In the 30-plus years that Cory Johnson has taught theater at St. Ambrose University, this is the first time the private Davenport school is sending two students to the national Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) in Washington, D.C., at the same time.

Junior education major Peyton Reese and 2021 theater graduate Luke Peterson won this month’s musical theater and directing categories (respectively) in their region, and will be among about 125 outstanding theater students at the KCACTF National Festival in April.

Student awardees in design, performance, directing, playwriting, stage management, dramaturgy, arts leadership, and theatre criticism, are invited from all eight regions. SAU (which has had many theater students go on to nationals) competes in Region V – encompassing Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

“It’s hard to get kids motivated to do things when it’s not in person, you know, and so I was really, really happy with as many students who were willing to really do a lot of work,” Johnson said Monday of the virtual competition format, for the second straight year. “We were here filming and coaching all through the holiday break. And one of the students drove 2 hours to do an hour and half of coaching with me. I’m thinking, man, these kids are the best.” 

KCACTF is a regional theater festival that provides students opportunities to learn about many aspects of theatre, as well as experiences to help them in the professional scene after graduation.

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Typically, the festival takes place in person, but because of COVID, the festival was virtual for the second year in a row. While this wasn’t as exciting or hands-on as an in-person festival would be, the online format made it more accessible to all students in terms of cost and schedule.

“The virtual format is less stressful for me because I don’t have to miss any classes for the festival, and I can record my audition videos as many times as I want,” junior Quinnie Rodman (Reese’s scene partner from “Brighton Beach Memoirs”) said before this month’s event. “While I am disappointed that the festival is being held virtually for the second year in a row, I am still excited to participate.”

At KCACTF, the Musical Theatre Intensive, Professional Auditions, and the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship auditions have all proven to be popular events for Ambrose students.

This year’s Irene Ryan nominees included senior Kyle DeFauw and junior Amber Cook from the SAU production of Two Rooms; senior Joseph Lasher and junior Peyton Reese from Admissions; senior Nikki DeWitt, senior Rebecca Meissen, and junior David Weaver from Romeo and Juliet; and seniors K. Hampton and Nyssa Wagner from She Kills Monsters.

Reese, a Davenport Central alum, is a SAU junior education major.

Reese has made the regional Musical Theatre Intensive finals twice and Irene Ryan finals once before.

“I am so incredibly excited to participate in my third KCACTF Festival,” she said before competing. “While it is a lot of work to pick acting pieces, memorize everything, and record your auditions, the payoff is definitely worth it.”

Reese sang “Don’t Rain On My Parade” (from “Funny Girl”) and “How Did We Come to This?” (from “The Wild Party”) to advance. Johnson thanked Duke Schneider from Ambrose’s communications department for doing the excellent video work for students.

“He spent an inordinate amount of time with us,” she said. “And while the video does not win anything, the sound quality and the pictures were so great.” 

Reese (a Davenport Central alum) posted on Facebook of winning the region, among more than 100 students in the Musical Theatre Intensive:

“It was such an honor to receive feedback from so many wonderful professionals in both the MTI and Irene Ryan categories,” she said. “A huge congratulationsto my friends at SAU who made the semifinals and finals in either category (Kyle DeFauw, Quinnie Rodman, Joseph Lasher, Katie Link, K Leigh Allison), as well as my good friend Luke Peterson, who took first place in the SDCs and will be going to Nationals alongside me!

“Thank you to all of those who made this possible, especially Cory Johnson, Don Schneider, and Ron May. You are all incredible and I could not have sent in the work I did without your help,” Reese wrote. “Thank you all for your guidance, your skills, and of course, your endless support and encouragement. It’s been a wonderful festival and I am so lucky to have such a great support system at home and at SAU.”

Reese singing in her 2022 regional Kennedy Center festival video.

In June 2019, Reese won top honors at the Iowa High School Musical Theater Awards with the “Triple Threat Award,” along with Cole Strelecki of West Des Moines Valley. The awards annually recognize a top male and female student.

Reese went to New York City to represent Iowa at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, known as the Jimmys, for a week of private coaching, master classes and rehearsals with Broadway professionals.

Their experience culminated with a final performance June 24, 2019 at the Minskoff Theatre, home to Disney’s “The Lion King” on Broadway.

Peterson – now a full-time actor/educator at Climb Theatre in Minneapolis — was equally effusive about winning this year’s KCACTF directing intensive. 

“Ever since my freshman year, after seeing a friend qualify for the National Festival in the Stage Management event, I set a goal of qualifying for Nationals myself,” he posted on Facebook. “While I could have never pictured the circumstances surrounding my Regional win, this year’s Festival has reaffirmed to me that if you work hard and ALWAYS try your best, things will work out for you eventually, because people want to work with people who always try their best.

“Going into this Festival, I made it known to all my friends that I wanted at least one of us to advance to the National Festival, since it is our wonderful mentor, Cory’s last KCACTF as an SAU professor,” Peterson wrote, noting Katie Link (a junior communications major) earned Honorable Mention in musical theater for the region.

Junior Katie Link singing in her 2022 KCACTF video.

“To Cory, and everyone else who has ever supported me, the sincerest of thank yous!! I try my best to make you proud each and every day!!” he posted. “And to Peyton, we did it, friend!! From Irene partners your freshman year to National KCACTF qualifiers your junior year, I love you so SO much, and I am so proud of you!! What an exciting way to end my KCACTF Region 5 journey!!”

Peterson, a theater major, served as Business Manager for the KCACTF Region V Student Advisory Board. For his directing category, he didn’t get to work with students in person, like the festival usually does, but students still did a script analysis and had to put together a prompt book with their concept presentation, Johnson said

Bittersweet end to theater major

Johnson, 63, has been a theater professor at SAU since 1989 and is leaving after this school year, since the school decided to eliminate the theater major in October 2020.

Cory Johnson will end an impressive 33-year career as St. Ambrose theater professor after this school year.

“With so many of our majors gone, there is just not much need for the upper-level theatre classes,” she said Monday. “There’s just nothing for us to do…I love working with these kids and they gave me a really great sendoff for my last year.”

Theater department chair Dan Rairdin-Hale is staying on faculty, but Johnson and theater professor Kris Eitrheim (who’s taught stagecraft, scene design, stage lighting, American film, advanced stage technologies and computer-aided design for the theater) are leaving after the spring semester.

“Cory Johnson and Kris Eitrheim are retiring this spring after a combined 64 years of valued and dedicated service to St. Ambrose University and its students,” SAU spokesman Craig DeVrieze said Monday. “Their positions were not eliminated. The university continues to offer theatre as a minor and theatre programming.” 

Staffing and budgeting decisions for the fall 2022 semester have not yet been made, he noted.

In October 2020, Paul Koch, the SAU Provost and Vice President for Academics and Student Affairs, said that following a review process and recommendation, the university decided to close the theater major, and no incoming students starting fall 2021 could declare that as a major.

Over 2,800 people signed a petition in 2020 opposing elimination of the theater major, which has produced many students who have won KCACTF regional honors.

The national Irene Ryan scholarships are made possible by the generosity of the late actress (1902-1973) best remembered for her portrayal of Granny Clampett in “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Irene Ryan (right) is most famous for playing Granny on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

St. Ambrose has had three students win first place in acting at regionals: Rairdin-Hale in 2003, Daniel Sheridan in 2005 and Anthony Stratton in 2013.

SAU had two students in stage management advance to nationals – in 2016, Shannon Rourke, who went on to work for the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and Hannah Donovan in 2018. Those evaluations at the theater festival included a stage-manager prompt book, two rigorous interviews and letters of recommendation. A prompt book is a script with all the blocking, movement and cues for lines, light, sound and props notated.

In 2020, Ambrose student Jaren Schoustra won the theatre criticism regional award, but that year’s national festival was canceled due to COVID.

Ambrose has produced many successful theater alumni – including actress, producer and casting director Kim Kurtenbach; Daniel Sheridan, who’s former artistic director of Davenport Junior Theatre and is performing arts supervisor for the city of Davenport; River Music Experience executive director Tyson Danner, and Emmy-award winning Brian Hemesath, who has designed costumes for shows on and off-Broadway, as well as TV’s “Saturday Night Live” and “Sesame Street.”

Brian Hemesath shows off one of his Emmys at SAU with Cory Johnson, left, and Dianne Dye.

In July 2020, Hemesath (a ’94 SAU theater alum) won his third Daytime Emmy Award for his work on “Sesame Street,” after a total of eight Emmy nominations. He also was an assistant costume designer on the critically acclaimed “West Side Story” film, directed by Steven Spielberg and released last month.

“Without the theatre major, Brian would not have attended St. Ambrose,” the online petition said. “Even if he had attended as a theatre minor, based off the current requirements, he would not have been required to take Introduction to Design. It may not have even been offered.”

Though Ambrose no longer offers the major, its department website says: “No matter if your dream lies behind the scenes or at center stage, our theatre program is vibrant, active, and will help you prepare for the career of your dreams.

“Our graduates work on Broadway, in L.A. and Chicago as actors, teachers, stage managers, and costume designers; for Davenport Junior Theatre, Goodman Theatre, and St. Croix Festival Theatre,” the site says.

Unknown if Kennedy Center will be in-person

While this month’s festival was online, like last year, it’s undecided whether the nationals will be in person, Johnson said.

“That is the million-dollar question. Nobody knows. I was just one of the coordinators for this and we just had a two-hour-long meeting yesterday,” she said Monday. “I think it’s going to come down to the 11th hour. I know because from week-to-week, they just don’t know what is going to be able to be done. And that also scares me that, that they won’t have the big heavy-hitter names that they would typically have there, to carve out this time and make sure that it’s going to happen.”

The weeklong program at the Kennedy Center is invaluable for students, Johnson said. “They have workshops all day long, with big names that we would all know, in the field. And then they perform ultimately, in evenings on the last few nights. It’s just a mountain-top experience.”

The festival typically involves 18,000 students annually from colleges and universities across the country. KCACTF aims to:

  • Encourage, recognize, and celebrate the finest and most diverse work produced in university and college theater programs;
  • Provide opportunities for participants to develop their theater skills and insight, and achieve professionalism;
  • Improve the quality of college and university theater in the United States; and
  • Encourage colleges and universities to give distinguished productions of new plays, especially those written by students; the classics, revitalized or newly conceived; and experimental works.

Since its inception, KCACTF has given more than 400,000 college theater students the opportunity to have their work critiqued, improve their dramatic skills, and receive national recognition for excellence. More than 16 million theatergoers have attended 10,000 festival productions nationwide, according to the event website.

“There are a plethora of opportunities that are intended to enhance these wonderful people’s futures,” Johnson said of nationals. “I won’t say that there’s no competition involved, but there is much more of a focus on opportunity building and fitting the right student with what their aspirations are and the wonderful internships and fellowships. That’s kind of the focus, much more educational than competitive at that point.”

In spring 2018, Johnson directed the musical “Cabaret” at Galvin Fine Arts Center, which featured Luke Peterson (kneeling, center).

In January 2017, Johnson herself earned The Kennedy Center Medallion from the KCACTF. Each year, the eight regions honor individuals or organizations that have made extraordinary contributions to teaching and producing theater, and who have “significantly dedicated their time, artistry and enthusiasm to the development” of the festival, according to the prize summary.

“Most importantly, recipients have demonstrated a strong commitment to the values and goals of KCACTF and to excellence in educational theater,” it says, noting the gold medallion is the most prestigious regional award given by KCACTF and is considered one of the great honors in theater education.

“I just loved my job here but it’s kind of a tough way to end it, I must admit,” Johnson said Monday.

To see a video of Peyton Reese singing, click HERE. To see Katie Link singing, click HERE.