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In search of theatre at JCU: a story worth telling

An investigation to uncover the timeline of the theatre program at JCU.
John Carroll’s historic Kulas Auditorium sits vacant during most hours of the day.

Ohio State University has a Department of Theatre, Film and Media Arts. Case Western Reserve University has a Department of Theatre. The University of Notre Dame has a Department of Film, Television and Theatre. So, where is John Carroll University’s theatre program? It took more than a google search to answer this question. The first place to begin the investigation was the English department.

Currently, JCU has some theatre-related classes such as Introduction to Shakespeare and Social Justice in Film & Literature. The English department even had Actors from the London Stage perform “Romeo & Juliet ” in the spring of 2023. However, there is a distinct lack of a theatre department and performance offerings. Professors have commented that John Caroll’s theatre department used to be attached to the communication department before it was moved to the English department and eventually offloaded.

The name that consistently came up throughout discussions during interviewing was Dr. Karen Gygli. She is strongly associated with theatre at John Carroll because, for years, she was the driving force behind it. Unfortunately, Dr. Gygli is no longer working at JCU as of 2022. After reaching out to learn more about the circumstances, a story worth telling has been uncovered.

Dr. Karen Gygli was a lover of theatre from a young age. Early in life, she attended theatre performances. In high school, she began to act in them. When she began to pursue her Ph.D., she shifted from acting in plays to directing them. Eventually, she made her way to John Carroll where she worked from 1990 to 2022 as an Associate Professor of theatre and even served as a chair of the communications department for a while.

Gygli’s work at JCU entailed advising student-made productions, creating new courses and publishing research; her day-to-day was even busier. In addition to teaching her courses, she kept up with all the administrative duties that came with running a theatre department. This included tasks like finalizing scripts, doing the required paperwork for payroll and hosting production meetings before performances. Gygli commented that “it takes a lot of people to put on a production, and it was important that [she] [had] facetime with everyone on a fairly regular basis, not just the cast.”

In Gygli’s eyes, “theatre is for everyone” and that meant she needed to craft a space where anyone, no matter their background, could feel welcome. One of her former performers, Jack Donelly, confirmed that she had achieved this goal. Donnelly has said that theatre was “one of the most defining factors of [his] college career,” thanks to Gygli. For him, she was not only a supporter but a role model and someone who paved the way for him to express himself without restriction.

Donelly shared that some of his best friends were made on the stage; they are people that he still regularly talks to even years after finishing college. The theatre program connected him with people that he may not have even connected with outside of the organization. Furthermore, it gave him the opportunity to flex his writing skills. Donelly was able to write and direct two plays that are available online for viewing. Donelly loved this part of his life and was more than happy to share every detail during an interview.

Sadly, stories like Donelly’s have become impossible to replicate since JCU’s theatre department disappeared. Gygli recalled the decline beginning in 2017 when a teacher in the theatre department, Keith Nagy, retired and was not replaced. This meant it was up to Gygli alone to teach the courses for the theatre minor. Furthermore, the budget was also cut in half during 2021 which signaled to Gygli that JCU’s focus was no longer the arts, so she retired in 2022. With no staff left, the theatre department dissolved until the Theatre Club formed in 2023. Keep an eye on the campus section in Carroll News to learn more about them next week.

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    Carrie BuchananNov 16, 2023 at 9:16 pm

    Thank you Kevin Oliver for reminding us of the wonderful work done by Karen Gygli and Keith Nagy, and the tremendous loss to John Carroll that came from losing them and the program they ran so well for so long.