To fit in all the shows, Kelsey has a very specific schedule. Every two weeks, an opening night for a full-length show is held on a Friday. Performances are then held that Saturday and Sunday as well as the same three days of the next week. After the last performance – a matinee on a Sunday – the theater company has several hours to tear down their set and clear out. That evening, a new theater company arrives and sets up everything. They then have the next four days for tech and dress rehearsals before their opening night on Friday, and the process starts again.
‘Theater people are a different breed of people. We live and breathe theater. We’re like a family because we do what we love doing.’
Saturdays are even more busy than they seem. From 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., the theater hosts Playshoes creative theater workshops for children in kindergarten through 5th grade. As soon as they’re finished, the professional touring companies that will be performing the children’s shows load in. The actors set up, put on a 2 p.m. and a 4 p.m. show, and then have until 6 p.m. to clear out. Once they’re gone, the crew and cast for the current full-length show appear and begin preparations for that night’s performance.
“I couldn’t do it if I didn’t live in Hamilton, let’s put it that way,” Getlik said. “I’m here a lot of hours.”
Getlik grew up in Philadelphia and has lived in Hamilton for 21 years. When she was 5 years old, she received her own backyard theater from her parents. Her father, an engineer, and her mother, a housewife, valued the arts and were members of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society in Philly. Getlik and the neighborhood children would rehearse and perform plays for their parents, complete with costumes and scenery and lemonade at intermission.
Getlik’s high school had no acting classes but promised an annual class play for its seniors. The year Getlik became a senior, funding was cut and the play was cancelled.
“We were hysterical,” says Getlik. She and her friends learned that the show would not go on unless they had a faculty member as a sponsor, who was typically paid for his or her extra hours with the funding. After badgering several faculty members, Getlik and her classmates found a willing teacher.
“His name was Mr. Fish—I’ll always remember that—and he said he would do it even though he wouldn’t get paid,” Getlik said. Thanks to Mr. Fish, the seniors were able to write, direct, and act in their own play.
Getlik spent two years at Penn State University before transferring to Temple University and graduating in 1975. At Penn State, she worked on the prop crew, and in her sophomore year, the 24-year-old Prop Master had to leave because she got sick.
As a junior at Temple, Getlik was already Assistant Stage Manager, so the only position available for her in her senior year was Stage Manager. The board had to pass a rule saying that undergraduates could be stage managers, making her the first undergrad to hold this position at Temple.
After college, she had been working as a professional stage manager in North Carolina when she and four friends piled into a Volkswagen Beetle and drove all night to New Orleans for a convention of performing arts job interviews. They arrived in the early morning, checked into their hotel, took quick showers, and powered through many interviews, one of which turned into a job as a stage manager at Kelsey Theatre. That was 39 years ago.
Several years later, when Kelsey’s artistic director moved to Arizona, a replacement was quickly found—and left just as quickly.
“The people who kept getting the job [of artistic director] would leave every two years or so,” Getlik said. “I just got tired of training all the new people, and I thought, I might as well apply.” She got the job and has been the theater’s artistic director for 22 years.
In the meantime, she had her daughter Jessica, who is now 23. Jessie not only performed in several shows at Kelsey but also folded programs, ushered, and painted scenery, among other things. She is now an Entertainment Host on the Disney Fantasy cruise ship.
Administrative specialist Amy Bessellieu can vouch for the fact that Jessica was essentially raised at Kelsey. Bessellieu originally worked at Kelsey as part of her work-study when she was still a student at MCCC, and she came back part-time when Jessica was born. Bessellieu would work in the mornings and stay with baby Jessica in the afternoons, switching with Getlik so that the two of them could get their work done.
“Jessie is sort of like my own daughter in a lot of ways,” shares Bessellieu, who started full-time at the theater in 2001 and has lived in Lawrence since 2003. She met her husband through Kelsey, and they married onstage in 2009. She now works on “a little bit of everything,” which seems to be common among Kelsey employees.
Other Kelsey employees also have years of association with the theater, creating a cozy and intimate atmosphere.
“We become like a family here. Someone has a company that does shows here, and then I end up hiring them because they like being here so much,” Getlik said with a laugh.
One of those employees that also doubles as a head of a theater company is on-call production assistant Mike Almstedt. He co-founded M&M Stage Productions in 2012 but has been involved with Kelsey since 1999. The Hamilton resident is a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades that mostly assists with set-building and repairs, but tends to help in many other areas if help is needed.
“We’re like a family. We all try to work together in some way,” says Almstedt. “You don’t want to see another show do bad, so if there’s anything you can do to help them, you do it.”
House Manager Dan Spalluto wears many hats just like Almstedt and Bessellieu. However, his favorite role has been his last 20 years teaching the Masters Class. This three week summer course is designed for 15 and 16-year olds who are serious about acting, and is a part of Tomato Patch, a series of summer camps for children and teen actors.
Spalluto, who grew up in Hamilton and went to Nottingham High School, trains his students with adult material and teaches them to see the acting world as a business. Besides his role in Tomato Patch, Spalluto also directs, teaches college acting classes, and manages the theater during performances.
Diana Maurer is another company founder that ended up working at Kelsey. She co-founded Maurer Productions OnStage with her husband over a decade ago, and continues to create shows at her company while working as a box office specialist at Kelsey. Maurer has lived in Ewing for almost 20 years and agrees that the fluidity in each employees roles and the hours they spend in the theater world has created “ridiculous bonds.”
“Accountants or lawyers: they do what they enjoy doing, but at the end of the day they go home and have other lives,” says Maurer. “Theater people are a different breed of people. We live and breathe theater. We’re like a family because we do what we love doing.”