Jake Kavanagh, Upper School Technical Theater Director

By Kathy McPherson
Jake Kavanagh

Super Bowl halftime shows for Bruce Springsteen, Black Eyed Peas and The Who? Check.

Inaugural ball for President Obama? Check.

Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto? Check.

Jake Kavanagh’s design résumé may read like a who’s who in the worlds of athletics, arts and entertainment, but the thrill of the bright lights couldn’t hold a candle to his calling to teach, and that’s what brought Kavanagh to Durham Academy in 2016. In DA’s technical theater course, he teaches “lighting, sound, set construction, learning about the structure of the theater, everything that sort of happens backstage, everything outside of what Mr. [James] Bohanek is teaching on stage in terms of acting.”

He also designs and builds sets with a student crew for the Upper School fall play and spring musical each year and does lighting for Upper School dance performances and jazz-rock ensemble In The Pocket’s performances.

As art director and 3D CAD (computer-aided design and drafting) designer for Bruce Rodgers’ Tribe Design company, Kavanagh worked on some of the biggest events in the industry — including tour designs for Beyoncé — and he established his own firm, JKDesigns, which does exhibit work for global companies. But his calling was teaching technical theater.

Kavanagh caught the theater bug in a middle school that was connected to a performing arts high school in Sarasota, Florida. “I had seen the productions throughout middle school, so when my high school years came around I interviewed to get into the performing arts program. I knew I wasn't interested in acting, but I knew I was artistic and had a desire to check out the design program. I didn't really understand fully what that meant.

“My first production was Wizard of Oz. The technical director at the time had come to the eighth-grade class and spoken to us about special effects and fog and lighting and all kinds of cool effects and stuff. And I thought, well that sounds interesting. … Ninth grade is when we did Wizard of Oz, and that was where I was hooked.”

Jake Kavanagh

But he was also good at math and was interested in engineering. Kavanagh spent a summer as a National Science Foundation Young Engineering Scholar at Arizona State University. “I came away knowing full well that I wanted to study theater and not have anything to do with engineering from then on. I poured my heart into sticking with theater all the way through, ninth through 12th.”

Kavanagh was awarded a full scholarship to Troy State University, but he soon realized the school’s theater program was a step back from his high school experience.

“About three-quarters of the way through that freshman year at Troy State, I decided this is not for me. I bought a 30-day bus pass on Greyhound and packed up a bag and went on interviews around the country looking for a new program and new school.”

That’s how he found The Theatre School at Chicago’s DePaul University.

“It's a conservatory program, so all you do is theater 24/7. They select four set designers, four lighting designers, four costume designers and four stage managers and then a huge class of actors, and you focus solely on theater. There are four per class, per year, and then they cut people every year if you're not holding up. I graduated with one other person in the set program.”

Kavanagh thought he would go immediately to New York or Los Angeles after graduation, or go to Yale School of Drama or New York University for his master's degree and then move to New York or LA. But while he was at DePaul, he started teaching in Northwestern University's summer theater program for high school students. “I sort of fell in love with working with that age group. It harkened back to my years in high school and how important those years were for me, guiding me in the direction that I went. I decided that maybe my path was not to go where I thought I was going to go.”

But meeting Eugene Lee, the set designer for Saturday Night Live and Broadway shows Sweeney Todd and Wicked, who came to DePaul to receive an honorary degree, made Kavanagh think maybe he wanted New York after all. “He and I hit it off and I started reaching out to him to do an internship.”

Lee offered him a job, not an internship, but the catch was he needed to start the next week. Kavanagh turned it down because it was his senior year and he was involved in several theater productions in Chicago. Lee invited him “to come visit, check out the studio, see what you think and then we can talk. I knew then that I had probably already missed my chance.

“We spent the week together. He gave me a tour of the studio. I spent the whole week with him [in New York] and visited, watched the taping of Saturday Night Live and watched the process from reading the scripts and going through the design process. … But it was evident to me that my priority wasn't that. My heart was not there.”

Jake Kavanagh

Kavanagh took a part-time job teaching technical theater at an independent school in Chicago while he finished his senior year and also started freelance designing. But he had a dream of teaching at a performing arts high school, and on a visit to Florida, he heard Tampa was building a school.

“I left my job in Chicago and moved down to Tampa, and we opened that school. I stayed there for a while and loved it.”

He moved on to graduate school at Florida Atlantic University, but left when the set design professor he wanted to work with was no longer there. He debated whether to accept an offer for graduate school at the University of Washington or a teaching job at Northfield Mount Hermon, a boarding school in Massachusetts. Teaching won out, and he became chair of the performing arts department.

Then romantic love trumped love of teaching: He met his wife, Amy, and moved to Maine with her. There were no schools nearby with theater programs, so Kavanagh worked in professional theater and got involved in exhibit design. A public television station was doing some political campaign debates and wanted him to design a podium similar to the one used at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

That’s how he connected with Bruce Rodgers, whose company, Tribe Design, had designed the podium then-presidential nominee Barack Obama had spoken from at the convention. “His website was filled with his design work for people like Madonna and Prince and Tom Petty and Tim McGraw and Fleetwood Mac and the list went on.” Kavanagh emailed Rodgers on a whim and said he’d be interested in helping with design work. “To my surprise, he wrote back,” and Kavanagh sent him samples of his work. Rodgers wanted to see larger-scale drawings, so Kavanagh asked him to send him a project so that he could show him what he could do.

“I didn't hear from him for couple of weeks — I thought I'd lost my opportunity. One weekend I was sort of stewing about the fact that I'd lost my chance. … I wrote an email and I said, hey, you know I'm really not interested in mowing the lawn this weekend. What if you sent me something that I could work on, and I'll show you what I can do? The next day he sent me pages and pages of scanned handwritten notes about a project he was going to be doing for the NHL. … And he said you could do some drawings of this. Send it back to me, and we'll see how it goes.”

Kavanagh worked on the drawings all day and night, and the drawings went back and forth with notes from Rodgers and revisions by Kavanagh.

“I worked all day the next day, and next thing I know, I was on a plane to Toronto, meeting with the curator of the National Hockey League's museum and picking memorabilia that was going to go on the displays that I had helped design for him. And then I was helping install the stuff that we had designed. At that point we are already on a roll, and I have been working with Bruce nonstop. I started doing drawings for the Super Bowl that year [2009], which was Bruce Springsteen's halftime show in Tampa.

Inaugural Ball

“All of this happened very fast. … Within a short time of introducing myself online to Bruce Rodgers, I was doing every single drawing for the inaugural ball. … We were hired on December 20, and the inauguration was January 20.

“We went through 16 revisions of that design. … The coolest part was I have a package of drawings that Michelle and Barack Obama had requested to see specifically what the final drawings were going to be, so there's a package of drawings that are specific for the president.”

Kavanagh realized he had to make a choice. “I couldn't grow my business, JKDesigns, at a certain point and balance the work with Tribe,” so he opted in favor of JKDesigns. But the yearn to teach kept tugging at him, and when the time was right, he was ready to move.

“My stepson, who is now 19, was finishing middle school. We knew he was going to need to switch schools, and my daughter was young enough that we were ready to make a change. I was ready to get back to teaching. I had missed teaching all these years.” Kavanagh and his wife had been talking about moving south and decided to take a vacation to North Carolina.

“On our drive down, we had a heart-to-heart, and I said, why don't we look for a home while we're down here. Let's just move.” They put down a deposit on a house, and Kavanagh was offered a theater job at Durham’s Riverside High School. “I was picking up my family very quickly.” Plus, he still had JKDesigns, and “I thought this is a lot to juggle very quickly. Maybe this is too much to do in a very short period of time.”

So he turned down the job, moved and then looked for a job.

“James Bohanek [DA theater director] had posted a listing looking for a designer for their musical, which was Urinetown. The reason he did that was because the person he had been hiring to do shows took the job that I passed up at Riverside High School. I walked in and met James Bohanek. I think he and I knew right away that we were a perfect fit, that we saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things.

“I started working on that show, then I started designing shows and coming in and building with the kids for a few years. There was no [technical theater] class, but probably from the end of that first year, I started talking to him about the fact that I had moved here because I wanted to go back to teaching. He started putting a bug in the ear of the administration and started talking to Michael [Ulku-Steiner, head of school] and saying, I think Jake would be a good fit here. … We started the [technical theater] class a couple of years ago.”

Kavanagh thinks there are a lot of great things to be learned by doing technical theater.

“What I've always loved about theater is the collaboration. These students learn that by working as a group, we're able to put together something sort of fantastic onstage. I think they learn a work ethic, and they learn the hard work that goes into putting on a production. … They learn a level of confidence in their ability to take raw materials and put together a set. Often, these kids are amazed at what they see as an end result after they've been building for two months. They've been building small pieces of the pie. Then they put it all together, and they realize what every bit of that pie put together created. I think that alone gives them a level of confidence in their own ability, but also gives them an understanding of what a group together can do. I think that's sort of empowering for them, which is exciting for me.

“I don't care so much if they don't have any desire to do theater after they leave the class, or if after they get out of high school they have no desire to be involved in theater. That doesn't really concern me a ton. What concerns me is that they find some joy in creating. That, I think, is important. I really I love that.”

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