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Several readers have asked to see more profiles of people working in non-profits and the arts. With this request, my mind naturally went to one place – Geoffrey Kershner of Endstation Theatre Company. Endstation is committed to producing new works, reinterpretations of classical plays, and original theatrical productions for the Central Virginia community based on the historical, current, and cultural events specific to the area. [Full disclosure: I frequently usher for the company because their shows are phenomenal!] Geoffrey is the co-founder and artistic director for the company and was kind enough to share his experiences in creating a non-profit arts organization.
Geoffrey, on the far left, with Endstation company members during Shakespeare outreach workshops to local high schools, 2008
Before we jump into the story of Endstation, can you tell us a little about yourself?
I moved to Virginia at the age of 9. My dad became the chair of the theatre department at Sweet Briar College
. I grew up on the campus and having a father in theatre, I was exposed at an early age to theatre and the theatrical process. I was very fortunate because we also took a lot of trips to see quality theatre in my life. Much of our family activity was discussing what we had viewed: How it was executed, what it meant, etc. There was a period I rebelled though. I was a soccer player and in my early teenage years, I did not want to participate. I found my way back in high school though. I discovered this was a great place to be around girls 😉
I did though find a real love for theatre and in my senior year of high school, I knew I wanted to spend my life in the theatre. I went to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for my undergraduate degree. I spent three years out of school in Philadelphia. A year of this was an apprenticeship at the Arden Theatre Company
in Philly. This program trains 6 young early career professionals in the operations of a non-profit theatre company. The apprenticeship runs through a season and I did everything from writing grants to hanging lights. It was a monumental step for me. During this period I also started a small theatre company called Crescendo. In 2003, I was accepted in the MFA Directing program at Florida State University.
What was the initial plan for you when you graduated from UArts?
It’s funny. It was to start a theatre company and be an artistic director.
I think it’s incredible to know what you want to do when you graduate and pursue it wholeheartedly. What are some things that you’ve done in the last few years that weren’t part of the plan?
Teaching. When I was in school at FSU, I taught directing courses as a part of my graduate assistantship. I discovered a real love for it. Now, I have coupled my artistic pursuits with teaching. I teach at Daytona State College during the school year and spend my summers with Endstation.
Along the way there were lots of creative ways of paying the bills while trying to pursue the life of an artist. I worked as a clerk at a law firm, I was an assistant manager at a water park, and I even worked as a short order cook. As a young artist you have to do lots of things to support yourself financially. It can be difficult and pride swallowing. There is a point where you make a choice to hang in there or retreat and start another career. I hung in there. Only now in my early 30s am I really starting to feel like I have left these days of flipping burgers and cleaning pools behind me.
As a theatre patron, I much prefer your talents being channeled into Endstation rather than flipping burgers! Can you tell us about the company and how it came to be?
I founded the company with Krista Franco when we were graduate students at FSU. Krista was an MFA scenic designer. The two of us participated in an FSU sponsored trip to Germany. We spent two weeks touring state theatres and seeing plays. It was incredible. We were inspired. Entering our last year of school, we made the plan to form a company. Previous to this I had been gathering artists from FSU and from Philly at Sweet Briar in the winter and summer to do workshops. We made the decision to make a home there for the company.
The cast and crew of The Mind of Poe at the Capital Fringe Festival 2007
Running an artistic non-profit has to be challenging – what are some of the lessons learned?
People will give to and volunteer for a cultural non-profit when they feel it enriches their lives. You must be a part of a community. The real switch from my company Crescendo and Endstation is how I view it. I think I saw Crescendo as mine (not consciously). It was a way for me to produce work. I now view Endstation as Central Virginia’s. I view myself as a servant of the community. When doing work, I think about what Central Virginia needs and wants. I think this is vital. The community needs to feel ownership and then they will support it. They won’t support Geoff Kershner’s pet projects. There is work I want to do that is not appropriate for Central Virginia, so that is work I will do else where. The big thing I found as an artist is that I am from Virginia and producing work for this community is a reflection of me. I am actually very fulfilled by doing work about and for Virginians. It is exciting. In all honesty, the work I want to do outside of the area has started to fade. I am really enriched by the work I do for our community in Virginia.
As a non-profit, we have to be very creative. We have to re-use and find creative solutions to creating our work that will keep costs down. Many of our core members also make financial sacrifices in getting the company off the ground. It is truly for our love of the area and our art that we do this. It is not financial. We are still in process and have a lot more development to do as an organization so that we can continue to grow and serve the area.
This blog believes in the power of random happenstance. How has happenstance affected you and Endstation?
When I was a senior my acting studio teacher was Aaron Posner. He was a founder of the Arden. Because of Aaron, I ended up in the apprenticeship program at the Arden. This forever changed my circumstances and career path. It opened my eyes. I was very lucky to have ended up in Aaron’s class.
I grew up with our lighting designer Dan Gallagher. Because Dan is from Amherst, we got a top notch lighting designer to join the company. Dan wants to leave New York each summer to come home. This is huge. Krista and I did not have a lighting designer from FSU we wanted to work with or that was going to dedicate themselves to the cause like Dan does. How lucky is that? A world class lighting designer from Amherst, VA who was a childhood friend! Love it.
I also love this question because we always work with happenstance. Our work is about seeing what we have and moving with it. Even the barn for Hamlet
was happenstance. We wanted to do a show there. With this, we discovered there was a hill for an audience. With this, we discovered there was a building that could serve as a booth. I happened to hear Virgineola play right around the time we picked Hamlet and the location. It was all coming together like a puzzle.
Walter Kmiec as a Civil War-era Hamlet for Endstation's Blue Ridge Summer Theatre Festival 2010
What advice would you give to recent college graduates hoping to channel their creative passion into successful careers?
Patience. There is no magic formula. Success in the arts is a longer process than success in some other careers. You have to hang in there but you have to constantly move forward. Be a self starter. Don’t wait for someone to give you an opportunity. Create opportunity. Work begets work.
No one event makes or breaks you. When you fall down, get back up. You learn more from mistakes than you do from successes. Dust yourself off and continue forward. Also, when you find success, don’t think your journey is done. Successes will disappear as fast as the failures. Always be looking for the next project. Always push yourself to be better.
Look at what you have and not on what you don’t. I never thought I would form a company in Virginia. I would get frustrated in Philly by resources others had. My mom gave me advice that I should examine what advantages I had. In Virginia, I had access to Sweet Briar which is HUGE. It took me recognizing this to find success with Endstation. I had to re-examine what success was and what a theatre company was for me to see that there were great possibility in resources I already had access too.
It’s been ten years since you graduated from UArts. If you could go back to that day, what advice would you give yourself?
I would tell myself to be patient and calm. I think a lot of my early years out of college were scary and frustrating. I panicked and thought I was going to be a failure because success was not immediate. I couldn’t see the big picture. I would tell myself to step back and take a deep breath.
All photos link to Endstation's website. Check out their other Internet locales - you won't be sorry!
Many thanks to Geoffrey for sharing his experiences with us! You absolutely must scope out Endstation on the web – become a fan on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and read their blog. Their summer season has ended but their resident playwright, Joshua Mickel, has been chosen to debut his latest play at the New York International Fringe Festival – learn more about Endstation at Fringe here. As always, feel free to leave additional questions in the comments section!